Alan Bennett •
The Uncommon Reader •
It starts like the setup to a joke: The queen of England walks into a mobile library. Once there, she borrows a book out of sheer politeness. It’s by Ivy Compton-Burnett and makes for heavy going, but Her Majesty staunchly reads to the end: “That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato—one finishes what’s on one’s plate.”
And on her return visit, the queen’s eye is caught by a more promising volume. Its author belongs to one of Britain’s distinguished families; its title sounds innocuous and enjoyable. Back at the palace, Her Highness is soon wholly engrossed, laughing out loud at especially good passages and even feigning illness the following day (“The Queen has a slight cold”) so that she can stay in bed and read, read, read.
It doesn’t take long for her new habit to transform the queen’s life. For the first time, Pleasure takes its place alongside Duty. “What she was finding also was how one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren’t long enough for the reading she wanted to do.” Her staff, who Do Not Approve, arrange for her books to be mislaid and her literary assistant to disappear. Never fear; the old girl still has a surprise or two up that ermine-trimmed sleeve.
In his precision, economy of language, and dexterous phrasing, Alan Bennett strongly resembles Truman Capote. But the mischievous glint running throughout the story and its wonderful ending are pure Bennett.
And just what was the book that so captured the royal imagination and touched off this cavalcade of improbable, delightful events? None other than The Pursuit of Love.
Who could have imagined I had so much in common with the queen of England?