Alan Bennett is such a National Treasure (TM) that almost anything he writes – scraps from his diaries, books of movies of plays, TV scripts – is guaranteed to sell. That must be why, after publishing his previous stories such as The Clothes They Stood Up In and Father, Father, Burning Bright! in paperback for £3.99 each, his publishers this time have gone into Right Royal Rip-Off mode and publish his new story, The Uncommon Reader, in hardback at £11. That’s almost 10p a page.
It’s a straightforward tale: Queen Elizabeth II discovers, through some boisterous activity by her corgis, a mobile library in the grounds of Buckingham Palace one day. Through the politeness that has been bred into her, she borrows a book, but doesn’t much like it (it’s Ivy Compton-Burnett).
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.
But then she spots a Nancy Mitford, recognises the name – and the loose family connections – and is hooked by The Pursuit of Love. The Queen becomes a reader.
The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something lofty about literature. 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.
This leads to some light comedy where the Queen, for the first time in her life, begins to become resentful at performing her duties, as they keep her away from her books. She worries about catching up with the classics, not to mention the modern voices of writers she has known purely through granting them honours (and now regrets not having read any of their books at the time, so they could have exchanged more than the usual smalltalk).
The frustration felt by Her Majesty and the equal and opposite irritation by her equerries and family at her persistent tendency to have her nose in a book, is something that all avid readers will recognise. Bennett also finds time for small observations on the value of reading something for oneself rather than being told about it (“Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up”).
There is also a neat coda to the story, in a scene where the Queen gives an address to members of the British cabinet (including asking for a show of hands on who has read Proust). Bennett’s touch has not deserted him, but the slightness of the contents – I’d set aside an hour at most, inclusive of thinking time – doesn’t really match the weight of the price tag.