The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
So, did you watch the Coronation? Some people did, some didn't. We had fun this weekend celebrating with the village. I did watch the Coronation and was so impressed with the members of the armed forces marching in sync whilst playing the same tune. And also, who knew you could play a trombone on a horse? We watched the Coronation concert in the village hall, and then on the Monday had fun at our village street party where we ate lots of cake, and played pass the parcel.
At the last meeting of our Village Classics Book Group we all agreed on The Uncommon Reader following a request that we read something with a royal theme. This is a sweet novella, small and perfectly formed.
Alan Bennett's classic story about Queen Elizabeth II. What would happen if the Queen became a reader of taste and discernment rather than of Dick Francis? The answer is a perfect story.
The Uncommon Reader is non other than HM The Queen, who drifts accidentally into reading when her corgis stray into a mobile library parked at Buckingham Palace. She reads widely (J.R. Ackerley, Jean Genet, Ivy Compton Burnett and the classics) and intelligently. Her reading changes her world view and her relationship with people like the oleaginous Prime Minister and his repellant advisors. She comes to question the prescribed order of the world and loses patience with much that she has to do. In short, her reading is subversive. The consequence is, of course, surprising, mildly shocking and very funny.
This was a very sweet little book, at times almost bittersweet because of the loss of the Queen last year, but, as always, it is wryly observed.
When her misbehaving corgis dart off whilst out on a walk in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, the Queen stumbles across the mobile Westminster library van. After a chat with the driver and a young man called Norman works in the palace, the Queen feels obliged to borrow a book by Ivy Compton-Burnett. Fascinated, she borrows another - Nancy Mitford, and a love of reading starts.
We imagine royal events where the Queen instead of asking 'And what do you do?' asks 'What are you reading?'. This provides much discomfort to her Majesty's advisors.
And it is here that we have a peek into the life of a royal and Bennett's imaginings of how tightly controlled the Royals are. Books, carefully curated for a royal visit mysteriously disappear en route, the Queen is advised NOT to ask about reading habits, and Norman, now promoted from the kitchens to the library, is 'encouraged' to take on a fully paid for degree in East Anglia.
The Queen is marvellous and overall this is a wonderful novel about the power of reading and the journeys it can take us on. It is a celebration of books and I found it a celebration of the imagined Queen.