The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennet; published by Picador, 2007.
The Uncommon Reader is an uncommon book. First of all, it’s technically a novella. It’s only 120 pages, so if you wanted to, you could read it easily in one sitting. I was also only slightly surprised to find out that Alan Bennet is a dramatist, not a novelist. I saw the scenes clearly in my head, and the Queen’s speech in the last pages is a monologue I can imagine theater kids performing for auditions. I also love Bennet’s clear, simple writing style. And I love that the Queen always refers to herself as “one,” as in: “One has had, as you all know, a long reign.”
As if I wasn’t already a big enough Anglophile, Bennet’s little story has awoken a new and deeper respect for a part of England I had hitherto, like many of the characters in the novella, ignored: Queen Elizabeth II. Have you ever wondered what her life is like? To be honest, all of my attention has been captured by Will and Kate. The media spend more time covering a woman who might be queen someday than the woman who actually is queen now. Like many, I think the stories of the past monarchs are fascinating. We all know about Henry VIII’s many wives, and we loved watching The King’s Speech, which is about Elizabeth’s father. But Elizabeth herself seems a quiet, docile, elderly figurehead. It is difficult to perceive that she is a direct descendant of those wonderful monarchs—Queen Elizabeth I (think Shakespeare’s time) and Queen Victoria, among others. It is hard to imagine just how much power and responsibility she actually wields. This book gives us a glimpse into the power, the restrictions, the freedoms, the experiences, the history, and the long reign that form the Queen’s unique life.
Just to be clear, this story is not biographical. It is a fictional imagining of the Queen’s life. The biggest evidence is that the book ends with the Queen’s implying that she is going to abdicate the throne in order to pursue writing at her 80th birthday party. Obviously, the Queen is 86 now and she has not abdicated the throne. Sorry if I just spoiled the ending for you.
The story is that the Queen stumbles upon a traveling library one day and borrows a book just to be nice and encouraging to one of her subjects. There is also a boy from the kitchens, Norman, who visits the library and makes recommendations. Her first selections are based on the author’s connectedness—the Queen had made her a dame, or she was related to someone in the Queen’s court. But, thankfully, those books turned out to be quite good! The Queen loves them and has Norman promoted to “amanuensis.” Norman helps her explore a new world, one in which she is equal to every other person, which is a new experience for her. “The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something undeferring about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included.”
But while the Queen was enjoying Anthony Trollope and Thomas Hardy and the Brontes, her staff was quite upset. The Queen was more interested now in reading than in attending her duties. So her private secretary, Sir Kevin, had the traveling library moved to another part of the country, and Norman was sent to university—without the knowledge or permission of the Queen. On a trip to Canada, her suitcase full of books she’d brought along for the trip went suddenly missing.
The Queen is not naive about these “misunderstandings,” but she keeps reading anyway. She repeatedly expresses a sense of regret at having discovered reading so late in life. She had met many famous authors before, but hadn’t been able to appreciate them, and now that she did appreciate them, she couldn’t speak to them because many had died. Though most of her staff thought her reading a rather pointless hobby, “she felt about reading what some writers felt about writing: that it was impossible not to do it and that at this late stage of her life she had been chosen to read as others were chosen to write.”
One of the saddest moments in the story, for me, was when the Queen—who was always rather stoic—expresses a new sympathy for her subjects to an equerry: “You see, Gerald, 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: the beginnings of a bald patch, the hair growing over the collar. One’s feelings are almost maternal.” The equerry immediately supposes that the Queen must be losing her faculties. “Thus it was that the dawn of sensibility was mistaken for the onset of senility.” When the Queen, whose wardrobe was always pristine and varied, starts repeating outfits, it is assumed she must have Alzheimer’s.
One old courtier—who had been in her father’s service and known her since she was a girl—is requested to convince the Queen to give up reading. She asks him about the memoirs he is supposed to have been writing for many years, and he attempts to deflect her questions by raising a suggestion of his own: the Queen should take up writing instead of reading. This seed takes root and begins to grow in the Queen’s mind.
“In the darkness it came to the Queen that, dead, she would exist only in the memories of people. She who had never been subject to anyone would now be on a par with everybody else. Reading could not change that—though writing might.
“…She switched the light on again and reached for her notebook and wrote: ‘You don’t put your life into your books. You find it there.'”
Her writing is even less popular than her reading was, but she sees writing as something active, whereas reading is passive, and she believes it is her duty to write. So she hosts a tea party for her 80th birthday and makes a delightful speech. I’d transcribe it all here for you, but you should really just read the book yourself. As I said earlier, she pretty much announces that she’s going to abdicate the throne to pursue writing.
This book is a treasure because the Queen herself is a treasure. It’s a story of pursuing your passion and your duty despite the discouragement and the calculated sabotage of your plans by others. This book is an ode to reading. Reading awakens your sympathies; it helps you understand others. This compassion and care is so very human, but often is perceived as weakness. I think it interesting that at the end reading leads to writing. I’ve always seen myself as more of a reader than a writer, as the Queen did at first, but I’m becoming more and more convinced that writing is also the duty of the reader. Feeling compassion for others does not really mean anything if you never express it. It’s similar to faith: faith without works is dead. One must not only show compassion but teach others to show it as well.