One day, the Queen of England is taking her corgis for their usual afternoon walk at the Palace, and they rush past her toward a small trailer just outside the gate, yapping and barking. When she goes in to retrieve them, she discovers that she’s entered the City of Westminster travelling library. Out of politeness, she borrows a book, almost completely at random: a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett. The following week, she goes back to return it, and takes out another: The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford. And with that inspired choice, from then on, readers of The Uncommon Reader, this charming, sharp, subversive, witty novella by Alan Bennett, get to see Queen Elizabeth fall in love with reading.
The novella follows the Queen as she becomes addicted to reading, going through the stages most of us are so familiar with: the daunting sense of how much there is to read, and how little time; the irritation that everyday life gets in the way of reading; the desire to talk about your reading with other people (even those who may be hostile to it); the sense that literature is a muscle you develop, so that books that didn’t make sense to you at one stage of your life may be perfect for you when you have more experience. In this sense, the Queen is a very common reader, just like the rest of us. For me, half the pleasure of the book was getting to see someone else learn to love to read.
But she is also an uncommon reader. She has lived through decades of history as a major player. She has met authors, artists, politicians, prime ministers, kings, and bishops — every notable the world has to offer. She has travelled to every country and received greetings in every tongue. And as Bennett presents it, she finally defines herself, not as a spectator, but as a doer. Reading is witnessing life in all its glorious multiplicity. Writing is the doing of it.
Most of the reviews I’ve read of The Uncommon Reader, including the blurbs on the back of the book itself, emphasize how funny this novella is. And it is funny, or rather witty — I laughed out loud several times. But to my mind, the overwhelming sense of it was not comic. The Queen has a strong sense of regret, and of the passing of time, that gives it a tinge of melancholy, and there is also a definite sense that other people do not always understand the love of reading, and that it can be isolating. The conclusion is strong and subversive. It will make you think, and nod assent, but it won’t make you laugh.
My understanding is that the Queen herself read this book, and loved it. So did I. And I predict that you, a reader (common or un-) will love it, too.