Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader isn’t really a novel; it’s more of a long short story – a novella, perhaps – which first appeared in The London Review of Books in 2007. The titular uncommon reader is Queen Elizabeth II, who finds herself by accident (thanks to her unruly corgis) in a mobile library in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. It seems rude to leave without borrowing a book – so she does so; and thus begins an obsession with the written word that plunges her advisors into despair. Soon, the Queen is neglecting her ceremonial duties in favour of her books, and nonplussing her adoring subjects by asking them what they’re reading instead of where they’ve travelled from. And when she actually starts talking about writing a book…
The nice thing about The Uncommon Reader is that it takes a joke and weaves it into something a bit more layered, a reflection on the nature of reading and on the nature of the British monarchy. The Queen’s reading embarks her on a process of becoming specific, transforming from a symbol of authority to a person who can use that authority – though, fortunately, what she mainly uses it for is to obtain more books. In other words, the Queen’s encounter with other minds, other selves through her reading forces her to define her own self, to differentiate her self from theirs: she transforms from object to subject, and begins to have her own opinions.
Hence the consternation of her staff, because that process of selfhood proves incompatible with effective queening. The political neutrality we’ve come to see as emblematic of the modern monarchy is gone: instead of finding common conversational ground – or seeming to, at any rate – with everyone she meets, whether that’s the ambassador of France or the person handing her a bunch of flowers at a hospital opening, she’s looking to have proper, in-depth conversations about reading, which her advisors see as elitist and out of touch. (And they are not, in fact, entirely wrong: Bennett’s Queen Elizabeth shares the sneering contempt for genre fiction that much of the British literary establishment still displays.) What they mean, of course, is that a reading Queen, a Queen with her own opinions and her own established selfhood, is no longer a mouthpiece for the government: she’s a separate entity, with a constitutional power that is suddenly threatening. Like an eighty-year-old Katniss Everdeen, she’s pushing back against an oppressive structure that allows her only one role to play.
Lest we start, through the empathy of reading, feeling sorry for the real Queen, though, it’s probably a good idea to remember that the monarchy’s image of neutrality and universal accessibility – is there anyone in England who really, virulently hates the Queen? I honestly don’t think so – is largely one of her own creation. Her father, George V, defied constitutional law to show support for Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler; her uncle, Edward VIII, chose marriage to a divorcee over remaining king. And Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria, still effectively had some political power. No: although the concept of a politically neutral monarchy existed before Elizabeth came to the throne, she has played a key part, over her extraordinarily long reign, in constructing the image of the monarchy that we all now take for granted.
Where does that leave The Uncommon Reader? It’s an interesting look at what reading can do, its bourgeois interpretation of what “good” reading looks like leavened a little by the Queen’s footman Norman, whose reading choice is dictated by whether or not the author is gay. Bennett’s portrait of the Queen is sprinkled, as all good comedy is, by a note of the tragic: her sadness at realising that she has missed a lifetime of reading, and will never catch up no matter how hard she tries. And its analysis of what the monarchy is is sound. But to cast the Queen as a trapped woman bound to passive compliance with her ceremonial role, like some Earl of Gormenghast, when in fact she is a dedicated and canny leader, is disingenuousness itself.