A Writer’s Review of Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader.
“Goes to the very heart of what literature does.”
ALAN Bennett has made a career out of writing about ordinary people, in fact he seems embroiled in a competition with himself to ‘out-ordinary’ his cast of characters who fade into the wallpaper, noticing the dust and fingerprints on the skirting board as they disappear.
From his gripping Talking Heads series to the divine ordinariness of memoirs about his Yorkshire family in Untold Stories, this has been a fascinating journey into the humour and pathos of the seemingly mundane.
At the other end of his oeuvre sits Bennett’s ruminations on those most would class as ‘extra’-ordinary, most notably in Bennett’s stage- and screenplay The Madness of George III, famously altered to The Madness of King George at the cinema so as not to confuse US audiences about having missed I and II in the series, a ‘Bennettian’ twist if ever there was one.
Written a decade later, The Uncommon Reader is a beguiling companion piece to that previous study of royal character and frailty. Like King George, Queen Elizabeth II is quickly overtaken by something those around her consider madness after a fashion, when she exhibits a surprising appetite to read, and read voraciously.
As the novella’s protagonist, Elizabeth proves every bit as plucky, observant and youthful as a Jane Austen heroine. Reading affords her a sense of escapism and leads her to seek connections with those around her.
But a pervading sense of regret waits around every corner for Her Majesty. As literature becomes the great companion that Bennett observes is missing from this privileged life, it comes with a realisation of enormous opportunities missed.
In this regard, the Queen becomes less Lizzie Bennet and more like the central protagonist in one of Bennett’s monologues, which I’ll speculatively title Mrs Mountbatten Turns Over a New Leaf, in honour of how his characters always seem to find the key to reaching out.
Whether they manage to turn that key – and thereby escape their circumstances – is the rich seam of Bennett’s tragicomic style, and there are some stark differences between the journey of Queen Elizabeth and the classic Talking Heads mix of self-delusion of characters who tend to remain in their comfort zones.
The Uncommon Reader is a divine little diversion, but don’t be fooled by its apparent simplicity.
This book goes to the very heart of what literature does, and how it has the potential to change the world through opening hearts and minds.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.
This article also appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.