If you saw Stephen Frears’s The Queen (2006), you’ll have no trouble picturing the scene in Alan Bennett’s novella where the Duke of Edinburgh pops his head in to check on the “old girl” reading in bed, in her curlers, then walks down the corridor to his room, whistling as he goes. Ultimately Frears’s film made Americans feel cozy with the queen; the splendid actress Helen Mirren let us see her as a woman imprisoned for life—as an actress is not—in a single difficult role. Along the way, The Queen contrasted Elizabeth with Princess Diana (fusty old lady vs. lovable glamour girl), and the rigid dinosaur of the monarchy with Tony Blair’s hip, casual, infinitely pliant New Britain. The deep question it probed is the one that drives people to crave details about the royals: How different is the queen from the rest of us? The film portrayed an Elizabeth unmoved by the death of her errant former daughter-in-law, yet weeping over a fallen noble stag. How human could she possibly be?
Alan Bennett has worked with Stephen Frears in the past, and seems to have taken inspiration from his erstwhile collaborator’s film. Bennett had the bright idea of giving the queen a life, and the genius of The Uncommon Reader is to propose that the only new life a lady approaching eighty might plausibly have is a reading life. Of the queen, we learn that
She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn’t have hobbies. Jogging, growing roses, chess or rock climbing, cake decoration, model aeroplanes. No.
Bennett’s wry account of the queen’s reading habit begins when some royal family dogs wander into a mobile library van parked in front of the palace, and the queen follows after them. As a courtesy, she borrows some books while she’s there, encouraged by Norman, a gawky, gay young skivvy who works in the palace kitchens and hangs out in the van. Once she starts reading, the diligent and dutiful queen doesn’t stop: Brookner, Trollope, Laurence Sterne, even Proust. Prodded by her reading, she begins to think, and eventually to write. In a poignant reminiscence, she recalls that she has not always been quite so isolated from other people:
As a girl, one of her greatest thrills had been on VE night when she and her sister had slipped out of the gates and mingled unrecognised with the crowds. There was something of that, she felt, to reading. It was anonymous; it was shared; it was common. And she who had led a life apart now found that she craved it. Here in these pages and between these covers she could go unrecognised.
That first day in the library van, the queen looks at the books ranged on the shelves and sees a name she knows: Ivy Compton-Burnett. (She is confident she can read the book, since she after all is the one who bestowed the title “dame” on the writer, and even remembers Compton-Burnett’s hairstyle, “a roll like a pie-crust that went right round her head.”) Norman, meanwhile, recommends gay authors like J. R. Ackerley. In Bennett’s hands, the conventional queen’s sanguine view of homosexuality becomes a running joke: “She read Ackerley’s account of himself, unsurprised to find that, being a homosexual, he had worked for the BBC.” She recalls having met E. M. Forster, and “is pleasantly surprised to find on reading his biography that he had said afterwards that had she been a boy he would have fallen in love with her.”
George Eliot argued that reading novels exercises and strengthens the muscle of human sympathy, and that caring about people in books makes us more caring about them in life: thus do novel-readers learn what Dorothea Brooke more painfully learns in Middlemarch, that even the desiccated Mr. Casaubon has “an equivalent centre of self.” In his deadpan, offhand way, Alan Bennett echoes George Eliot’s point. As she reads onward, the queen becomes more and more curious about other people, and a more complete human being herself. By its end, her story has much the same moral as Dorothea Brooke’s; indeed, this account of a stoical monarch becoming “tenderized” (she compares herself to a piece of steak) might be exemplary to others in positions of power. Reviewing the recent biography of Condoleezza Rice in the New York Times Book Review, Jacob Heilbrunn writes that Rice’s parents piled so many books by her bedside table that “she stopped reading for pleasure, and does not to this day.” The tenderizing of Elizabeth suggests it would be better for the commonweal if people in power took the reading cure, and returned to books for pleasure.
Bennett is an unabashedly literary sort. His title plays off “the common reader,” a phrase coined by Dr. Johnson and picked up by Virginia Woolf, and his image of the British Crown as “not unlike Miss Havisham’s wedding feast-the cobwebbed chandeliers, the mice-infested cake and...Mr. Pip tearing down the rotting curtains to let in the light”—is Great Expectations refracted by David Lean’s 1946 film. With charm and intelligence, The Uncommon Reader engages the uses—and the decline—of reading. Catching up on both real and imaginary lives she never lived, Bennett’s queen reflects that she wouldn’t have wanted Sylvia Plath’s life, but might have enjoyed Lauren Bacall’s. Comically, her newfound tenderness is misinterpreted by those around her; “the dawn of sensibility,” Bennett writes, “was mistaken for the onset of senility.” Throughout The Uncommon Reader, wit compensates for the inevitable and inconceivable, and comedy trumps tragedy, debility, even banality. Like George Eliot’s masterpiece, Alan Bennett’s novella about reading serves as an advertisement for itself, as well as a lovely book about aging—tender, forgiving, and even humorous in the face of death.
Related: Richard Alleva's review of The Queen