Sue Townsend is a rare animal. She’s a member of that exclusive band of British writers whose works have been piled high and prominently positioned for so long that we can no longer imagine a bookshop without them. Added to this, her consistent warmth and humour and unmistakeable Britishness means that – at some stage on the long road since The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 ¾ – she’s also been awarded the comfy cardigan and cosy slippers of a national treasure. Many people opening a Sue Townsend novel are likely to do so with the same curious smile that they’d greet the new book of an old personal friend and they’re certain to have a pretty good idea of what they are about to get: a plot centred around a comic failure who struggles to cope with the absurd mundanities of modern life and lives in or close to Leicester.
The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year does not create any confusion. At the start of the novel Leicester housewife, Eva Beaver, stands in her kitchen and evaluates her life now that her teenage twins have spread their wings and flown off for the heady thrills of Leeds University’s Maths Department. And what Eva decides is that her life really doesn’t amount to much. So she does what we all want to do on these depressing occasions. She goes to bed. The only difference, of course, is that she stays there for an entire year.
And this is why so many of us love Sue Townsend. Her characters teeter on the brink of utter ridiculousness and yet somehow manage to retain a plausibility and a sense of everyday ordinariness which allows us to recognise them and sometimes, horribly, to identify with them.
Eva Beaver’s husband, Dr Brian Beaver is an astronomer who spends all his time in a complex of elaborate sheds in their vast back garden. He has no friends but he does have a lover called Titania. When Eva refuses to get out of bed and make his dinner, Brian phones her mother to announce that Eva is having a nervous breakdown. Eva’s mother, Ruby, is unable to help Brian with his tea because she is holding a perm party with her friends and half an hour away from having her solution rinsed off.
To some readers, this may seem like whimsy; ground already well-
But, under Townsend’s spell, the reader is never in any danger of feeling depressed. This book made me snort out loud from page 2 –