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….