The Uncommon Reader
Alan Bennett
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $15, 128 pp.

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...

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About the Author

Rachel M. Brownstein is professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Her most recent book is Why Jane Austen? (Columbia University Press).