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The Tenderising of Elizabeth Regina
The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett
Member Name: skidd
The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett
Advantages: Readable and amusing
Disadvantages: Does not quite come up to Bennett's usual standards
It's undoubtedly a great premise for a story. The Queen is walking her corgis in the Palace grounds when they scamper off route and start yapping at a Travelling Library parked by the kitchen doors. Embarrassed by their bad behaviour Her Majesty goes in to apologise to the librarian. She considers it might appear rude to depart without borrowing a book but she is on unknown territory as "liking books was something she left to other people ... reading wasn't doing and she was a doer" Therefore she seeks the advice of the librarian and the van's only other occupant Seakins, a palace kitchen hand. Eventually she departs clutching an Ivy Compton Burnett mainly because she remembers making that lady a Dame. When she returns the tome, she seizes upon a Nancy Mitford. "Didn't her sister marry that Mosely man? And the mother-in law of another sister was my mistress of the robes." She finds "The Pursuit of Love" much more to her liking, is quickly drawn into the pleasure of reading and thus embarks on a great literary adventure.
Although regarded as "not pretty enough" by the palace retinue, Seakin is promoted by royal command to the position of an equerry whose sole task is to be the Queen's amanuensis. His initial choices are considered suspect by the librarian as they centre on his own penchant for gay writers but Her Majesty is not fazed. Reading J R Ackerley's account of himself she is not shocked by his sexuality but is surprised that "the Guards seem to be as readily available as the book made out and at such a reasonable tariff!" The reading programme takes on its own momentum and whilst the initial forays are quite indiscriminate, she gradually progresses to the classics and devours Pepys, Tolsoy, Dickens, Hardy, Turgenev,Trollope and even Proust with relish.
The Queen revels in a dimension previously unknown to her. "I read .... because one has a duty to find out what people are like." The appeal lay in the "indifference" of such literature." Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included" and this was a new experience to one who was used to the deference of all. But it is also an experience edged with the regret that she has made this discovery so late in life.
As the Queen's passion develops to the realms of obsession, the establishment become increasingly concerned. She is no longer so dutiful in pursuance of her regal commitments and becomes more unpredictable. Sometimes late for appointments, cutting short briefings with her pompous Private Secretary, Sir Kevin, breaking into an impromptu rendition of Philip Larkin's poem, "The Trees" at a planting ceremony and even, on walkabouts, questioning her subjects on what they were reading rather than the more normal enquiry about how far they had come? Her Majesty was "getting to be what is known as a handful."
All sorts of ruses are used to separate her from her books, including the underhand removal of Seakins from the palace, but with little success. However when the Prime Minister gets annoyed by Ma'am giving him books to read and subsequently questioning him on their content, things have gone too far and the great and the good in Downing Street demand that a stop is put to such behaviour. Sir Kevin enlists the help of Sir Claude, an elderly royal aide, in breaking this addiction and the Queen is quite taken with the old retainer's tentative suggestion that she might take up writing instead. Thus begins her "scribbling" stage which if anything absorbs her even more than the reading. The story progresses to a conclusion which is actually quite inevitable in retrospect but one I have to admit I did not see coming.
Bennett weaves a wonderful and very readable tale and must be admired for packing such a horde of treasures into just one hundred and twenty short pages. His style flows easily and engagingly along and is as witty concise and distinctive as ever. Anybody familiar with the writer's dramatic performances can't fail to hear his voice recounting her Majesty's experiences and the counter measures of her opponents in those rather languid, slightly quizzical tones rendered all the more endearing by the remnants of the northern inflections. There is also warmth and affection in the lines and a definite empathy with the Queen's isolation:-
"I have to seem like a human being all the time but I seldom have to be one. I have people to do that for me."
The affection in Bennett's portrayal of the Queen is matched by his obvious disdain for the sycophants around her whom he skillfully but gently satirises. Accounts of incidents when Her Majesty succeeds in ill disguised games of one upmanship with her Private Secretary or manages to highlight the ignorance of her Prime Minister are told with a certain relish.
"The Uncommon Reader" is unquestionably an erudite, well constructed and memorable piece so why, on each of the three occasions I have reached its final page, have I felt a certain disappointment. It may be that the answer lies more in my expectations than in any shortcoming in the work itself and perhaps if I had come to it without any prior knowledge of the author, my delight would have been unqualified. But this is Alan Bennett who has entertained us for over forty years. From his "Beyond the Fringe" days with Peter Cook and Dudley More in the sixties to his latest play "The History Boys" in the noughties, he has traded on the mundanities of life to entertain with his distinctive brand of humour often born of pathos but never sinking into the morbid. He has attracted such epithets as "national teddy bear", "prose laureate" and "Oracle of Little England". It would be difficult, if not impossible, to approach any of his work without some preconceptions and expectations.
It is difficult to criticise such an established literary figure with so many well deserved accolades but, for me, this is not Bennett at his best. It could be that he is less at home in this genre because his reputation is primarily built on his talent as a playwright. True he has written stories too but these are mostly autobiographical to some degree. However it seems more likely that is down to the subject matter. Choosing the Queen as his main protagonist is something of a departure for Bennett and quite a surprising choice considering he is known to have anti-establishment views and has turned down a CBE and a knighthood. It is not his first foray into the world of royalty; in fact the Queen featured in "A Question of Attribution" which was the story of the spy, Anthony Blunt, during the time he was Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures. However this portrayal of Her Majesty did not involve such depths of character analysis being more of a cameo role exploring the lady's dealings with Blunt. "The Madness of King George" also ventured into regal realms but this also had a factual and historical perspective. As a fictional account of a reigning monarch's perceptions partialities and ideas, "The Uncommon Reader" stands alone in Bennett's repertoire.
The world of the elite may not be a milieu which is beyond Bennett's powerful imagination but maybe it is one in which he is not quite at home. His forte, as displayed in such offerings as "Talking Heads", "A Private Function", "The Lady in the Van", and even "The History Boys" is in what Michael Palin has referred to as "the small print of everyday life". Bennett excels in portraying the minutiae and banality of a world inhabited by the uncelebrated, the commoners, the pretentious, the misfits and the flawed. The very lack of consequence of such personalities (whether they are fictional or real) allows him to portray all their imperfections, eccentricities, deviations and aspirations unfettered by such constraints as must apply when composing a parody in which a living and very widely known monarch is the main protagonist. And this is what comes across, a somewhat restrained and oversimplified version of the Bennett most of us admire.
Why Bennett chose such a subject is quite an enigma. It's tempting to think he was merely seeking a vessel in which to demonstrate his extensive literary knowledge but, as he appears to be quite unassuming without any need to impress, it has to be unlikely. Some commentators suggest it is a crusading work demonstrating the importance of reading but preaching just is not Bennett's style. Others see it as his lament on old age and a wasted life but he has already done this far more effectively in "The Lady in the Van" and in his writings about his mother's last years when she was suffering from Alzheimer's. As Bennett himself is something of an enigma in that he always refuses to be interviewed, it is likely we will never know what motivated him in this choice of material.
Accepting it at face value, it is a charming and amusing tale of a lonely monarch whose life is enriched and transformed when she discovers the joys of reading. It is told with Bennett's usual panache and gentle humour and his eye for detail never fails. Unfortunately it doesn't have the depth or the insight of many of his works. It also seems to miss out on many opportunities for additional humour, for example the Duke of Edinburgh appears only as a slightly tetchy cameo and the other members of the royal family, even those like Charles with good comic mileage, do not figure at all. But it's not a bad way of wiling away a couple of hours as long as it is approached without any expectation of the heights to which Bennett can usually rise.
"Books are wonderful aren't they? At the risk of sounding like a piece of steak, they tenderise one!"
Profile , 2007. ISBN-13 978-1846680496
RRP £10.99 Amazon £6.04
Faber & Faber/Profile, 2008. ISBN-13 978 1846681332
RRP £6.99 Amazon £3.82
BBC Audiobooks, 2007. ISBN-13 978-1405687478
RRP £12.72 Amazon £6.99
Summary: A good read but as a Bennett fan I was disappointed