Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Betty's Book Club

Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader (2007) is a delightfully witty novella which celebrates literature and the joy of (re)discovering the pleasures of reading as an adult.

The story is simple. The City of Westminster travelling library visits Windsor Castle one evening. While out with her corgis, Queen Elizabeth II encounters the van on the palace grounds and feels duty bound to select a book. While she does not like her first choice (Ivy Compton-Burnett), her next selections (Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love) are more to her taste and begins her learning journey.

Her Majesty works her way through many novels, poetry, autobiography and non-fiction. She consumes Henry James, Dick Francis, Shakespeare, Phillip Roth, Vikram Seth, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Johnson, Sylvia Plath, Mary Renault, Anita Brookner and many more. Her commitment to Proust causes her to delay some of her royal engagements. She learns how to wave from her car window while continuing her reading by placing her book at just the right height so as not to be seen by the crowd.

As Her Majesty becomes more of bibliophile she experiences a transformation and begins to see the world differently. She becomes enlightened about issues of class and gender and experiences different emotions. She asks well-wishers and her staff about their reading choices, and questions visiting dignitaries about authors from their homeland.

The Queen’s reading begins to interfere with her work, evidenced by her boredom with official duties and attempts to build more reading time into her daily schedule.  Her personal secretary becomes most dismayed at her new hobby and attempts to quash it on the grounds that reading, “while not exactly elitist, sends the wrong message. It tends to exclude.”

Ultimately, The Uncommon Reader makes a case that reading literature can alter the reader’s outlook on life. The Queen’s regret that she had turned down opportunities to meet many writers (Ted Hughes, TS Eliot and others) is a compelling argument for seizing the day. Writing with humour, intellect and imagination, Bennett subversively hypothesizes about what would happen if the Queen were to become a voracious reader late in her life.