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[150] The Uncommon Reader – Alan Bennett

“In truth, of course, those supposedly unguarded moments are just as much a performance as the royal family at its most hieratic. This show, or sideshow, might be called playing at being normal and is as contrived as the most formal public appearance, even though those who witness or overhear it think that this is the Queen at her most human and natural. Formal or informal, it is all part of that self-presentation in which the equerries collaborate and which, these apparently natural moments apart, is from the public’s point of view virtually seamless.” [78]

Deviation from the dog-walking path chances Her Majesty upon an encounter with Mr. Hutchings’ mobile library parked outside the royal kitchens. Though not much of a reader, for she deems reading work, the Queen finds obliged to select a book or she might give the impression that Mr. Hutchings’ selection is meager. Out of politeness and duty she picks a book. Acquaintance with Norman Seakins, a young lad working in the kitchens, who later advises her as to what to read and never hesitates to say when he thinks she is not ready for a book, sets Her Majesty on a reading binge. The meeting is one that illuminates a serendipitous moment in life that opens one’s mind to refreshing whims.

So one book leads to another, and soon the days aren’t long enough for the reading she wants to do. Though reading absorbs her, what Her Majesty has not expected is the degree to which it drains her of enthusiasm for anything else. Her personal secretary certainly frowns upon this new literary obsession that has rendered his employer negligent in state duties. Aspired to make the monarch more accessible, he opposes to any disposition that might besmirch the Queen’s public image and thus jeopardize the royal family; he blames Norman for abetting in the Queen’s sudden pull for books. In collusion with the prime minister’s adviser, he stages the removal of Norman from Buckingham Palace.

Irresistibly funny and filled with sly humor, The Uncommon Reader delivers an intimate picture of the Queen’s journey to her self, which has been inevitably done away by her unusual position. In this novella she is very much that same woman: not remotely intellectual, but inquisitive and intelligent and quite impatient with overly long-winded or self-indulgent writers. Bennett remarks that “she has to seem like a human being all the time, but she seldom has to be one.” So over the course of her transformation reading has humanized her. She begins to come round to the minute distinctions that Jane Austen delights in, distinctions which her unique royal position makes it difficult for her to grasp, because they seem less consequence to her. It’s only as Her Majesty gains in understanding of both literature and human nature that they take on individuality and charm. But whether it is Austen or Johnson or feminism, nothing can be compared with the gulf, which she ruefully regrets, that separates her from the rest of humanity.

Bennett’s musings on melancholy and moral ambivalence have produced a fairy-like novel that unfolds into a witty meditation on the subversive pleasures of reading. It gives a glimpse to the lament of old age and some thoughts on a life wasted owing to fulfilling duties. Even more alarmingly, she finds that reading has softened her up—makes her aware of her own emotions and more sympathetic to others. The dynamics in the story of a ruler’s conversion to reader is reminiscent of the award-winning film The Queen.

18 Responses

  1. I’ve heard so many good things about this, it seems like a lovely little book. I wonder if it’s out in paper yet? It would make a good holiday read (am already thinking of winter holidays…how sad).

  2. This one has been sitting on my shelf for far, far too long. Everyone raves about it. Blast it! Why aren’t there more hours in the day?

  3. I LOVED this book too. There’s just something so delightful about a book about reading AND the Queen. And, Bennett is a great writer, so it’s magical. I agree with your comparison of the book and the movie, The Queen. Both show a transformation or humanization of the Queen.

  4. I loved this book, too, lol! I have always liked books about reading, and Alan Bennett is just so funny 🙂

  5. H.M.Q. also appears in Alan Bennett’s A Question of Attribution (1996) where, in a crackling, one on one scene with Sir Anthony Blunt, she is brilliantly portrayed by Prunella Scales; James Fox plays Blunt. The film has not been released in DVD, unfortunately. It is well worth seeking out in it’s VHS format. If you happen to stumble across a copy at a garage sale, or know someone who still has a copy sitting around, it’s well worth a view, despite its dated format.

  6. I’d like to second the recommendation for A Question of Attribution. The play is in print if you can’t find the video.

    I’ve also been looking at this book for a long time. As soon as the paperback comes out……

  7. Danielle:
    It’s funny, light, and thoughtful. His writing is brilliant. The paperback should come out next week. Go grab it! 🙂

  8. J.S. Peyton:
    The Queen asks exactly the same question in the book! 🙂

  9. Jessica:
    I enjoyed the film so much that I saw it three times at the theater, and each viewing afforded nuances of how she is humanized through tough time. 🙂

  10. gentle reader:
    I just got this other one about Diana’s escaping to the United States after a fight with Charles.

  11. Greg S:
    I saw the script of A Question of Attribution. It’s a mishap that the DVD has never been released. VHS seems like prehistoric to me these days as I haven’t toughed the player! 🙂

  12. C.B. James:
    Trade paperback of Uncommon reader will be released this month. Keep your eye on it! 🙂

  13. […] all over book blogsphere and bookstores, where readers sigh about the lack of time to read. Even Queen Elizabeth II (guess which book) feigns sickness to shun her stately duties in exchange for time for just a few […]

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  16. Coincidentally I watched the Queen soon after reading the Uncommon Reader. So they complimented each other just nicely. I like both book and movie :).

  17. […] A Reader’s Respite Rebecca Reads A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook […]

  18. I absolutely love this book. I have read it twice in the past year or so, and that is extremely unusual for me! I would highly recommend it to any booklover — it makes you want to go right out and check out every book in the library.

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