Queens and Curses

Blogging friends, you are marvelous. Thanks to your help, I now have a whole list of books that are going to keep me cheerful and entertained over the next few weeks. And thanks to your suggestions, I have kicked off that list with Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, which is every bit as delightful as you had promised. I read it yesterday in a matter of hours and found it a little comic gem, but also an astute satire into the roots of philistinism.

You may have already heard the premise of the novella. It concerns Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, who one day, in hot pursuit of her rebel corgis, tracks them down outside the mobile library of Westminster. Climbing aboard to apologise for their behaviour, the Queen finds only the librarian and one member of staff, Norman from the kitchens, who is checking out a photography book on Cecil Beaton. Feeling obligated, she plumps on a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett, a name familiar to her from the honours list, and borrows it. This book doesn’t really hit the mark; it’s dry and difficult and the Queen gets through it out of duty, the great guiding principle of her existence. The following week, events conspire to ensure she returns the book in person, and this time she has the happy thought to take out a Nancy Mitford – ‘Novels seldom came as well connected as this and the Queen felt correspondingly reassured’ – and this is a great success. ‘Had Her Majesty gone for another duff read, an early George Eliot say, or a late Henry James, novice reader that she was she might have been put off reading for good and there would be no story to tell. Books, she would have thought, were work.’ Instead, books exert their spectacular alchemy on the Queen and she becomes an addict, perpetually late to engagements, and waving to the crowds from her carriage whilst keeping her book low enough in her lap to be unobserved.

And what’s interesting here is that the web of folk who surround her, and whose business it is to maintain the public image of the Queen, grow extremely hostile to her reading habits. Her missing copy of Anita Brookner turns out to have been removed by security and exploded; Norman, who becomes her reading guide, is eventually sidelined into obscurity – a creative writing course at the University of East Anglia; the servants fear that her declining interest in accessorizing her outfits and her tendency to jot thoughts down in her notebook are indications of early Alzheimer’s. The biggest culprit in all this is her private secretary, Sir Kevin, a man obsessed with keeping the Queen relevant and focused, and who fears reading as an elitist and isolating pursuit. ‘To read is to withdraw. To make oneself unavailable. One would feel easier about it,’ said Sir Kevin, ‘if the pursuit were less…. selfish.’

And here’s where the premise of Bennett’s novella reveals itself not just as a comic tour-de-force that unbuttons the starchy dignity of royalty, but as a brilliant dig at the underlying cultural disdain for reading. Whilst it may seem that the Queen is someone who is endlessly entertained by others, it becomes apparent that the main force of her duty is to be the tireless provider of an audience. This is particularly evident in the amusing depiction of her relationship with the Prime Minister, a boorish sort, who (like so many before him) just needs the Queen to be a pair of listening ears. His delight at joining the Queen on holiday in Balmoral quickly turns to irritation when it becomes apparent her only interest is in making her way through the Scott Moncrieff version of Proust. As soon as it’s clear that reading is a pleasure, and one undertaken in a solitary state, it starts to get people’s backs up. If the Queen were reading for duty, for some abstract purpose, then it might be deemed acceptable. But reading as a delight, and as one that risks enlightening the reader by broadening the mind or opening the heart, is understood to be a source of displeasure and distrust to the mass of common folk. Bennett is far too clever a writer to express this outright, but the foolishness of such a stance, and the patronizing attitude of those who hold it, is beautifully encapsulated in the interactions between the Queen and her advisors.

Undeniably, reading does change the Queen. It makes her traditional round of duties exquisitely tedious; and at the same time it transforms her sympathy for the people she meets. The Queen might be there for the people, but the unique and bizarre situation she inhabits means that she is not of the people. Reading transports her into a world she has never known, but it also gives expression to feelings she has never been able to share. In her notebook, the Queen writes: ‘Though I do not always understand Shakespeare, Cordelia’s “I cannot heave my heart into my mouth” is a sentiment I can readily endorse. Her predicament is mine.’

Like the best comedy, this brief novella is consistently laugh-out-loud funny, whilst being simultaneously touching, subversive and fierce. I was so impressed by the acuity and concision with which it shows the paradoxes of reading, its transformative power, and its greedy demand on the reader’s seclusion, its ability to take people closer to one another in spirit whilst highlighting their divisions. And this is all wrapped up in a neat little package of pure stylistic economy. I’m so glad I read it, and I get the feeling I’ll be reading it again.

Now, having proved you can solve any problem, dear blogging friends, I have a real facer for you. You know I’ve just moved rooms? Well, I find out that the person who inhabited them before me has just ended his marriage and the person before that fell ill with MS. I fear they may be cursed. Does anyone have a good idea how to exorcise evil spirits? All suggestions gratefully received, as ever….

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13 thoughts on “Queens and Curses

  1. AB is brilliant. I haven’t read that one but I am well up for one like it. Maybe I can get it to my library this weekend. You can smudge the room. I’m not sure what herbs you have in the UK, but white sage in a clay dish will stay lit long enough to fan the smoke lightly around the room. Excellent stuff. You can also get essential oils.

  2. Lilian could well have commented on my behalf. I also love AB, and I’m also going to check out the library for this pocket gem I have heard only the best things about… he’s so clever. So witty and wise.

    Do the rooms feel disturbed, LL? Do you have any sense of a lurking presence, or is it more that it seems like a run of bad luck instead of merely odds on? I only ask because it doesn’t really sound like a curse, more like…. um… well, life. But places do breathe their history, so if your rooms do exude that air of menace, I recommend good times and plenty of them. Have a party in there, laugh a lot, blow bubbles.

  3. Salt is commonly used to ward off evil spirits. I suggest lightly sprinkling it throughout the room. Also, you could prominently display books such as the Bible, the Qu’ran, the Bhagavad Gita(sp?), etc., and books on exorcism to scare off any lingering spirits. :).

  4. I loved The Uncommon Reader, and am so glad you saw so many of the same things in the book! As for exorcising the bad juju, I live in the capital of al that is New Age-y, feng shui-ing, sage burning, and ritual cleansing–Los Angeles. I have a friend who just moved into a house where the last three owners had some similar bad luck. She hired this guy who came and burned sage and did some sort of ritual cleansing. My feeling is that even if you make up your own sort of cleansing ritual, the most important thing is that you acknowledge that you’re making a clean start, and that is as strong a magic as you need!

  5. I have wanted to read The Uncommon Reader for months now, but have been lazy about finding a copy (isn’t there always another book too tempting to pass up, already on the shelf?). It does sound marvelous and one I might also send to my father, whom I think would also love it. I have no idea about exorcising bad spirits so I will be interested to see what works for you!

  6. I read this the Christmas before last and absolutely loved it. Great review — you have really encapsulated what is so good about this book.
    Did you say you were a bit of a buddhist? If so and if you do some kind of meditation, do it in the room as it will create good vibrations.

  7. Sorry not very good at evil spirits. I could lend you The Bears for a bit; at their rampaging best they’re enough to scare anything away.

    Everyone I know who has read AB has loved this book. Reading through what you say reminded me of a neighbour I once had who was desperate to read a set of books I’d lent her but eventually returned them unread because her husband (who was an evil tempered old bore) wouldn’t let her read them when she should be entertaining him. I should have set The Bears on him as well!

  8. I am so glad you liked the book! And leave it to you to write a marvelous post on the tensions between those who read and those who don’t. As for cleansing, I’m a big fan of burning sage. When my husband and I moved into our house ten years ago we had ourselves a little ritual. We lit the sage and walked with it from room to room and said what good things we hoped would happen in each room. We also read a poem at the front doorstep about hope and new beginnings (wish I could remember what it was now!) and, my husband’s family being Jewish, we have a Mezuzah on our front door which contains a blessing and, according to my husband, will keep out evil spirits.

  9. Lilian – I prescribe Bennett for your condition! He must surely be therapeutic. And that’s a wonderful idea about the sage – thank you! I’ll do it!

    Doctordi – There really isn’t an air of menace, but on the other hand, I do like the idea of a cleansing ceremony. I’ve never done one before and it would be intriguing. It’s a bit small for a party and miserable students aren’t going to improve the atmosphere, but it’s just finding a way to claim the space, isn’t it? I’d love to know what you think of the Bennett if you get hold of it.

    Leonsagara – thank you for those ideas, none of which I’d thought of! That’s great.

    Gentle Reader – I think I’d rather come up with my own ritual, as you’re so right – it’s about reclaiming the space and making it my own. It must be fun to live where you do – Cambridge is very serious in many ways! And so delighted to know you enjoyed the Bennett too. I think we do respond very similarly to books. :)

    Verbivore – the beauty of this little book is that I can’t think who it could offend, or who could fail to enjoy it – only a real curmudgeon could possibly complain! I’d love to know what you think of it if you do read it (and quite understand about the lure of the books already on the shelf)!

    Harriet – I’m so glad if you enjoyed the Bennett too! I should say that much as I’ve got an interest in Buddhist philosophy at the moment, it’s unlikely I’ll take it any further. However, I do meditate, and not enough, so including it in my daily practices would be a very good thing!

    Ann – I am outraged on your neighbour’s behalf! She should have taken the husband back wherever he came from and left the books in place. Actually the bears are a delightful idea – I can imagine that very little would stand in their way, if they were in the right mood. :)

    Stefanie – I am so grateful to you for suggesting it! It was perfect. And I am loving the idea of a cleansing ceremony for my room. Poems are good, talismans are good too. I will have to have a little think and see what I can organise. Thank you!!

  10. I loved this book too! It’s really a perfect example of what it does — a short well-crafted meditation on what it means to be a reader. The fact that it’s about the queen is almost beside the point, although she does help make some points stronger, and she makes the story more amusing. As for your rooms, I’m going to defer to the great advice you got above!

  11. Also loved this book and the way it managed to make reading a guilty pleasure and quite subversive too. AB is a gem. As for the curse, well your commenters are extremely resourceful. I would go with almost all of the above (the sage, the good times, the meditation etc.) If you start ringing bells, they might think you’re a bit batty though.

  12. Whatever bad karma was lurking in your new room surely must have gone away now. I had no idea there were so many things you could do to set things to rights. I’ve heard such good things about this book–I really do need to get it from the library. Maybe I’ll save it for holiday time. I love the image of the Queen waving from her carriage while secretly reading from the book on her lap (I can relate to that one). And I like the idea of reading being subversive!

  13. Pingback: Best Books of 2009 « Tales from the Reading Room

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