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The Uncommon Reader

Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader: A Novella (FSG) is at the same time a beautiful dream and a profound meditation on the consequences of what used to be called wide reading. The author has exploited every scrap of insight that can be gleaned about the very private person of Elizabeth Windsor, the lady who very much happens to be the Queen of England, and given it a little twist: on the verge of ripe old age, this most dutiful of women takes up reading fiction, the pastime that, for well over three centuries, has distracted from their duties human beings of every rank and station. Like everybody else who has yearned only to finish the chapter at hand before getting on with an allotted chore, Her Majesty encounters disapproval and even obstruction in her entourage, her lofty status notwithstanding. Reading, it turns out, is the royal road to perfectly ordinary life, in more ways that one. 

As Helen Mirren said of her performance in The Queen, "We'll never know" what the subject of Stephen Frears's film thought of her cinematic portrait. We're equally unlikely to know how close to possibility Mr Bennett's enchanting but evidently counterfactual novella comes to the realities of the Queen's capacities. Happily, the author, who daily approaches the eminence in his line that Elizabeth II has in hers, is not so simple as to imagine an alternative reality, in which, for example, Her Majesty pesters a French diplomat with flustering questions about Jean Genet, without following the implications of his fantasy to the end of the line. Rather than try to persuade us that his story is likely, he takes great pains to keep it from sounding at all unlikely. There is all the good humor in the world in the difference. As in A Question of Attribution, the fine-grained theatre piece that centers on an excitingly enigmatic conversation between the Queen and the (traitorous) Surveyor of Her Pictures, The Uncommon Reader sets up camp in the terra incognita of a private life that is as impassively shielded from public intrusion as her London residence is by the Queen's Guard. In other words, no one can say that Alan Bennett has actually made anything up at all.

The adventure begins with the misbehavior of Elizabeth's dogs, who bark their heads off at the presence of a mobile library in the kitchen yard behind Buckingham Palace. By second nature, she is moved to apologize to the driver of the van, which is being patronized by one Norman, a young man who turns out to work scullery in her kitchens. Somewhat trapped in the awkwardness of unscripted conversation, the Queen finds herself being asked what sort of books she likes.

The Queen hesitated, because to tell the truth she wasn't sure. 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. Jogging, growing roses, chess or rock climbing, cake decorations, model aeroplanes. No. Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; preferences excluded people. One had no preferences. Her job was to take an interest, not be interested herself. And besides, reading wasn't doing. She was a doer. So she gazed round the book-lined van and played for time. "Is one allowed to borrow a book? One doesn't have to have a ticket?"

"No problem," said Mr Hutchings.

"One is a pensioner," said the Queen, not that she was sure that made any difference.

"Ma'am can borrow up to six books."

"Six? Heavens!"

(Keep your eye on those "one"s...) In a spirit of wicked, improbable glee, Mr Bennett saddles the Queen with a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett, who, although "not a popular author" according to the librarian, Her Majesty recalls meeting, just as she seems to have met everyone else. "Yes, I remember that hair, a roll like pie-crust that went right round her head." Who knows what recondite scores are being settled by this choice of author, famous (so to speak) for her negotiation of impossible confrontations by means of intricately deadpan dialogue. That, at any rate, ought to be the end of the royal foray into literature, but as it turns out, the Queen finds it convenient to cut short a tedious session with her private secretary by claiming that she must return a library book.

"How did you find it, ma'am," asked Mr Hutchings.

"Dame Ivy? A little dry. And everyone talks the same way, did you notice that?"

"To tell you the truth, ma'am, I never got through more than a few pages. How far did your Majesty get?"

"Oh, to the end, Once I start a book I finish it. That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato - one finishes what's on one's plate. That's always been my philosophy."

After a very droll conversation with the scullery boy about David Hockney's representations of, inter alia, "young men's bottoms hauled out of California swimming pools," awkward choice re-rears its ugly head.

She really hadn't intended to take out another book, but decided now she was it here it was perhaps easier to do it than not, though regarding what book to choose, she felt as baffled as she had been the previous week. The truth was she didn't really want a book at all and certainly not another Ivy Compton- Burnett, which was too hard going altogether.

So it was lucky that this time her eye happened to fall on a reissued volume of Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love. She picked it up. "Now. Didn't her sister marry the Mosley man?"

There follows a litany of Mitford connections that excludes the very one that the the real Elizabeth would almost certainly begin with: the consort of the late Duke of Devonshire, member of the most honorable order in England, that of the Garter, and by rights an official pal. (This would be Debo, the only one of the six sisters who is still with us.) But "The Pursuit of Love turned out to be an fortunate choice and in its way a momentous one." For, the next day, the Queen malingers, pretending to have a "sniffle" that keeps her in bed. 

"The Queen has a slight cold," was what the nation was told, but what it was not told and what the Queen herself did not know was that this was only the first of a series of accommodations, some of them far-reaching, that her reading was going to involve.

One of these far-reaching accommodations is the promotion of Norman to equerry, not as any kind of reward but strictly for his utility (he, alone of all the Queen's immediate servants, knows something about books). Norman's story, which I wouldn't dream of encapsulating, will make a heartwarming adventure in the event that anyone is tempted to work up a Ruritanian adaptation of Mr Bennett's book. It will provide an effective counterweight to the increasing interiorization of the Queen's comedy. In the wake of a disappointing garden party attended exclusively by eminent British writers, Elizabeth's reading is clouded by a dim but insistent puzzlement. The puzzle had been there before, but she had expected the writers to clear it up. Instead,

When she did manage to express - and almost stammer - her admiration, hoping the author would tell her how he (the men, she decided, much worse than the women) had come to write the book in question, she found her enthusiasm brushed aside, as he insisted on talking not about the bestseller he had just written but about the one on which he was currently at work and how slowly it was going and how in consequence, as he sipped his champagne, he was the most miserable of creatures.

Writers, it seems, know no more about the experience of reading than anyone else.

To begin with, it's true, she read with trepidation and some unease. The sheer endlessness of books outfaced her and she had no idea how to go on: there was no system to her reading, with one book leading to another, and often she had two or three on the go at the same time. The next stage had been when she started to make notes, after which she always read with a pencil in hand, not summarizing what she read but simply transcribing passages that struck her. It was only after a year or so of treading and making notes that she tentatively ventured on the occasional thought of her own. "I think of literature," she wrote, "as a vast country to the far borders of which I am journeying but will never reach. And I have started too late. I will never catch up." Then (an unrelated thought): "Etiquette may be bad but embarrassment is worse."

Whither will such note-taking lead? As the stock of books digested by the Queen mounts up, what pressures begin to register upon this "doer"? In short: precisely the pressures that sooner or later drive any voracious reader to throw, as if in relief, the circuit into reverse, and to become a writer.

Whatever we think of Elizabeth II or of the institution of monarchy in the United Kingdom, we come to delight in Alan Bennett's felicitous donnée. He has taken a woman whose daily life is sublimely lubricated by servants - and, ultimately, everybody in England is a servant of some kind or other - and thrown her into bumpy engagement with life by means not of violent revolution imposed from without, as republican firebrands would have it, but from within, by the affinities that fiction arouses in the human breast. If the lubrication of the Queen's life is abraded, it is entirely her own doing, however inadvertent. If she begins upsetting queues of well-wishers by asking them not how far have they come to see her but what they have been reading lately, she is wonderfully slow to see herself as the Underminer Royal of correct procedure, just as Mr Bennett is correspondingly quick to mine the comic potential.

And, eventually, the potential for melancholy.

There was sadness to her reading, too, and for the first time in her life she felt there was a good deal she had missed. She had been reading one of the several lives of Sylvia Plath, and was actually quite happy to have missed most of that, but reading the memoirs of Lauren Bacall she could not help feeling that Ms Bacall had had a much better bite at the carrot and, slightly to her surprise, she found herself envying her for it.

The Queen, after all, has been around for a very long time, and she has hardly been hiding out in the Forbidden City. Her contact with the rest of the world may have been slightly unreal, but there has been plenty of it, and inevitably the reader at the center of Mr Bennett's fable decides that she has a thing or two to say about her experiences. While this may present the menace of constitutional crisis to her ministers, it confronts Elizabeth herself with a sadder truth: you cannot be reading while you are writing. She is quite right about being a "doer": eventually, there is only so much that she can take it before she must put out; and writing offers only a few of the pleasures of reading, none of them the simple ones. In the end, the dutiful reader prevails, and, as in all things, she is a model to us all. (October 2007)

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