From one of England's most celebrated writers, a funny and superbly observed novella about the Queen of England and the subversive power of reading
When her corgis stray into a mobile library parked near Buckingham Palace, the Queen feels duty-bound to borrow a book. Discovering the joy of reading widely (from J. R. Ackerley, Jean Genet, and Ivy Compton-Burnett to the classics) and intelligently, she finds that her view of the world changes dramatically. Abetted in her newfound obsession by Norman, a young man from the royal kitchens, the Queen comes to question the prescribed order of the world and loses patience with the routines of her role as monarch. Her new passion for reading initially alarms the palace staff and soon leads to surprising and very funny consequences for the country at large.
With the poignant and mischievous wit of The History Boys, England's best loved author revels in the power of literature to change even the most uncommon reader's life.
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About the Author
Alan Bennett is a renowned playwright and essayist whose screenplay for The Madness of King George was nominated for an Academy Award. He lives in London, England.
Alan Bennett has been one of England's leading dramatists since the success of Beyond the Fringe in the 1960s. His work includes the Talking Heads television series, and the stage plays Forty Years On, The Lady in the Van, A Question of Attribution, and The Madness of King George III. His recent play, The History Boys (now a major motion picture), won six Tony Awards, including best play, in 2006. In the same year his memoir, Untold Stories, was a number-one bestseller in the United Kingdom.
Read an Excerpt
The Uncommon Reader
By Alan Bennett
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2007 Forelake Ltd.
All rights reserved.
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.'
'Ah,' said the president. 'Oui.'
The 'Marseillaise' and the national anthem made for a pause in the proceedings, but when they had taken their seats Her Majesty turned to the president and resumed.
'Homosexual and jailbird, was he nevertheless as bad as he was painted? Or, more to the point,' and she took up her soup spoon, 'was he as good?'
Unbriefed on the subject of the glabrous playwright and novelist, the president looked wildly about for his minister of culture. But she was being addressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
'Jean Genet,' said the Queen again, helpfully. 'Vous le connaissez?'
'Bien sûr,' said the president.
'Il m'intéresse,' said the Queen.
'Vraiment?' The president put down his spoon. It was going to be a long evening.
It was the dogs' fault. They were snobs and ordinarily, having been in the garden, would have gone up the front steps, where a footman generally opened them the door.
Today, though, for some reason they careered along the terrace, barking their heads off, and scampered down the steps again and round the end along the side of the house, where she could hear them yapping at something in one of the yards.
It was the City of Westminster travelling library, a large removal-like van parked next to the bins outside one of the kitchen doors. This wasn't a part of the palace she saw much of, and she had certainly never seen the library parked there before, nor presumably had the dogs, hence the din, so having failed in her attempt to calm them down she went up the little steps of the van in order to apologise.
The driver was sitting with his back to her, sticking a label on a book, the only seeming borrower a thin ginger-haired boy in white overalls crouched in the aisle reading. Neither of them took any notice of the new arrival, so she coughed and said, 'I'm sorry about this awful racket,' whereupon the driver got up so suddenly he banged his head on the Reference section and the boy in the aisle scrambled to his feet and upset Photography & Fashion.
She put her head out of the door. 'Shut up this minute, you silly creatures,' which, as had been the move's intention, gave the driver/librarian time to compose himself and the boy to pick up the books.
'One has never seen you here before, Mr ...'
'Hutchings, Your Majesty. Every Wednesday, ma'am.'
'Really? I never knew that. Have you come far?'
'Only from Westminster, ma'am.'
'And you are ...?'
'Norman, ma'am. Seakins.'
'And where do you work?'
'In the kitchens, ma'am.'
'Oh. Do you have much time for reading?'
'Not really, ma'am.'
'I'm the same. Though now that one is here I suppose one ought to borrow a book.'
Mr Hutchings smiled helpfully.
'Is there anything you would recommend?'
'What does Your Majesty like?'
The Queen hesitated, because to tell the truth she wasn't sure. She'd never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn't have hobbies. Jogging, growing roses, chess or rock climbing, cake decoration, model aeroplanes. No. Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; preferences excluded people. One had no preferences. Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself. And besides, reading wasn't doing. She was a doer. So she gazed round the book-lined van and played for time. 'Is one allowed to borrow a book? One doesn't have a ticket?'
'No problem,' said Mr Hutchings.
'One is a pensioner,' said the Queen, not that she was sure that made any difference.
'Ma'am can borrow up to six books.'
Meanwhile the ginger-haired young man had made his choice and given his book to the librarian to stamp. Still playing for time, the Queen picked it up.
'What have you chosen, Mr Seakins?' expecting it to be, well, she wasn't sure what she expected, but it wasn't what it was. 'Oh. Cecil Beaton. Did you know him?'
'No, of course not. You'd be too young. He always used to be round here, snapping away. And a bit of a tartar. Stand here, stand there. Snap, snap. And there's a book about him now?'
'Really? I suppose everyone gets written about sooner or later.'
She riffled through it. 'There's probably a picture of me in it somewhere. Oh yes. That one. Of course, he wasn't just a photographer. He designed, too. Oklahoma!, things like that.'
'I think it was My Fair Lady, ma'am.'
'Oh, was it?' said the Queen, unused to being contradicted. 'Where did you say you worked?' She put the book back in the boy's big red hands.
'In the kitchens, ma'am.'
She had still not solved her problem, knowing that if she left without a book it would seem to Mr Hutchings that the library was somehow lacking. Then on a shelf of rather worn-looking volumes she saw a name she remembered. 'Ivy Compton-Burnett! I can read that.' She took the book out and gave it to Mr Hutchings to stamp.
'What a treat!' she hugged it unconvincingly before opening it. 'Oh. The last time it was taken out was in 1989.'
'She's not a popular author, ma'am.'
'Why, I wonder? I made her a dame.'
Mr Hutchings refrained from saying that this wasn't necessarily the road to the public's heart.
The Queen looked at the photograph on the back of the jacket. 'Yes. I remember that hair, a roll like a pie-crust that went right round her head.' She smiled and Mr Hutchings knew that the visit was over. 'Goodbye.'
He inclined his head as they had told him at the library to do should this eventuality ever arise, and the Queen went off in the direction of the garden with the dogs madly barking again, while Norman, bearing his Cecil Beaton, skirted a chef lounging outside by the bins having a cigarette and went back to the kitchens.
Shutting up the van and driving away, Mr Hutchings reflected that a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett would take some reading. He had never got very far with her himself and thought, rightly, that borrowing the book had just been a polite gesture. Still, it was one that he appreciated and as more than a courtesy. The council was always threatening to cut back on the library, and the patronage of so distinguished a borrower (or customer, as the council preferred to call it) would do him no harm.
'We have a travelling library,' the Queen said to her husband that evening. 'Comes every Wednesday.'
'Jolly good. Wonders never cease.'
'You remember Oklahoma!?'
'Yes. We saw it when we were engaged.' Extraordinary to think of it, the dashing blond boy he had been.
'Was that Cecil Beaton?'
'No idea. Never liked the fellow. Green shoes.'
'A book. I borrowed it.'
'Dead, I suppose.'
'The Beaton fellow.'
'Oh yes. Everybody's dead.'
'Good show, though.'
And he went off to bed glumly singing 'Oh, what a beautiful morning' as the Queen opened her book.
The following week she had intended to give the book to a lady-in-waiting to return, but finding herself taken captive by her private secretary and forced to go through the diary in far greater detail than she thought necessary, she was able to cut off discussion of a tour round a road research laboratory by suddenly declaring that it was Wednesday and she had to go change her book at the travelling library. Her private secretary, Sir Kevin Scatchard, an over-conscientious New Zealander of whom great things were expected, was left to gather up his papers and wonder why ma'am needed a travelling library when she had several of the stationary kind of her own.
Minus the dogs this visit was somewhat calmer, though once again Norman was the only borrower.
'How did you find it, ma'am?' asked Mr Hutchings.
'Dame Ivy? A little dry. And everybody talks the same way, did you notice that?'
'To tell you the truth, ma'am, I never got through more than a few pages. How far did your Majesty get?'
'Oh, to the end. Once I start a book I finish it. That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato – one finishes what's on one's plate. That's always been my philosophy.'
'There was actually no need to have brought the book back, ma'am. We're downsizing and all the books on that shelf are free.'
'You mean I can have it?' She clutched the book to her. 'I'm glad I came. Good afternoon, Mr Seakins. More Cecil Beaton?'
Norman showed her the book he was looking at, this time something on David Hockney. She leafed through it, gazing unperturbed at young men's bottoms hauled out of Californian swimming pools or lying together on unmade beds.
'Some of them,' she said, 'some of them don't seem altogether finished. This one is quite definitely smudged.'
'I think that was his style then, ma'am,' said Norman. 'He's actually quite a good draughtsman.'
The Queen looked at Norman again. 'You work in the kitchens?'
She hadn't really intended to take out another book, but decided that now she was here it was perhaps easier to do it than not, though regarding what book to choose, she felt as baffled as she had been the previous week. The truth was she didn't really want a book at all and certainly not another Ivy Compton-Burnett, which was too hard going altogether.
So it was lucky that this time her eye happened to fall on a reissued volume of Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love. She picked it up. 'Now. Didn't her sister marry the Mosley man?'
Mr Hutchings said he believed she did.
'And the mother-in-law of another sister was my mistress of the robes?'
'I don't know about that, ma'am.'
'Then of course there was the rather sad sister who had the fling with Hitler. And one sister became a Communist. And I think there was another besides. But this is Nancy?'
Novels seldom came as well-connected as this and the Queen felt correspondingly reassured, so it was with some confidence that she gave the book to Mr Hutchings to be stamped.
The Pursuit of Love turned out to be a fortunate choice and in its way a momentous one. Had Her Majesty gone for another duff read, an early George Eliot, say, or a late Henry James, novice reader that she was she might have been put off reading for good and there would be no story to tell. Books, she would have thought, were work.
As it was, with this one she soon became engrossed, and passing her bedroom that night clutching his hot-water bottle, the duke heard her laugh out loud. He put his head round the door. 'All right, old girl?'
'Of course. I'm reading.'
'Again?' And he went off, shaking his head.
The next morning she had a little sniffle and, having no engagements, stayed in bed saying she felt she might be getting flu. This was uncharacteristic and also not true; it was actually so that she could get on with her book.
'The Queen has a slight cold' was what the nation was told, but what it was not told and what the Queen herself did not know was that this was only the first of a series of accommodations, some of them far-reaching, that her reading was going to involve.
The following day the Queen had one of her regular sessions with her private secretary, with as one of the items on the agenda what these days is called 'human resources'.
'In my day,' she had told him, 'it was called "personnel".' Although actually it wasn't. It was called 'the servants'. She mentioned this, too, knowing it would provoke a reaction.
'That could be misconstrued, ma'am,' said Sir Kevin. 'One's aim is always to give the public no cause for offence. "Servants" sends the wrong message.'
'"Human resources",' said the Queen, 'sends no message at all. At least not to me. However, since we're on the subject of human resources, there is one human resource currently working inthe kitchens whom I would like promoted, or at any rate brought upstairs.'
Sir Kevin had never heard of Seakins but on consulting several underlings Norman was eventually located.
'I cannot understand,' said Her Majesty, 'what he is doing in the kitchens in the first place. He's obviously a young man of some intelligence.'
'Not dolly enough,' said the equerry, though to the private secretary not to the Queen. 'Thin, ginger-haired. Have a heart.'
'Madam seems to like him,' said Sir Kevin. 'She wants him on her floor.'
Thus it was that Norman found himself emancipated from washing dishes and fitted (with some difficulty) into a page's uniform and brought into waiting, where one of his first jobs was predictably to do with the library.
Not free the following Wednesday (gymnastics in Nuneaton), the Queen gave Norman her Nancy Mitford to return, telling him that there was apparently a sequel and she wanted to read that, too, plus anything else besides he thought she might fancy.
This commission caused him some anxiety. Well-read up to a point, he was largely self-taught, his reading tending to be determined by whether an author was gay or not. Fairly wide remit though this was, it did narrow things down a bit, particularly when choosing a book for someone else, and the more so when that someone else happened to be the Queen.
Nor was Mr Hutchings much help, except that when he mentioned dogs as a subject that might interest Her Majesty it reminded Norman of something he had read that could fit the bill, J. R. Ackerley's novel My Dog Tulip. Mr Hutchings was dubious, pointing out that it was gay.
'Is it?' said Norman innocently. 'I didn't realise that. She'll think it's just about the dog.'
He took the books up to the Queen's floor and, having been told to make himself as scarce as possible, when the duke came by hid behind a boulle cabinet.
'Saw this extraordinary creature this afternoon,' HRH reported later. 'Ginger-stick-in-waiting.'
'That would be Norman,' said the Queen. 'I met him in the travelling library. He used to work in the kitchens.'
'I can see why,' said the duke.
'He's very intelligent,' said the Queen.
'He'll have to be,' said the duke. 'Looking like that.'
'Tulip,' said the Queen to Norman later. 'Funny name for a dog.'
'It's supposed to be fiction, ma'am, only the author did have a dog in life, an Alsatian.' (He didn't tell her its name was Queenie.) 'So it's really disguised autobiography.'
'Oh,' said the Queen. 'Why disguise it?' Norman thought she would find out when she read the book, but he didn't say so.
'None of his friends liked the dog, ma'am.'
'One knows that feeling very well,' said the Queen, and Norman nodded solemnly, the royal dogs being generally unpopular. The Queen smiled. What a find Norman was. She knew that she inhibited, made people shy, and few of the servants behaved like themselves. Oddity though he was, Norman was himself and seemed incapable of being anything else. That was very rare.
The Queen, though, might have been less pleased had she known that Norman was unaffected by her because she seemed to him so ancient, her royalty obliterated by her seniority. Queen she might be, but she was also an old lady, and since Norman's introduction to the world of work had been via an old people's home on Tyneside, old ladies held no terrors for him. To Norman she was his employer, but her age made her as much patient as Queen and in both capacities to be humoured, though this was, it's true, before he woke up to how sharp she was and how much wasted.
She was also intensely conventional and when she had started to read she thought perhaps she ought to do some of it at least in the place set aside for the purpose, namely the palace library. But though it was called the library and was indeed lined with books, a book was seldom if ever read there. Ultimatums were delivered there, lines drawn, prayer books compiled and marriages decided upon, but should one want to curl up with a book the library was not the place. It was not easy even to lay hands on something to read, as on the open shelves, so-called, the books were sequestered behind locked and gilded grilles. Many of them were priceless, which was another discouragement. No, if reading was to be done it was better done in a place not set aside for it. The Queen thought that there might be a lesson there and she went back upstairs.
Excerpted from The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. Copyright © 2007 Forelake Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Reading Group Guide
About this Guide
The following author biography and list of questions about The Uncommon Reader are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach The Uncommon Reader.