A novella, hardly more than a short story, this little book is pure, condensed Alan Bennett from the title onwards. Bennett is best known as a writer for stage, radio and screen including The Madness of King George, The Lady in the Van and The History Boys, all of which are a must-see, preferably on the stage. His two BBC television series, Talking Heads 1988 and Talking Heads 1998 (a series of monologues with almost zero action) were an outstanding success and were reissued with new actors by the BBC in 2020. Bennett’s skills are the gently comedic observation of character, the dramatic twist, a mastery of dialogue and a deep love of playing with the English language. All these qualities are present in The Uncommon Reader. And did I mention that it’s fun?
A common reader is a collection of extracts from texts that is prescribed to a group in the early stages of a course of study. It could also be an ordinary person who reads. The Uncommon Reader of this title is as noble is as it is as possible be, because she is the Queen. Definitely not a commoner. There’s much more to be said about the title that I’m not going to say. Be prepared for layers of meaning. Oh, and fun.
‘It was the dog’s fault…they careered along the terrace…and alongside the house…where she could hear them yapping at something in one of the yards.’
Note the language: ‘terrace’ and ‘yards’ (plural not singular like your back yard or my back yard) suitable terms to describe the environs of a palace but mixed with the common word ‘house’, the word you or I would use for the building we live in.
‘She had never seen the library parked there before, nor presumably had the dogs, hence the din, so having failed in her attempt to calm them down she went up the little steps of the van in order to apologise….“Though now that one is here I suppose one ought to borrow a book.” ’
So begins the Queen’s engagement with reading.
Through his most uncommon character’s thoughts Bennett raises the same questions about reading that you see all over the internet. Who reads anymore? Why not? Whose fault is it that young people don’t read?
Except in this opening scene a young person, a kitchen boy called Norman, is sitting reading in the corner of the travelling library, and an old person, the most senior in the land hesitates.
‘She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something left to other people…Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself. And besides reading wasn’t doing. She was a doer.’
The Queen takes Norman on as her special advisor and plunges into a maelstrom of books that takes over her every free minute, leads to her asking visiting notables what they are reading and upsets her staff, and the prime minister, no end.
‘ “I would have thought,” said the prime minister, “that your majesty was above literature.”
“Above literature?” said the Queen. You might as well say one was above humanity.” ’
Which is one of the many comments about the nature of literature that Bennett inserts to create the subtext of this little book.
‘It was only after a year or so of reading and making notes that she tentatively ventured on the occasional thought of her own. “I think of literature,” she wrote, “as a vast country to the far borders of which I am journeying but will never reach.” ’
Bennett, and the Queen, range far and wide over English literature, even venturing into French. (If you want to see just how many works are referenced look up the Wikipaedia article on The Uncommon Reader.) As she gains confidence the Queen starts to wish some of the authors were still around, ‘so that she could take them to task’.
‘ “Am I alone,’ she wrote, “in wanting to give Henry James a good talking-to?”…“I can see why Dr Johnson is well thought of, but surely, much of it is opinionated rubbish?” ’
But as she reads more and more she finds even Henry James can be enjoyable. A novel, after all, need not be written ‘as the crow flies’.
Much of Bennett’s charm is due to his authorial voice being rooted in his Yorkshire beginnings. Here he is, towards the end of the book, writing about an event at Buckingham Palace, speaking like he’s talking to his mum, only tidied up a bit.
‘ The prospect of a proper tea had fetched the privy councillors out in greater numbers than had been expected; dinner would have been a chore whereas tea was a treat.’
If you want an amusing read that is not a piece of fluff, something to curl up with and make you smile on a rainy winter afternoon, The Uncommon Reader is for you.