The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The English writer, Alan Bennett

This book is about reading and what happens to those around her when a wealthy, elderly, busy, and duty-obsessed woman discovers the joy of it. Everyone is put out, even her dogs. This may not sound like a particularly interesting plot until I tell you that this woman is the Queen of England.

Betty Windsor has been portrayed before, in novels (The Queen and I by Sue Townsend), films (The Queen by Peter Morgan, starring Helen Mirren) and plays, (Alan Bennet’s own Question of Attribution) but Bennet in this little, but highly entertaining novel, The Uncommon Reader has the confidence, or is it audacity, to not only put words in her mouth but thoughts in her head.

“The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there is something lofty about literature … All readers are equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth…”

Prunella Scales as HRH Queen Elizabeth II and Alan Bennett as Anthony Blunt in the National Theatre production of A Question of Attribution, 1988.

The most attractive aspect of Bennet’s writing is his tone: quiet, understated, tongue-in-cheek, with an economical, proficient and assured use of the language, all of which emphasise the unexpected, the ironic, the bizarre and turn them into laugh-out-louds.

“… Seeing her almost daily meant that Sir Kevin [her private secretary, a New Zealander] was able to nag the Queen about what was now almost an obsession and to devise different approaches. ‘I was wondering ma’am, if we could somehow factor in your reading.’ Once she would have let this pass, but one effect of reading had been to diminish the Queen’s tolerance of jargon (which had always been low).
‘Factor it in? What does that mean?’
‘I’m just kicking the tyres on this one, ma’am, but it would help if we were able to put out a press release saying that, apart from English literature, Your Majesty was also reading ethnic classics.’
‘Which ethnic classics did you have in mind, Sir Kevin? The Karma Sutra?’
Sir Kevin sighed.
‘I’m reading Vikram Seth at the moment. Would he count?’
Though the private secretary had never heard of him he thought it sounded right.
‘Salman Rushdie?’
‘Probably not, ma’am.’…”

It was her unpleasant corgies who noisily brought it to their mistress’s attention that there was an intruder in the grounds: the local council’s portable library van parked outside the palace kitchen. When Her Maj feels a need to apologise for the racket she not only discovers books and the idea of reading them but also Norman, a thin, ginger-haired dish-washer from the kitchens who, unused to protocol, charms the Queen and is, at her request, promoted to her wing as a page; and who becomes her reading companion and trusted literary adviser and book-fetcher.

Her passion for reading, leads her to hold a soiree so she can meet some of the writers she has recently enjoyed. It turns out not to be a good idea…

“…She, who had seldom been intimidated by anyone now found herself tongue-tied and awkward. ‘I adored your book’ would have said it all but 50 years of composure and self-obsession plus half a century of understantment stood in the way … Authors, she soon decided were probably best met within the pages of their novels, and were as much creatures of the reader’s imagination as the characters in their books. Nor did they seem to think that one had done them a kindness by reading their writings. Rather they had done one the kindness by writing them…”

Elizabeth II has aschewed the royal plural (“we”) for the royal singular (“one”), or at least she has in this Bennett novel. I don’t see the point of researching this piece of trivia to see if Bennett is right in this; if he is, well and good, if he isn’t, this is fiction so why care? It’s a nice touch though.

Not only does she develope a passion for reading, she feels the need to daddle in literary critizism:

“…’Am I alone,’ she wrote, ‘in wanting to give Henry James a good talking to?’ It was Henry James she was reading one teatime when she said out loud, ‘Oh, do get on.’ The maid, who was just taking away the rea trolley, said ‘Sorry, ma’am,’ and shot out of the room in two seconds flat…”

The Queen let her passion for reading impose on her royal duties …

“She’d got quite good at reading and waving, the trick being to keep the book below the level of the window and to keep focused on it and not on the crowds. The duke didn’t like it one bit…”

… But on a coach ride trip back from the opening of parliament her book wasn’t in its usual hiding place: wedged down behind a cushion. When she enquired from the footman in charge he told her he thought security had thought it a risk and it had probably been exploded?

“… ‘Exploded?’ said the Queen. ‘But it was Anita Brookner.’
The young man, who seemed remarkably undefferential, said security may have thought it was a device.
The Queen said: ‘Yes. That is exactly what it is. A book is a device to ignite the imagination’ …”

I’ll leave the scene of Her Maj playing charades up to you to discover for yourself, as well as the gambit by Sir Kevin, at the behest of the Prime Minister, to be rid of Norman on account of his perceived sexuality; but enough of plot.

Bennett is always a writer that makes it obvious to his readers that he has fun doing it. What he plans for the Queen to do after she has mastered the art of reading is all due to his depiction of her as a doer, which, if one thinks about it, is the closest thing to proof that this is a masterly work of fiction. Anyway, a doer she is and it’s easy to believe him, as one must; so what does a doer do after a doer has done it. It’s a compliment to Bennett that it isn’t what you may think it is; and it isn’t what he has her do next. The joy of the ending is what she, being a Queen, has to do first in order to do what she wants to do next given that she’s a doer and she’s now done with reading.

You’ll have to read it now to know what I mean.