Last Christmas I had pneumonia. I lay in bed feeling utterly miserable, listening to the sounds of sociability below. Occasionally someone came up to tempt me with a tiny morsel of Christmas food, but I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t even bring myself to listen to the Queen – for I must admit to being a royal groupie who watched ten episodes of The Crown at one sitting. It was, however, a ‘royal’ book that marked the beginning of my recovery. One morning, I took it from the shelf beside the bed, opened it and, instead of closing it listlessly after a paragraph or two, went on reading – or rereading – until I’d reached the end.
It didn’t take long – it’s only 120-odd pages. Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, which first appeared in 2007, is a gloriously funny and subversive little book about a serious subject – the importance of books to humanize us and their power to change our lives. And despite or perhaps because of its hilarity, it delivers a message just as telling as does Virginia Woolf ’s famous book which gave it its title.
Entering Bennett’s parallel universe, we discover the Queen, alerted by the barking of the corgis, chancing upon the Westminster mobile library parked by the dustbins in one of the Palace courtyards. Mounting the steps to apologize for the row, she finds the librarian, Mr Hutchings, and a single customer, Norman, ‘a thin, ginger-haired boy in white overalls’.
Having broken the ice (‘Have you come far?’) the Queen discovers that gay Norman, who works in the Palace kitchens, is a passionate, self-educated reader, absorbed that day in a book about Cecil Beaton. Slightly at a loss now, she wonders whether perhaps she should borrow a book.
She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn’t have hobbies . . . Hobbies involved preferences and . . . preferences excluded people . . . her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself.
However, after hedging a bit (‘“One doesn’t have a ticket.” “No problem,” said Mr Hutchings.’) her eye is drawn to a vaguely familiar name – Ivy Compton-Burnett (hadn’t she once made her a dame?). Mr Hutchings stamps the novel and the Queen takes it away.
She finds it hard going, but returning it the following week – a good excuse to cut short a tedious briefing by her Private Secretary on a coming visit to a road-research laboratory – she decides to try again. Her next choice, Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, rings many aristocratic bells and is much more to her taste – compulsive in fact, and she’s eager for more. And so the scene is set for a Palace revolution, in which Norman is promoted from washer-up to page boy with a special brief to keep the monarch supplied with books, and the Queen discovers an all-engrossing new activity: reading for pleasure. Before long, with Norman’s encouragement and a newly acquired membership of the London Library, she is devouring the classics, enjoying poetry and even engaging with Proust.
How Bennett must have enjoyed writing this book. The Palace setting, with its hierarchies and snobberies and constipated bureaucracy, and the shrewd no-nonsense voice of his central character, allow him to take pot-shots at all his favourite targets: official jargon, literary pretension, slippery politicians, trendy attitudes – and ultimately, perhaps, the infantilizing effects of Monarchy itself, with its suburban lifestyle hidden behind the glittering façade.
Since the Queen comes to literature afresh, her judgements are honest and down-to-earth. (‘Am I alone in thinking that Henry James needs a good talking to?’ she observes.) She delights in taking the mickey out of her Private Secretary Sir Kevin, a trendy new appointee with a chip on his shoulder. Her crisp judgement of writers, after a sadly failed literary party at which she had hoped to discuss their work, is that ‘authors were best met with in the pages of their novels’. And she clearly has the number of the PM, the unnamed but easily recognizable Tony Blair, whose smug composure is rattled when he’s caught out by the Queen’s Proustian clues for charades during a ghastly weekend at Balmoral.
The Queen’s new preoccupation, however, isn’t popular with her staff, who begin to notice that royal visits are not going as smoothly as they once did. Instead of putting her subjects at ease with the usual routine enquiries, now she is keen to know about their current reading, which leaves most of them either tongue-tied or holding things up by enthusing at length about their favourite books. Conversation at State Banquets falters as Heads of State struggle to respond meaningfully to questions about their national authors.
‘Now that I have you to myself,’ said the Queen, smiling to left and right as they glided through the glittering throng, ‘I’ve been longing to ask you about the writer Jean Genet . . .’
Unbriefed on the subject of the glabrous playwright, the president looked wildly about for his minister of culture. But she was being addressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
‘Jean Genet,’ said the Queen again, helpfully. ‘Vous le connaissez?’
In the grip of this new obsession, the Queen becomes increasingly resentful of her royal duties. She can’t wait to get back to her book.
And the more she reads, the more she begins to notice subtle changes within herself. Where once she would simply have ‘taken an interest’ in the people she meets, now she’s genuinely feeling it. She is suddenly touched by the vulnerability of those on whom she is conferring honours: ‘You see, Gerald,’ she confides to a surprised equerry, ‘as they kneel one looks down on the tops of people’s heads a good deal and from that perspective even the most unsympathetic personality seems touching . . . One’s feelings are almost maternal.’
But all this caring and sharing is embarrassing and inconvenient for her staff. The Queen is no longer a figurehead, she’s become a person. And as a person she’s found her voice. Discouraged from reading Hardy’s famous poem about the sinking of the Titanic as part of her Christmas broadcast – it’s not thought by officialdom to be sufficiently ‘forward-looking’ – she still manages to surprise the assembled company at the end of a bleak Northern tree-planting when, resting on the ceremonial spade, she recites by heart Philip Larkin’s poem ‘The Trees’ with its final line: ‘Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.’
And as that clear and unmistakeable voice carried over the shabby wind-bitten grass it seemed it was not just the huddled municipal party she was addressing but herself too. It was her life she was calling upon, the new beginning hers.
I won’t tell you what that momentous new beginning turns out to be, just urge you to read this deliciously funny and poignant little fable about the Queen’s lonely journey to break free and find herself. Of course it’s not really about the Queen at all but about a republic – the great republic of literature, ‘that vast country to the borders of which I am journeying but cannot possibly reach’, as she herself humbly describes it – and the winding paths and chance encounters that often lead us to discover it.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 60 © Hazel Wood 2018
Alan Bennett’s story ‘The Uncommon Reader’ first published in the London Review of Books in 2007. You can read an extract on their website here.
About the contributor
Despite co-editing Slightly Foxed, Hazel Wood feels she still has a long way to journey in the great republic of literature.