Sue Townsend’s ‘The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year’

An unexpected but sympathetically humorous instance of a character with facial disfigurement in The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year (2012) by the wonderful Sue Townsend (so much for ‘non-work reading’).

An elderly neighbour of the bed-bound woman in question, Stanley, carries facial scars from burns received in World War Two. Stanley reveals that he was a member of the famous ‘Guinea Pig Club‘ treated by the plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe. The club recently commemorated its 75th anniversary and is currently fundraising for a memorial.

Eva (the woman in bed) recounts:

Once, only last spring, he had joined her on the wooden bench he had bought as a memorial to his wife, Peggy. They had exchanged banal observations about the weather. Then, out of nowhere, he had talked about Sir Archie McIndoe, the surgeon who had reconstructed his face, giving him eyelids, a nose and ears.

‘I was a boy,’ he had said. ‘Eighteen. I had been handsome. There were no mirrors in the Nissen huts where the other boys and I lived.’

Eva had thought that he might continue, but he had got up form the bench, tipped his hat and made his ungainly way to the local shops. (p.171)

Characters’ incidental reactions to Stanley’s scars vary across the novel; Poppy’s strongly negative reaction is just one of the myriad of reasons the reader is not supposed to like her. But for Eva, discussing Stanley with her husband, Brian, it’s a non-issue:

Eva asked, ‘How is Stanley?’

‘You know what these old servicemen are like–stiff upper lip. Oh Christ!’ Brian exclaimed. ‘I shouldn’t have said that, given that he actually has a stiff upper lip. What’s the politically correct way of referring to somebody like Stanley, I wonder?’

Eva said, ‘You simply call him Stanley.’ (p.174)

(The issue of language is of course one that we will be coming back to regularly, and is discussed over at Changing Faces too.)

As luck would have it, Eva’s stint in bed brings Stanley and her mother Ruby together after both take on care roles, and romance blossoms:

Stanley put his arms around Ruby and felt her yield against him. She was gloriously soft and squashy, he thought.

He asked, ‘Does my face bother you, Ruby?’

Ruby said, ‘When I look at you, I can see the face you used to have. And anyway, by the time you get to our age everybody’s face is buggered up, i’n’t it?’ (p.430)

Ruby’s remark also hints at questions of facial normativity: a certain level of ‘buggering up’ of the face through aging is considered ‘normal’, but where are lines then drawn between the effects of aging and other causes? Articles about servicemen like Stanley, now elderly, sometimes observe that aging has indeed hidden some of the disfigurement caused by their war injuries–not just through scars fading, but also through blending in with people’s expectations of the effects of aging on the face.

The other well-known face from Townsend’s oeuvre is of course the angst-and-acne-prone Adrian Mole (who also superglues a model aeroplane to his nose). But he might be a post for another day…

 

Townsend, Sue. The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year.  London: Penguin, 2012.

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