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If Alan Bennett had written “The Uncommon Reader”, a couple of centuries ago, his head would have been served on a platter – literally. And undeservedly so. For this is a book, which I fervently and jealously wish I had written. One part refreshing and two parts humorous, “The Uncommon Reader” has at its frontispiece a septuagenarian Queen Elizabeth suddenly bitten by the reading bug and transforming into a voracious and incorrigible reader. This spontaneously acquired habit also launches Her Majesty into a threnody dissecting the very purpose of life.
Chasing after her unruly Corgis, the Queen, to her astonishment stumbles upon a mobile library parked adjacent the Buck House Kitchens. Mr. Hutchings the person in charge of the library is engaged in the process of stamping a book which is being borrowed by Norman Seakins, a ginger haired autodidact gay, who also happens to man the kitchens. Not to disappoint a flabbergasted Mr. Hutchings and his young patron, the Queen borrows at random a book written by Ivy Compton Burnett (an author who was made Dame by the Queen herself). This unplanned event sets into motion an extraordinary chain of events. Slogging through Compton Burnett, the Queen borrows a Nancy Mitford book the next week.
Very soon, Norman is relieved of his kitchen duties and is promoted to the rank of a page. His sole chore is to recommend books which may be to her Majesty’s liking. He soon does a capital job of his designated duty when Her Majesty makes rampant inroads into the world of literature. Going through Proust, Balzac, Turgenev, Trollope and Hardy like a knife scything through butter, the Queen becomes indifferent and lethargic to all her other royal duties. Reading absorbs her every living moment. Even on her way to the customary inauguration of the Parliament at the beginning of a year, she smuggles an Anita Brookner to keep her occupied on her short journey, much to the chagrin of her tetchy husband.
The Queen’s courtiers detest the reading predilection of the Queen, her personal Secretary, Sir Kevin Scatchard (“an over contentious New Zealander”), finds the Queen’s dereliction of duties to be abhorrent, and the Prime Minister is rendered absolutely non plussed by Her Majesty’s repeated references to authors and their capabilities, that intersperse and interrupt discussions of national importance. A scheming coterie finally decides that the only way of bringing the Queen back to reality is by separating her from the company of Norman, who by now has become to her what Abdul, a humble servant from India was to Queen Victoria. So when the Queen is off on a trip to verdant Wales, Norman is packed off to the University of Anglia under the ruse of a sponsorship, for pursuing a Creative Writing course.
Bennett, with a degree of uncommon dexterity, juxtaposes humour with introspection. Along with the continuous honing and refining of the reading habit, comes an epiphanic realisation that the Queen has missed out on a great deal in life. “She had been reading one of the several lives of Sylvia Plath and was actually quite happy to have missed most of that, but reading the memoirs of Lauren Bacall, she could not help feeling that Ms. Bacall had had a much better bite at the carrot and, slightly to her surprise, found herself envying her for it.”
She also mulls over lost opportunities to engage a multitude of phenomenal writers in a more purposeful manner. Even when being in close proximity with the likes of T.S.Eliot and Philip Larkin, whom she has happened to host, the Queen never deemed it appropriate to understand the complexities and intricacies of their craft. But the greatest lesson for her comes from viewing books as the great leveler. Books do not defer to anyone and neither do they follow hierarchies of class or custom.
Finally, after exhausting all possible ‘remedies’, the Palace resorts to one last and powerful weapon. Persuading Sir Claude, a loyal family confidante, who is now an absolute relic, to convince the Queen to ditch her incorrigible dalliance with books, the royal coterie arranges an appointment for Sir Claude with the Queen. In a sudden and unexpected bout of inspiration, the sleepy and senile Sir Claude waffles that the Queen, instead of reading, must try her hand at writing. This sets off another unwanted predicament as the Queen embraces this suggestion with phenomenal eagerness!
Queen Elizabeth is not known for nursing a passion towards reading. While a multitude of people have seen her at the Royal Ascot cheering on her favourite horse or cuddling her Corgis, there haven’t been enough (or any) pictures or videos of her engrossed in reading. In fact, an author has the Queen asking whether Dante was a horse, or a jockey. Using wicked wit and memorable conjecture, Bennett initially asks what if the Queen was to morph into a ravenous reader, before answering the question himself in a superbly imaginative vein.
Bennett leaves his readers thirsting for a Queen who with a book in her hand assumes a quality that is earthy yet refined; accommodating yet determined. This is a Queen who asks her subjects what is it that they are reading at the moment and whether the author is worth recommending. This is also a Queen who understands the futility of conventions, notwithstanding their richness, and all the alternative opportunities such customs obfuscate. This is a Queen who leaves behind her contrails of humour, hope and happiness. More than anything else this is a Queen who has been softened by the influential power of books, thus making her more receptive to people, who otherwise find themselves removed from her by many degrees and times.
“The Uncommon Reader” is a virtuoso at his magnificent best. An impresario who unfailingly comes up with the goods when it matters the most. Thus one can never equate Alan Bennett with what the Queen alludes to when introduced to Samuel Johnson, “I can see why Dr. Johnson is well thought of, but surely, much of it is opinionated rubbish?”