At Windsor it was the evening of the state banquet and as the president of France took his place beside Her Majesty, the royal family formed up behind and the procession slowly moved off and through into the Waterloo Chamber.
‘Now that I have you to myself,’ said the Queen, smiling to left and right as they glided through the glittering throng, ‘I’ve been longing to ask you about the writer Jean Genet.’
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett is a fanciful novella based on a sure-fire premise–what would happen if the Queen of England became obsessed with reading? Quite by accident, Elizabeth II wonders into the mobile library parked outside of the palace. In order to maintain appearances and not embarras the elderly man who runs the book mobile, she checks out a book, something she has never done before. Next week she checks out another and is soon hooked on the pleasures of the page. The mobile library program is soon discontinued, so Her Majesty promotes one of her more bookish staff members who becomes her print procurer. He brings Elizabeth, who does not know what she should read never having bothered about it before, a range of books– some she enjoys, some she slogs through, but every last one she finishes. She is not the kind of reader who’ll give up on a book before the end.
Soon her passion for reading becomes a problem for the staff. For decades the Queen has met a long stream of people, high and low, for whom meeting her is a great honor. She has perfected the art of small talk, asking each about their journey to the palace, or wherever they are meeting, in such a way that they are soon at ease. Afterwards, they have no memory of what they talked about, but they do remember meeting the Queen and how nice she was. After discovering her passion for books, she begins to ask everyone what they are reading or have they read such-and-such or what do they think about this author. Those meeting her for the first time, very nervous to begin with, are soon confronted with a sort of quiz that leaves them feeling inadequate at best. Her Majesty rarely meets anyone who has read anything.
The problems escalate as the novella progresses ending in a last line that left me delighted and laughing out loud. If you have not read The Uncommon Reader yet you are in for a treat. Elizabeth and her obsession with books are believable and make for enjoyable reading. The book is very humorous and written with a light touch that always keeps the satire from biting too hard. Mr. Bennett has brought Queen Elizabeth to life, so to speak, before and he does so in The Uncommon Reader with the touch of a master. I have no idea what Queen Elizabeth is really like, but I hope she’s something like Mr. Bennett portrays her. I think I’d be disappointed if she were otherwise.
This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2008. I’m re-running it today, while the people of Scotland vote for or against independance. However the vote turns out, I’m sure there will be many books about it. Maybe Queen Elizabeth will read one or two.