This was my Wishlist Wednesday book last week. It is a book about books, so I knew that I would like it. But unlike most books of this genre which tend to be non-fiction, it is a novel and it features a very real person, the Queen of England who is the uncommon reader in the title.
It begins one afternoon when the Queen is out walking with her dogs and she stumbles upon a mobile library. She gets talking to the librarian about his books and she feels obliged to borrow one. The Queen has never really been a reader. She has read a lot, but most of it was required of her, so she has never experienced reading for pleasure. This book is about her discovery of what it means to be a reader.
It is a premise that is going to appeal to any serious reader and Alan Bennett does a wonderful job of bringing it to life. Queen Elizabeth II feels very real and she comes across as such a charming person, intelligent, interesting, witty and sometimes snarky. As one reader said, we end up hoping that this is the person that she really is. No one knows, of course, but it is nice to think that this portrait of hers might be close to the truth.
She’s eighty years old and she’s never been interested in reading or had any other hobbies because, “hobbies tend to exclude. It is her job to take an interest, but not to be interested herself.”
She borrows that first book out of a feeling of obligation. It is a novel by Ivy Compton Burnett. She finds it hard going, but she reads it all the way through because,
“…That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato—one finishes what’s on one’s plate.”
When she goes back to return it, she feels obliged to borrow another book. This time she picks up Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, which turns out to be a fortunate choice, because she enjoys it thoroughly.
Then she reads the sequel and she picks up a couple of other books and she quickly discovers how one book leads to another and then another, opening doors to all sorts of interesting ideas.
She is accompanied in her reading by Norman Seakins a young man who works in the palace kitchens. She meets him in the mobile library on that first day and she befriends him. She has him promoted to serve on her own floor much to the chagrin of the rest of her staff who think he’s not “dolly” enough to be in that position.
The Queen thinks that Norman is quite the find because unlike most people he is not intimidated by her and he doesn’t hesitate to voice his opinion. He finds books for her, on the internet, in the London Library and so on and they read and they talk about the books they are reading.
There is one particular scene when the Queen is up in Balmoral for the summer and she and Norman are reading Proust…
“It was a foul summer, cold, wet and unproductive, the guns grumbling every evening at their paltry bag. But for the Queen (and for Norman) it was an idyll. Seldom can there have been more of a contrast between the world of the book and the place in which it was read, the pair of them engrossed in the sufferings of Swann, the petty vulgarities of Mme Verdurin and the absurdities of Baron de Charlus, while in the wet butts on the hills the guns cracked out their empty tattoo and the occasional dead and sodden stag was borne past the window.”
It is such an evocative scene.
Not everyone is pleased by the Queen’s reading, though. Her absorption in books makes her less willing to bear with the tedium of all the events and ceremonies that she’s supposed to preside over. It makes her less particular about her clothes and her jewelry. It renders her perpetually late. But worst of all, she begins to ask all her visitors what they are reading and as one of her equerries puts it, “most people aren’t reading anything, the poor dears.”
The more she reads the more the Queen realises how little she knows of literature and how much catching up she needs to do. She regrets all those times when she’d met writers like T S Eliott, E M Foster and Walter de la mare and had nothing to say to them because she hadn’t read anything that they had written…
This is a charming book. It is a novella, a mere 120 pages long. But Alan Bennett has packed an astonishing amount of story, character and detail into those 120 pages. The writing is beautiful. It is witty, sharp and very engaging.
This is one of those rare books that drew me in so completely that the world disappeared for a bit. I would have read it in a single setting, if I’d had the time. As it is, I read it in two. And when I finished, I wanted to start over.