“I’ve been longing to ask you about the writer Jean Gent,” Queen Elizabeth said chattily to the president of France. “Homosexual and jailbird, was he nevertheless as bad as he was painted? Or, more to the point,” and she took up her soup spoon, “was he as good?”
That bit of dialogue comes early in The Uncommon Reader, a novella by Alan Bennett that was published back in 2007. Reminded of the book when Queen Elizabeth died, a friend gushed about its delightful, slyly funny plot. I listened with half an ear; given my day job, I was already hooked by the title. The Common Reader draws its name from an essay by Virginia Woolf. Bennett’s uncommon reader is the Queen herself, and he is guessing what might unfold if she became an avid, serious reader.
Primarily a playwright, Bennett won acclaim for The History Boys and The Madness of George III. That theatrical sense of pacing and dialogue keeps The Uncommon Reader sparkling, even (or perhaps especially) during the Queen’s internal monologues. Written years before her death, the novella is spun from whole cloth, yet it resonates with all we know of her, and all we suspect. Surely her fine, brisk mind grew bored with ceremony, though she could never admit it. Surely she regretted her lack of formal education when pressed into conversation with artists and intellectuals. Surely, tugged by determined corgis, she might have stumbled upon a bookmobile in Westminster one day.
From there, the story takes off. It is more than charming, laced with literary insight, political insight, and a skewering of caste, class, and stuffy, mindless protocol—not to mention the less obvious trials of being the Queen of England.
“It was in the nature of her job that she didn’t have hobbies,” we are reminded. “Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; preferences excluded people. One had no preferences. Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself.” I read this and shudder, unable to imagine a life swept clean of my own interests. Never, not even after bingeing The Crown, had I considered that simply liking one thing more than another, pursuing affinity or curiosity, could be seen as excluding others and thus need to be stifled.
Kindly without pulling punches, Bennett has the Queen think of various writers she has met, “even Ted Hughes, to whom she’d taken a bit of a shine,” and remember that she had nothing of substance to say to them.
“But ma’am must have been briefed, surely?” her aide says. Members of the royal staff are already resenting her new intellectual restlessness.
“Briefing,” retorts the Queen—tartly, I imagine—“is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.”
I want to applaud, which is tricky when you are sprawled on a couch holding a book. She is so right! And she has missed so much! Elizabeth acted always out of duty, hardly ever out of pleasure—anyone could see that. Now she is frankly puzzled by her new passion. How could it take such hold, when it is not a duty?
Reading is indifferent, she decides. Books do not care who is, or is not, reading them. What a relief she must—oh, wait. This is fiction. Fervently, I hope that at some point Her Majesty experienced a little indifference in real life, a little freedom from hierarchy and obligation. With her dogs and horses, if not her books….
What is most fun, beyond the plump insights into the royal psyche, is watching Queen Elizabeth learn to read. At first she is overwhelmed—there are so many books, how will she ever catch up? Any passion is overwhelming at the start; you have more feeling than skill, and you are painfully aware of all you do not know. But you need only begin, and so she does. Gradually, her reading becomes more sophisticated, and she grows impatient with drivel. Instinctively, she begins to take notes, and that makes her a more involved, thoughtful reader. She casts off the old, boring questions scripted by her staff (“And where are you from?” “And how long was the train ride?”) and asks people what they are reading. Some flounder and name Harry Potter, “but to this the Queen (who had no time for fantasy) invariably said briskly, ‘Yes. One is saving that for a rainy day.’”
Reading Henry James, she bursts, “Oh, do get on,” startling her maid, who scurries from the room. And here we reach an even fatter insight. Not only is reading egalitarian by its very nature, but it tenderizes you. Before, the Queen might not have even noticed her maid’s distress. Now, she registers all sorts of subtleties: nuances of emotion, hints offered by people’s appearance, variations in how they live.
She remains, however, the Queen. Jotting insights as she reads, she scribbles in a margin, “One recipe for happiness is to have no sense of entitlement”—then adds a star and a note at the bottom of the page: “This is not a lesson I have ever been in a position to learn.” Jane Austen is lost on her, those “minute social distinctions” she has never needed to parse. The same disconnect occurs with empowering works of feminism: Elizabeth had to swiftly attain a commanding presence, and the world responded with deference. Yes, she also had to wear nylons and demure skirted suits and matching hats, and she no doubt endured her share of mansplaining from the prime ministers, and she wielded, on purpose, very little real political power—but her social power was vast.
So, no feminist tracts, but there are reams left to read. She begins making excuses—even feigning the sniffles—so she can sneak in more reading. And then she comes to her senses, realizing that she misses her life of duty and purposeful activity. She must do something. “You don’t put your life into your books,” she writes. “You find it there.”
It will spoil nothing to say that the Queen decides to write a book herself, a memoir in which she will find her voice and leave the world a legacy of her experience. “One is often said to have a fund of common sense, but that’s another way of saying one doesn’t have much else.”
The novella ends with a surprise, one too far out of character, I think. Maybe we are reading Bennett’s wishful thinking; maybe it has veered wholly into political satire.
The Queen, with her newfound insights, would be able to tell the difference.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.