The Uncommon Reader

20 March 2013
Written by Diana Kenny
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As Diana Kenny found, the Queen's unexpected pursuit of literature is wittily revealed in this month's book review of Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader

This month’s review book is a little beauty - a novella from Alan Bennett, author of
The History Boys.

The Uncommon Reader is Queen Elizabeth ll and so the title is a play on words – does Uncommon mean being royal as opposed to being a Commoner or is Uncommon meant to convey that she is rare, special or even exceptional?

While out walking the corgis in the palace grounds, the Queen discovers a mobile library. After investigation she thinks she may as well go ahead and borrow a book. With the help of the only other borrower in the van, kitchen-hand Norman Seakins, she chooses a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett - “after all she made her a Dame”. From such simple beginnings an obsession with reading begins.

A sense of duty has prevented the Queen from having hobbies – “hobbies meant preferences and preferences had to be avoided because preferences excluded people”.

Now nearing her eightieth year and with the assistance of Norman, who selects her books, she discovers the joy of reading and a new perspective of the world.

Norman is hired as footman to the annoyance of all, staff and family, but to no avail. Everywhere she goes a book must accompany her. The fact that she has met many of the authors she is now reading is a realisation that comes too late, as several of them are dead. New Zealand gets more than a passing mention. Her private secretary, Sir Kevin Scatchard, is a New Zealander and every opportunity is used to remind him of the fact, much to his discomfort.

Her change in daily habits, wearing the same clothes and jewellery just a little too often and being late for official duties causes conflict and when the unfortunate Sir Kevin engineers a solution of sorts it backfires.  She is the monarch after all.

Bennett’s sharp humour and humanity is evident in every page as the Queen begins to question her way of life and look at her subjects with interest and concern.  One of her discoveries is that as one matures as a reader, the Ivy Compton-Burnett that she found hard going the first time round is a delight when reread months later.  From reading, a natural progression forms – what if she were to write?

As the Queen gradually becomes engrossed in her reading, unwilling to be disturbed for any circumstance, it feels uncomfortably like my own reading habits, but I think that is just the thing about being a reader, Common or Uncommon. 

I can thoroughly recommend this as a good read, witty and extremely well written; Bennett must have enjoyed himself with the composition.  


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