I recently returned from a trip to London so I am currently all things Anglophile. While I was there I had opportunity to see a play by playwright, novelist, memoirist and, one might say, satirist Alan Bennett. He’s not all that well known on this side of the pond, but in Britain he seems to be something of a national treasure. He’s incredibly prolific and currently has two plays running in London, one at the National and one in the West End. You might know him as the author of The History Boys which was made into a film a few years ago or perhaps The Madness of King George. He also made something of a splash in America in the early 90’s with Talking Heads a series of monologues now easily found on Youtube (check out the Dowager Countess herself performing one here). So if you didn’t know his work previously, I hope you’ll enjoy it now.
After I got back I wanted a bit more Alan Bennett so I downloaded his 2007 novella The Uncommon Reader. It’s a wonderful book about books, about writing and the about the ways in which literature subtly work its charms us. In Bennett’s fantasia, Queen Elizabeth II is walking the corgies outside Windsor Castle when she she comes upon the local bookmobile. Out of politiness she takes a book, which leads to another book, then another and then new lifetime of reading for HMQ as she devours everything she can get her hands on – from the memoirs of Lauren Bacall to less fictionalized ones of Marcel Proust. It’s a marvelously funny work, yet rather poignant as the Queen’s understanding of the world and her own limitations come into focus through her reading. But best of all, she begins to develop something along the line of empathy, which I would imagine would be tough for someone who had been raised to believe they were chosen by God for their position. And after all, isn’t that one of the beauties of art in whatever form it comes – that we can see the world through someone eyes and take on another point of view? So, if HMQ can begin to question her ingrained beliefs and thoughts after reading then literature holds hope for all of us!
At one point she reads a book of short stories by Alice Munro and then experiences absolute delight when she realizes that there are a number of other book by Munro to be enjoyed – a feeling a think most readers can identify with. In the novella the Queen reads actual books and I’ve come away with a whole new list of books and authors to read. Next up, J.R. Ackerley’s We Think the World of You. Thanks Mr. Bennett!