The Uncommon Reader

Alan Bennett’s slim hilarious novella was a real treasure, a find from BEA. I devoured it with tremendous pleasure and am happy to see it got some attention on Sunday the 30th. (You can read the first chapter here. It'll hook you.)

The premise is silly and delightful: that the Queen (unnamed beyond her title but very like the current holder of the English throne) stumbles into a bookmobile one day when her dogs get loose. Too polite, too aware of her dumbfounding effect on commoners, she checks out a book: Ivy Compton-Burnett. This permits some small talk and necessitates, awkwardly, a return the following week. Again, overcome by her own politeness, she returns Compton-Burnett and checks out the well-pedigreed Nancy Mitford.

One thing turns to another, and the Queen becomes a Reader. Soon, she is disrupted state dinners with quotations from literature, unnerving the President of France by asking him about Jean Genet. Suddenly, bootblacks and cooks who read get promoted over the political animals who have no time for thought. Palace machinations and retributions ensue. Prince Philip, heading down the hall with his hot water bottle, distinctly puzzled at the sight of his wife so absorbed in a book.

I picked this book up because Bennett, author of a teleplay entitled Me, I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf, plays on Woolf’s literary criticism (The Common Reader, I & II) in his title. Not yet having read the teleplay (note to self: must read teleplay), this new book seems like a great entrée into Bennet’s thinking on Woolf and reading.

And it is: I read it a month ago and life does call me to return, so I can’t articulate the notion precisely here. Here’s an initial crack: Bennett, like a lot of English male writers, resents the ascendancy of Woolf and Bloomsbury snobbery in general failing to recognize how far her shares her generous sense that literature should be--is--open to all readers.

The Uncommon Reader is a delightful pun on that notion of common and commoner: the Queen is the opposite of common and yet she falls in love with reading in the most common and familiar way and, like all of us who are committed readers, her reading consumes her, competes with her life, in ways that have unpredictable consequences.