Thursday, August 6, 2009

"At Windsor it was the evening of the state banquet ..."

After a few recent positive reviews from other bloggers, I couldn't wait to read The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. I guess I wasn't paying enough attention because I didn't realize (or didn't remember) that it was a novella so I was a bit surprised when I picked it up at the library. Little did I know that this small book is packed with a large amount of spirit, intelligence and social commentary. It was really a fantastic one-evening read.

The brief summary of this book is that the Queen's corgis go for a run and find the mobile library parked near the back of the palace. She steps in to apologize for their vocal assault on the truck and then feels obligated to borrow a book. The next week, she decides to go in person to return the book and ends up choosing another. Her interest in books grows and she starts spending all of her free time reading. For various reasons, most of her staff and family don't approve and she must analyze why she has decided to become a reader at this point in her life.

This was an incredibly sweet and yet honest look at a very private woman. It is of course fictional and therefore Bennett was free to take some liberties but I would assume that if he had taken anything too far, we wouldn't be reading this novella! I will leave you with a passage that I found quite amusing and yet it has some poignant social insight.
The librarian at Windsor had been one of many who had urged on Her Majesty the charms of Jane Austen, but being told on all sides how much ma'am would like her books put ma'am off altogether. Besides, she had handicaps as a reader of Jane Austen that were peculiarly her own. The essence of Jane Austen lies in minute social distinctions, distinctions which the Queen's unique position made it difficult for her to grasp. There was such a chasm between the monarch and even her grandest subject that the social differences beyond that were somewhat telescoped. So the social distinctions of which Jane Austen made so much seemed of even less consequence to the Queen than they did to the ordinary reader, thus making the novels much harder going."

Wondering what makes me a reader and what being a reader makes me,

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  1. I really enjoyed this (and I like your implication that the Queen would have had Bennett beheaded if she didn't like what he said!) What did you think of the "twist" at the end?

  2. Jenny - I thought the twist seemed a bit TOO unlikely. It made me chuckle a bit but then I just thought "no way" ... reading wouldn't change your nature and the Queen's nature is to rule and serve. What did you think?