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 none 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 ( JR Ackerley, Jean Genet, Ivy Compton Burnett and the classics) and intelligently. Her reading naturally changes her world view and her relationship with people like the oleaginous prime minister and his repellent advisers. 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.
I was delighted to come across this story in a link to the London Book Review (LRB) on Twitter a few weeks ago just as #NovNov22 was in the pipeline. A story about reading with a mobile library and rather poignantly ‘starring’ HM The (now late) Queen. What is there not to love?
It is utterly charming and really funny.
The Queen chances upon a mobile library in the grounds of Buckingham Palace one day when somewhat unruly corgis wanders off and Her Majesty (HM) chases after – by chases I do, of course, mean strides purposely! I doubt running after corgis would take place in the Palace perhaps at Windsor or Balmoral but then I digress. The Queen finally catches up with the corgis at the mobile library. Strange thought HM that a library would call into the Palace. After all there are libraries inside with so many books available.
Anyway, HM enters to retrieve the corgis and whilst in there finds that she must, out of courtesy, browse and take a book. Here she comes across not only the librarian but also Norman who, it transpires, works at the Palace.
They have a conversation.
It is not long before Norman is working upstairs and HM becomes an avid reader. And so trouble begins!
HM becomes so addicted to reading that her staff, under Sir Kevin, begin to despair and fondly remember the days before reading! HM timeliness, bland chats with the general public on visits and, yes, even her immaculate dress sense go out of the window. The desire to talk about the books she had read and to find out what others are reading becomes an overwhelming desire much to the consternation of courtiers, the general public and even the Prime Minister’s office. Sir Kevin must do something but what? If it hadn’t been for that young whippersnapper Norman none of this would have happened. Sir Kevin has an idea!
Knowing Alan Bennett initially through Talking Heads, various stories and on screen e.g. The History Boys, The Lady in the Van etc. I suppose that it should not be too surprising that Bennett would turn his hand to a such a wonderful novella as The Uncommon Reader full of that dry sense of humour I associate with him – which always reminds me of my father whose sharp wit and wonderful timing would make me smile inside and bubble over into laughter. Bennett’s writing is now poignant but never overly sentimental rather it poses questions on whether HM ever regretted that early promise:
I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.Her Majesty The Queen
A promise made to the nation, to the Commonwealth when she was 21? Well in this novella Bennett gives us not only a very funny story but a possible scenario in the stunning conclusion of this wonderful story.
It made me wonder whether HM ever read it? Was consent needed? Well, if so, it was given and that just adds to the propensity of our late Queen to delight us with her terrific sense of humour – who doesn’t recall her 007 caper or that magical meeting over tea with Paddington bear – and her ability to surprise even the most cynical of anti royalists.
A wonderful story and I’m so glad to have found it. Not only a lovely but timely reminder of Her late Majesty who gave her life to the service of the people but of those who are voted into power and should have this same vocation but sadly so rarely seem to.
Beyond all of this The Uncommon Reader will, I believe, bring enormous enjoyment to all bibliophiles who will recognise the same desire and joy of reading that HM has in this story and, perhaps, the tug of ‘real’ life to give time to family, friends, chores and work that we may well find somewhat less appealing!
It also raises the topic of what reading can achieve for everyone, even The Queen and ultimately, if rather underhandedly, for Norman of understanding, education and knowledge for the betterment of society. And in my opinion this is the most important thing that this story conveys. Without the ability to read and access reading for everyone our society, our world will be a much poorer place. The cutbacks to public libraries in so many places is a scourge on children, those with less means as others and society as a whole. A good library provision is something I believe is a basic educational and social need indeed a right and must be passionately fought for.
#NOVNOV2022 \ #NOVNOV22
Well this is one of my reads for week 4 not only read but sharing my thoughts in a very timely manner on this one!
Week 4 is contemporary novellas: The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, Every Trick in the Book by Iain Hood, The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald and The Hermit by Louise Walters. I really am hoping to manage all of them.
Hopefully, by the time this is up, I will have also posted on week 1 – Wide Sargasso Sea, week 2 – God & Caesar, week 3 – Under the Snow and I will also be posting for week 4 – The Bookshop. I also need to get up a post on Foster, the Buddy read for #NovNov22. I’m still hoping that the two other books will be finished and posts uploaded (although the latter action is not I’m finding quite so easily completed).
Are you interested in joining #NovNov22? You’ll need to be quick, unlike me!, as it’s coming to the end soon. Rebecca of Bookish Beck and Cathy at 746Books are co-hosting Novellas in November as a month-long challenge with four weekly prompts. There is a ‘buddy read’ feature this year for which Foster by Claire Keegan has been chosen. You can pop to their blog using the links above or check it out on my blog.
Published: LRB Vol. 29 No. 5 · 8 March 2007 | Faber & Faber (4 Sept 2008) | 132 pages
Read/buy: LRB: The Uncommon Reader | AmazonSmileUK | Hive |Bookshop.org (affiliate link) | Waterstones | Your local bookshop | Your local library
Author: Alan Bennett born May 9, 1934, Leeds, Yorkshire, Eng., British dramatist, screenwriter, and actor. Bennett attended Leeds Modern School and gained a scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford, where he received an undergraduate degree in history in 1957. His fledgling career as a junior lecturer in history at Magdalen College, Oxford, was cut short after he enjoyed enormous success with the comedy revue Beyond the Fringe in 1960.
Alan Bennett has been one of our leading dramatists since the success of Beyond the Fringe in the 1960s. His television series Talking Heads has become a modern-day classic, as have many of his works for the stage including Forty Years On, The Lady in the Van (together with the screenplay), A Question of Attribution, The Madness of George III (together with the Oscar-nominated screenplay The Madness of King George), and an adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. At the National Theatre, London, The History Boys (also a screenplay) won numerous awards including Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle awards for Best Play, an Olivier for Best New Play and the South Bank Award. On Broadway,The History Boys won five New York Drama Desk Awards, four Outer Critics’ Circle Awards, a New York Drama Critics’ Award, a New York Drama League Award and six Tonys. The Habit of Art opened at the National in 2009; in 2012, People, as well as the two short plays Hymn and Cocktail Sticks, was also staged there.
Alan Bennett’s collection of prose, Keeping On Keeping On, published in October 2016. Of his two previous collections, Writing Home was a number one bestseller and Untold Stories won the PEN/Ackerley Prize for autobiography, 2006. Bennett’s Six Poets, Hardy to Larkin, An Anthology, was published in 2014. Fiction includes The Uncommon Reader and Smut: Two Unseemly Stories.
The London Book Review has a plethora of his writing (diaries, stories etc.) see below under sources.
Faber & Faber | List of works, credits etc on Wikipedia
London Book Review | Bodleian Libraries
Alan Bennett’s first play, Forty Years On, was produced in 1968; his most recent, Allelujah!, in 2018. His annual diary has appeared in the LBR since 1983. The Lady in the Van was first published in the paper, and the LRB has also carried some of his Talking Heads monologues, as well as short stories, pieces of memoir and reviews. His most recent collection of prose, Keeping On Keeping On, came out in 2016.
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I really enjoyed this charming and yet slyly subversive book.
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I agree MarinaSofia it’s a really enjoyable book. I’m glad you enjoyed it too. I couldn’t imagine Alan Bennett not being as you say slightly subversive making his point(s) in this charming piece with humour and compassion.