With Britain’s first ever Platinum Jubilee now only a week or two away, many of us are thinking about The Queen’s astonishing achievements – and you certainly don’t need to be a die-hard monarchist to admire them. With that in mind I turn back to Alan Bennett’s delightful long short story/novella The Uncommon Reader which was published in 2008.
His version of the Queen – just coming up to her 80th birthday – is dutiful, patient, well-mannered and used to keeping her thoughts to herself. But she has never been any sort of reader until, walking the corgis round the grounds she happens upon a mobile library parked near the kitchen entrance at Buckingham Palace. Therein she meets a bookish, gay, young kitchen hand named Norman and borrows a book from the librarian because one has to be polite.
It’s the beginning of a wittily described life-changing journey through centuries of literature which she is unable to discuss properly with anyone except Norman whom she immediately promotes – to the despair of her unread, manipulative, private secretary Sir Kevin. Both he and Norman are drawn with totally convincing accuracy – we know both types very well. I love Bennett’s take on the Duke of Edinburgh too. He doesn’t read much fiction either and barks short pithy comments at his wife behind the scenes. That feels spot-on too.
There are three things which, in my view, make this entertaining little book special. First, it’s a celebration of the power of literature from Shakespeare to Ivy Compton Burnett and from Hardy to Alice Munro – all done with insouciant lightness of touch. Second, Bennett is irreverent about the Queen, her tastes and thoughts, without ever being disrespectful. Third, he gives us a quirky twist at the end.
The overall message, of course, is that literature matters – really matters – and people who read are more sensitive as human beings than those who don’t. Novels, in particular, are not just made up stories for entertainment. They teach the reader about life.
None of us knows whether or not Her Majesty is a devoted reader of fiction but I do hope she has read this one.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: In the Wars by Waheed Arian