07 March 2008
She’s Got A Ticket To Read
The Uncommon Reader
By Alan Bennett
The English playwright Alan Bennett, whose Tony-winning play The History Boys (2006) about two teachers coaching their pupils into faking it to get into Oxford, was turned into an equally acclaimed film, now sails forth into virgin territory. In his new delicious novella Bennett cheekily imagines the consequences, inner and outer, happy and otherwise, of the Queen falling in love with books.
In this realist fantasy, Britain’s constitutional monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, incidentally discovers a visiting mobile-library van in a Buckingham palace courtyard, alerted to its presence by the her two excited corgis. She ends up not just borrowing a book, after coming to know that she was the library’s patron, but also meeting a ginger-haired bookworm kitchen hand Norman, who would soon become her partner-in-reading and amanuensis, a commission that required of him to source books for Her Majesty, earning him the envy of other pages for being ‘on a cushy number.’ Thus begins a moving, intelligent account of a queen finding humanity in ‘the commonwealth of books.’
One of the first few books she reads is My Dog Tulip, a poignant account of his much hated Alsatian bitch by the famous homosexual J. R. Ackerley. It was Norman’s choice: ‘nancy’ is the word the Alastair Campbell-like special adviser to a Tony Blair-like Prime Minister uses for Norman, ‘whose reading tending to be determined by whether an author was gay or not.’ When she wonders aloud what a strange name ‘Tulip’ was for a dog, in deference to the ‘intensely conventional’ ‘old lady’ ‘to be humoured,’ he imagines Her Majesty to be, Norman thinks it prudent not to tell H.R.H that the dog's real name was 'Queenie.' Norman though soon wakes up ‘to how sharp she was and how much wasted,’ which also alerts the reader to the notion that Norman is Bennett’s altar ego.
‘One book led to another, doors kept opening till the days weren’t long enough for the reading she wanted to do.’ Soon the queen is reading in the bed, on the way to the parliament, at Balmoral, experiencing the initial exhilaration of discovery and adventure not different from the thrill she felt when as a girl when ‘she and her sister had slipped out of the gates and mingled unrecognised with the crowds’ on the VE night.
She approaches each book without prejudice, though even a queen has limits to what she can understand: her top-of-the-heap perspective prevents her relishing Jane Austen, unable to dig the fine social differences that fueled Austen's narratives. From a self-conscious reader who needed reasons to read (‘one has a duty to find out what people are like’) to ‘sailing through books which she would have thought beyond her,’ she reaches a point where she can’t stand ‘the twaddle she was called to deliver,’ that was meant to be her address to the nation.
Bennett soon turns what could have been an empty comic tale and no more, into into a Bildungsroman intertwined with an insightful discourse on reading. Where Shekhar Kapur tried to show his queen struggling with her humanness, seeking transcendence and ascension to become one with her divine facade, Bennett’s more real queen, more credulously and relatably, embraces her humanity when she discovers it. Avatar-like she regrets, ‘‘I have to seem like a human being all the time, but I seldom have to be one. I have people to do that for me.’’
She makes amends. Once ‘to her everyone’s name was immaterial, as indeed everything else, their clothes, their voice, their class. She was a genuine democrat, perhaps the only one in the country.’ Now thick into her obsession, she cannot help noticing people’s appearances and names. And many other transformations that mark her, she learns humility and she does away with many pretences, for one she ‘does not hide her shortcomings or her lack of cultural credentials.’ The palace establishment notices that the queen’s ‘performances’ during public engagements are suffering from her dropped appearances.
The queen’s bibliophilia is a boon to her family, glad that she now ‘chivvied them hardly.’ The palace establishment is least amused. It is suggested that she ‘harnesses her reading to some larger purpose,’ to make it appear less ‘solipsistic.’ She is soon regarded as ‘getting to be what is known as a handful.’ When she makes her Prime Minister the subject of her biblio-evangelism, offering him books on Iran to help him with the Middle East problem, her private secretary is warned by the Prime Minister’s special adviser to ask the queen ‘to knock it off.’ She realises ruefully that her ‘dawn of sensibility was mistaken for the onset of senility.’
At one point, the bildungsroman and the meditation on reading merge when the queen has an epiphanic moment, realising, ‘I have no voice,’ the writerly 'voice' which immortalises writers. Being a mere reader, she fears leaving no legacy of the momentous engagement between a queen and books. Thus begins a new chapter in the education of the queen, and her minders.
The basic assumption of course is that the real queen is obsessive about her horses, corgis, and hats, is not intellectually or spiritually rather only materially inclined. Bennett’s book written against such backdrop might have run the risk of being construed as a tactless, and written in bad taste, and as presumptuous, unsolicited advice.
But so sympathetic, even flattering, is Bennett’s portrayal of the queen, it would not be in the realm of fantasy to imagine the real queen intently reading this book, chuckling all the time, and perhaps wiping away a stray tear, or even hesitantly walking a few steps towards one of the palaces’ libraries, curious, if not to ready, to explore the world of books, but to see how she might in real life respond to their pull.