When I spied The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett as I was wandering in the library, I couldn’t resist. I knew the author and discovered this novella was about the reading habits of the Queen. After seeing the opening sequence to the 2012 Olympics in London, England with Daniel Craig as James Bond and the Queen, I have gained such high esteem for her and her sense of humor.
After a brief encounter at a state dinner and a clumsy discussion with a French ambassador about a French writer, the Queen realizes her attempts to discuss books with politicians are fruitless. Her weekly meetings with the Prime Minister, which are usually from PM to Queen, have changed from Queen to PM on books. PM is not pleased. Even as she meets her subjects the usual questions are about their trip to see her etc etc are replaced with questions of what books are they reading which at first stumps them until soon they bring her books to read, mostly those they have written.
She discovers a mobile library visits the palace every Wednesday from which she gets books. She happens upon a book by Nancy Mitford, who the Queen knew in earlier days. She knew the whole family and yet the book added more. To this woman of the world, the Wednesday visits became very important as she discovered things about the world she knew, had visited, and ruled to discover that she didn’t know. Reading took on a whole new meaning for her. She became addicted. And then the mobile library stopped visiting. Budget cuts.
Once when encountered about her appetite to read, the Queen responded, ‘Books are not about passing the time. They’re about other lives. Other worlds. Far from wanting time to pass, Sir Kevin, one just wishes one had more of it.’ (p29) I concur.
Her constant book reading has agitated her husband, her staff, and her dogs. On one occasion she is told the secret service took one of her books left in the carriage because they thought it was a explosive device. When she heard this and demanded it be replaced by the next day, she added, ‘A book is a device to ignite the imagination.’ Her dogs would retrieve a felled book to a far corner of the palace for slow destruction. Before she took trips, she would read the authors of the destination, before leaving and on route to the added annoyance of her husband.
Like the Queen, I’m an opsimath, too, and darn proud of it. With this new love of reading, she remembers having sat with Lord David Cecil of Oxford, a Jane Austen scholar and was silent. Now she wishes she could sit with him again and have a lively conversation, but alas, he is dead. But went on, determined as ever to catch up. Me, too.
I was bowled over when I read this sentence: ‘And she remembered Helen Schlegel in Howard’s End putting pictures to Beethoven at the concert in the Queen’s Hall that Forster describes.’ In college I wrote a paper for my symphony class linking Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Howard’s End. I was an English major taking a music course to fulfill a humanities requirement and always tried to find ways to link other courses to my English studies. Yes, we do feel a closer kinship to Her Majesty.
She learns as one reads and is tenderized the question of writing must always surface. She has been approached by a few to curb her reading habits, to no effect. She has always been writing privately in her notebooks. Suddenly she decides to write and during her eightieth birthday announces this plan to a timid audience. The ending of this novella is brilliant.