Book Review – The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

books, reviews

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Considering the obsession with the royal family in last week’s newspapers, it seems appropriate that I’m reviewing this novella. I don’t know what the absolute fascination with the Queen and her offspring is. I’m don’t consider myself ardently anti-royal because I can see some of the benefits of their existence. However, I wouldn’t be sorry if we got rid of them altogether. It’s an outdated institution and they do waste a lot of taxpayers money each year. I know The Crown is trying to make the seem like ordinary human beings but you just need to look at the reaction to Harry and Meghan taking a step back from public life. Given the media response, I can see why they’d want to. The Queen and her family just seem so far removed from the rest of the world. It seems like such an odd dynamic. I realise that they’re meant to be part of our great traditions but do they have to be quite so archaic about it? But I’m digressing. The fact is, there is such a fascination about their lives that people have always used them as a basis for their stories. After all, nobody can really imagine what life as a royal is really like. There will always be a market for books like The Uncommon reader and there will always be writers willing to imagine life behind the scenes at Buckingham Palace.

Queen Elizabeth II is a fascinating figure. In a sense, she’s not really human so it’s always going to be interesting imagining her carrying out normal, everyday tasks. As a figurehead, she doesn’t have the luxury of having a strong personality, so all literature around her needs a fair bit of artistic licence in order to bring her to life. In The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett’s version of the Queen is an odd sort of creature. She is at once so unlike the Queen that it is quite unnerving at times but, at the same time, there are familiarities there. She offers a certain amount of stiff upper lip in the face of anything. Though we do see old Liz change over the course of the story. Bennett has an awful lot of fun putting her into outrageous and potentially audacious situations. He puts ridiculous words in her mouth and makes her act completely against character. If this had been published during the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth, you suspect that Bennett would have met a grisly end.

Of course, in terms of the narrative, it doesn’t really matter how the Queen is represented. This isn’t actually a story about her but about literature. That simple and pleasurable pursuit that doesn’t mind who you are or where you have come from. Everyone, he reminds us, can get lost in a book. All it takes is a willingness to get rid of your preconceptions. As in real life, the Queen that we are introduced to here is not extremely concerned with intellectual pursuits but is intelligent. So, the idea that she would become a voracious reader is kind of ridiculous. Yet that’s what happens. After stumbling across a mobile library on the grounds of Buckingham Palace, her majesty feels compelled to borrow something from the poor librarian. After all, she is only one out of two patrons to take advantage of his wares. Though her first outing in the literary world isn’t successful, the Queen persists and it’s not long before the whole palace is abuzz.

Accompanying her on this bookish journey is Norman, the only other person to visit the library. Norman offers advice to the Queen on her next read. He helps shape her into a well-rounded reader and it’s not long before the pair are finding bigger and better challenges for themselves. Not used to having time to enjoy herself, the Queen has to find whatever free moments she can to enjoy her new hobby but quickly realises the simple pleasures of getting lost in a book. She starts to avoid her usual activities and ends up reading instead of shooting on a visit to Balmoral. Reading occupies her every moment and she can be seen unnerving members of the public by asking “what are you reading” in place of her standard, bland enquiries. Of course, the people in charge of managing the monarch aren’t happy and the staff at the palace begin to suspect that it’s a sign of her age. Reading, in the context of the royal family, is seen as dangerous and elitist.

Bennett’s novella is a wildly amusing and charming story about what it is to be captivated by the written word. We see the Queen gain more freedom with every new book she consumes and display greater confidence in the face of dignitaries that she has to meet. She shows an inquisitive and critical mind. We see her getting frustrated with slow books and calling out writers for showing off. Really, we see what it is like to love books. Despite the absurd premise, you totally buy into this story. It’s nonsensical to imagine the Queen shirking her responsibilities to read Proust but, in Bennett’s hands, it makes total sense. Using his own literary beliefs and sensibilities, the writer turns the Queen into a reader and a lover of the written word. She becomes all of us and reminds us how lucky we are to be able to indulge our passion.

In terms of his treatment of the monarchy, Bennett is pretty careful. He shows the Queen as something of a relic and an outsider. When she reads Jane Austen, Liz is slightly overcome by an inability to understand the relatively small social divisions between Austen’s characters. Her rank, of course, removing her from everyone. It’s a fun and less aggressive way to accuse the royal family of being out of touch with their people. The novella also shows us the effect that the monarchy has on society. We see people fall apart in the Queen’s presence and fawn over her. They know nothing about her or even really care what she thinks. Yet, they will turn out in droves for a chance to see her. This book isn’t pro-monarchy at any stretch but neither does it put a great deal of effort into arguing against them. Just one of the things that makes this such a pleasant book to read. It is more concerned with wit and joy than it is in tearing people down. It’s a short read but one that will reward anyone who gives it a go.

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