The thing with babies is that you think you’re just beginning to get it sorted and then something changes. In this instance, Vita got ill. Which meant that she stopped sleeping. Which meant that I stopped sleeping. Which meant that I got ill.
It was horrid, but at least it happened when we were staying with the husband’s grandparents in Jersey, together with the rest of the in-laws, so there were masses of people around to help look after Vita. This meant that I got to spend a whole day in bed, with the sprog being brought in every few hours for a feed. True, I felt ghastly with a high temperature, sicking up my guts and fainting etc., but there was something about having a whole day of lying around not having to do anything other than try to stomach a bit of an oatcake which was undeniably heavenly.
It meant that I could READ!
One of the many good things about staying with the husband’s grandparents is that their house is filled with books. Bursting with books. Thousands and thousands of them. Each room is filled with its own literary delights – beautiful collections of poetry in the drawing room, old-fashioned children’s books in the breakfast room, detective stories in one bedroom, novels with an Austen theme in another …
It just so happened that in my room, aka the sick bay, there was a copy of Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. This is a book I’ve been meaning to read for years (I even own a copy, languishing on a shelf somewhere) and I’ve often wondered why I’ve never quite got around to reading it; it’s very slim, after all. But I now think The Uncommon Reader and I must have been waiting for this exact time and place.
It was perfect. Better even than paracetamol downed with a can of coke.
It is not a modern take on Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader, it is a clever, funny novella about The Queen (yes that uncommon reader) discovering a love of reading.
It begins when she happens upon a mobile library parked round the back of the palace. She takes out a book of Ivy Compton Burnett, dutifully struggles through it, and returns for a Nancy Mitford. She is soon hooked on books, and begins to resent her usual duties:
She was dreading the two hours the whole thing was due to take, though fortunately they were in the coach, not the open carriage, so she could take along her book. She’d got quite good at reading and waving, the trick being to keep the book below the level of the window and to keep focused on it and not on the crowds.
The Queen wonders why she has become so addicted to reading, what it is about it which she finds so enthralling. She reflects:
Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic … It was anonymous; it was shared; it was common. And she who had led a life apart now found that she craved it.
There is something almost revolutionary in this! The Queen likes a republic! But she has struck the nail on the head – this ‘uncommon reader’ rejoices in the commonality of books. The common ground that books provide happens to be my favourite thing about them too. It is such an easy way to strike up a conversation with someone, with anyone. You can be entirely different from someone in terms of age, gender, politics, religion, and everything else, and yet, if you’ve both read the same book, you have something great to discuss.
What follows is an enjoyable, imaginative foray into what the Queen enjoys reading – E.M. Forster, Proust, Anita Brookner, Vikram Seth, Henry James, Alice Munro, the poetry of Larkin and Hardy, and, alas, not Harry Potter (‘one is saving that for a rainy day’), and her various aides’ feeble attempts to keep this dangerous new habit under control.
Moreover, the Queen is moved to jot down a few words of her own: some notes on her reading and on life itself. So, like many keen readers, the Queen feels the pull of writing … and comes to face the conundrum of how she can both reign and write. You had better read the book to find out her solution.
The Uncommon Reader provides a charming, imaginative glimpse into how the Queen might live, somewhat terrorised by her many equerries, and tyrannised by her many tedious appointments. There’s a good digression about the Royal family’s ‘supposedly unguarded moments’, for instance the late Queen Mother muttering ‘I could murder a gin and tonic’. Bennett reveals that these are in truth ‘just as much a performance as the royal family at its most hieratic’:
This show, or sideshow, might be called playing at being normal and is as contrived as the most formal public appearance, even though those who witness or overhear it think that this is the Queen and her family at their most human and natural.
Word gets back to the Queen’s equerries that these seemingly human moments are occurring less often. They are disgruntled but unable to say anything, as they too are in on the pretence of these not being a performance. When one ventures to tell the Queen she was ‘less spontaneous this morning’, she confesses to having ‘almost maternal’ feelings to her subjects. The equerry is embarrassed:
This was a truly human side to the monarch of which he’d never been previously aware and which (unlike its counterfeit versions) he did not altogether welcome. And whereas the Queen herself thought that such feelings probably arose out of her reading books, the young man felt it might be that she was beginning to show her age. Thus it was that the dawn of sensibility was mistaken for the onset of senility.
Alan Bennett is brilliant at showing the ridiculous Catch 22 of the Queen’s situation. She is expected to seem natural, but when she actually is natural, she disappoints. And he writes with such style – Austenish in his balancing of observation, wit and poignancy. That last sentence, for instance, is a winner:
Thus it was that the dawn of sensibility was mistaken for the onset of senility.
The Uncommon Reader is very short, very funny and very clever. It is very British. But really what I loved about it most, was reading about someone discovering a love of reading. There is nothing better than witnessing the dawning of this great joy, and, rather soppily, it made me feel very excited about Vita making the same discovery in years to come.
Finally, a note to say that, wonderfully, you can listen to the talks from the Daunt Books Festival here.