Susan Lillian Townsend was an English fiction writer, screenwriter, and humorist whose work encompasses novels, plays, and works of journalism. She was best known for creating the character Adrian Mole. Her writing tended to combine comedy with social commentary, though she had written purely dramatic works as well.
Townsend was born at the Maternity Hospital in Causeway Lane, Leicester, the eldest of five sisters. She could not read until she was eight. It was her mother who taught her, with Richmal Crompton’s William books — the inspiration for Adrian Mole. She left school at the age of 14 and worked in a variety of jobs including packer for Birds Eye, a petrol station attendant, and a receptionist.
In 1964 she married Keith Townsend, a sheet metal worker. By age 23 the couple had three children under five (Sean, Daniel, and Victoria). In 1971 the marriage broke up and Sue Townsend became a single parent. It was one of the most difficult periods in the writer's life.
In Mr. Bevan's Dream: Why Britain Needs Its Welfare State (1989), a short book in the Counterblasts series, she recounts an experience from when her eldest child was five. Because the Department of Social Security was unable to give her even 50p to tide them over, she was forced to feed herself and her children a can of peas and an Oxo cube as an evening meal.
Later she met her second husband, Colin Broadway, who was the father of her fourth child, Elizabeth. Townsend and Broadway married on 13 June 1986.
Townsend's new partner encouraged her to join a writers' group at the Phoenix Theatre, Leicester, in 1978. Initially too shy to speak, she did not write anything for six weeks but was then given a fortnight to write a play. This became the thirty-minute drama Womberang (1979), set in the waiting room of a gynecology department. It won the 1979 Thames Television Playwright award and she became the writer-in-residence At the Phoenix.
During this time she was mentored by several theatre directors including Ian Giles and principally Sue Pomeroy who commissioned and directed a number of her plays including Womberang, Dayroom, Groping for Words, and subsequently Ear, Nose, and Throat.
She was also introduced to William Ash, then chairman of the Soho Poly (now Soho Theatre), who likewise played a significant part in shaping her early career.
Soon afterward she showed the script with fictional diaries of Nigel to the actor Nigel Bennett, who recommended it to John Tydeman, then deputy head of radio drama at the BBC. It was the first broadcast on Radio 4 and its success as a radio drama led Methuen to offer to publish the novel, insisting that Nigel be renamed Adrian (to avoid clashing with Ronald Searle and Geoffrey Willans’s Nigel Molesworth).
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ (1982) became a bestseller and sold a million copies after a year. In the 1980s, Adrian Mole's books sold more copies than any other work of fiction in Britain during the decade. In total, the Mole books have been translated into 48 languages and sold more than 10m copies. Adrian’s career has extended to radio and television adaptations and he has been a smash hit in London's West End.
She wrote a dozen plays and two works of non-fiction, and was a prolific journalist, writing for the Observer, the Sunday Times, and the Daily Mail, and contributing an Adrian Mole column to the Guardian, The Secret Diary of a Provincial Man (1999–2001).
Until her thirties, Sue Townsend was poor and used her experience of deprivation in her work. In the last years of her life, she experienced health problems, due in part to diabetes, which she developed in the mid-1980s. She suffered from diabetes for many years, as a result of which she was registered blind in 2001, and had woven this theme into her work.
Townsend became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (FRSL) in 1993. Amongst her honors and awards, she received honorary doctorates from the University of Leicester, Loughborough University, and De Montfort University, Leicester.
Sue Townsend died at her home on 10 April 2014, eight days after her 68th birthday, following a stroke.