Monday, 6 February 2012

A Very Uncommon Queen

This knitted Queen, from 
Knit Your Own Royal
Wedding, by Fiona
Goble, looks such fun
I may make one

Well, it’s the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne, so here are some reading suggestions for those who want to escape the brouhaha which surrounds the event. Firstly there’s Sue Townsend’s ‘The Queen and I’, in which England has become a republic and the royal family has been banished to a grotty council estate. I am not a huge fan of Townsend (I’m always inclined to think one reading of any of her work is enough) but she is very funny, and this would be a good antidote to the current monarchy mania – although I think the ending is a bit of a let-down, and I most certainly would not have written it like that.

Better still is Alan Bennett’s ‘The Uncommon Reader’, which I wrote about on my other site when I first started blogging.  At the centre of this novel (or perhaps I should say novella, since it is very short) is the Queen, older, wiser and more human – albeit more selfish – than she appears in Bennett’s ‘A Question of Attribution’. Here, in pursuit of barking corgis, she stumbles upon a mobile library van which calls at Buckingham Palace once a week, and consequently discovers the joys of reading. Her first book, by Ivy Compton-Burnett, is selected because she made the author a dame.  “Yes, I remember that hair, a roll like a pie-crust that went right round her head,” she recalls.

Aided and abetted by kitchen boy Norman, Her Majesty becomes an obsessive reader, and begins to resent time spent on official engagements, although travel can be put to good use: in a state coach she waves with one hand while holding a book with the other, hidden from view – reminding me of the days when I wedged a book beneath the lid of a school desk. I rejoiced as ER enjoyed my own favourites and, spurred on by her enthusiasm, vowed to extend my own reading and try something new (though I have to admit I still haven’t got round to trying Proust).

The Queen soon realises what many of us already know, that ‘novels are not necessarily written as the crow flies. And that reading leads to more reading as you chase allusions, check out facts, hunt for answers and search for truths. Her staff may wonder if she is going senile, but she has a sharp wit.  “A book is a device to ignite the imagination,” she tells a footman who tries to tell her a missing book has been confiscated by security and may have been exploded. And when her private secretary suggests she would better to stick with reading briefings, she says – with some asperity – that briefing is not reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point” she adds. “Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject. Reading opens it up.”

Her Majesty is, says Bennett, strangely democratic and approaches books ‘without prejudice’. They are ‘uncharted country’, so initially she makes no distinctions, and she likes the fact that ‘all readers are equal, herself included. Gradually she begins to discriminate, She develop eclectic tastes, writes notes on what she reads, and takes to discussing books with the people she meets – to the horror of her staff, who disapprove of her hobby. They search for a way to stop her reading, but the solution disturbs them even more, for the Queen decides she will devote the rest of her life writing…

Alan Bennett
If you’ve never read this, please, please, remedy the omission as soon as possible.  It’s a delight from beginning to end, literate, understated, quintessentially English, and beautifully written and constructed. Bennett always manages to use the perfect word in exactly the right place, and this is full of his usual wry, detached observations of the minutia of everyday life and human behaviour.

And if the real Queen does not resemble the character portrayed by Bennett, then she should try a little harder to match the image – his creation is up there with the Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas. Childish of me I know, but I really do want her to exist.


  1. This book sounds good. I've seen it at the library but didn't know what it was about. I will have to check it out.

  2. Judaye, Please do! It's not very long (my edition is only 121 pages) but is very funny, in a quiet kind of way, and is very easy to read. Let me know how you get on.

  3. I thought this book was superbly funny! I loved the idea of the mobile library parked around the side of Buckingham Palace and Her Maj wandering in by mistake. I liked it so much, I recently gave it to a friend as a present. I love listening to Alan Bennett when he's interviewed on the radio, his voice is great and I couldn't help reading this book with his voice in my head! Sarah