I feel like I cheated a bit this week. The Uncommon Reader is definitely not one of Bennett’s longest novels, clocking in at barely one hundred and thirty pages. In this case, the old ‘good things come in small packages’ adage rings true, and I thoroughly enjoyed the foray into Our Majesty’s psyche.
So, the story begins with a travelling library in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. The Queen stumbles across it after chasing a wayward corgi into the bins. Feeling obliged to borrow a book owing to the etiquette instilled in her all her life, she does so. This opens the floodgates on her creativity and she begins to devour books at an alarming rate, alarming, at least, to the rest of her household. She employs one of the kitchen boys who she met in the library van to be her adviser, pointing her towards books and authors which she may be interested in. The Queen discovers a world she never knew before, where her status does not immediately command deference from the words itself. For the first time in her life, she’s treated like a normal human, the same as everyone else.
This new found interest causes discomfort for her public appearances – she’s late for appointments, disinterested in previous hobbies (shooting, walking etc), wears the same clothes day after day and is so passionate that she deviates from the ‘script’ when talking to her subjects. This last set of behaviour appears mortifying to her staff, who find themselves having to contend with a trolley full of books given to HRH by the public, once they’d caught on, as well as embarrassing, stilted conversations which would have lasted forty five seconds previously.
Eventually her reading leads to other things, and she begins to write instead. It’s oddly heart-warming – the Queen finally finds her own voice among the bloodline and is inspired to write. Not just a memoir but a fiction novel, much to her household’s horror. Bennett writes superbly as in a few short paragraphs he conveys the claustrophobia that she feels in everyday life – she is the freest woman in the kingdom but at the same time, she cannot do anything alone or without itinerary. Books help her escape, as anyone who reads can agree with. Her only sorrow is that she started too late to read everything.
I found her encounters with authors interesting, and the accounts of that were darkly comic, such as the one with TS Eliot. She reveals that she wishes she made more of her connections while the authors were still alive, as then she would have found something more to say than: “Good journey?”.
It’s a strange blend of real and fantasy, as Tony Blair (unnamed, but pretty obvious), the UEA Creative Writing department and even the Queen herself spring from the page, fully formed and human. At times it seemed real, as if Alan Bennett had squashed into a corner behind the curtain to write about the events at the palace.
I would recommend this book to anyone with a couple of hours to spare, who can identify with how consuming reading can be, especially in the face of a really good read.