To begin, I must confess an unabashed affection for England and Queen Elizabeth. (Not so much the rest of the Royal Family. But we all have crazy relatives, right?) I cannot pinpoint exactly what it is about her that I find so admirable. Perhaps it is her constancy. You know what to expect from the Queen, and she doesn't disappoint. That is not a coin of common value. So, I was geared up to enjoy The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, and I was not disappointed. As the story opens, the Queen is engaged in a "walkies" with her corgis. When they suddenly dash around a corner, she chases after them, following the noise of their yapping. She finds them outside a mobile library van parked outside of Buckingham Palace in an area she seldom frequents (presumably the dodgy part - if there is one). Her Majesty is unstintingly polite, and in an effort to apologize to the driver for the din caused by her canines, she borrows a book (notwithstanding that she has a vast library available to her at "home"). Such a distinguished borrower could only encourage patronage of the library, to be sure. With no intention of actually reading the novel by Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett (she does, indeed, remember elevating her to Dame) the Queen returns to the palace with book in hand. But she does read it...to the end. "Once I start a book I finish it. That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato - one finishes what's on one's plate. That's always been my philosophy." And so she begins an odyssey into the realm of human experience in a way that was heretofore impossible for her. Reading, you see, was "anonymous; it was shared; it was common. And she who had led a life apart now found that she craved it. Here in these pages and between these covers she could go unrecognized."
The more the Queen read, the more captivated by reading she became. And like most of us, she was awed by the sheer endlessness of the enterprise - so many books, so little time. "I have started too late. I will never catch up," was an unrelenting thought. As her reading developed, she began to jot down her thoughts into notebooks - and then to actually discuss the themes of certain books with members of her staff. (She abandoned the latter as it seemed to make people uneasy when she shared her thoughts so "promiscuously.") Nevertheless, she filled notebook after notebook. As with most things in life, one thing leads to another. Passionate readers often become passionate writers. In this way, the Queen was no different. The story ends with a tongue-in-cheek cliffhanger.
I loved this little book. Only 120 pages long, I longed for more. Alan Bennett not only tells his tale with deft and humor, for me he captured the timbre and tenor of the Queen's voice. I could hear her speaking the dialogue; I could see her absentmindedly throwing biscuits to her dogs to keep them quiet while she read. I could see her waiving to the crowd from her carriage, but with eyes down, lost in the pages of her book. At one point, her secretary - who is frustrated beyond belief at the Queen's new pursuit - warns her, "It's important that Your Majesty stay focused." She replies with aplomb, "When you say stay focused, Sir Kevin, I suppose you mean one should keep one's eye on the ball. Well, I've had my eye on the ball for sixty years, so I think these days one is allowed the occasional glance to the boundary." I wanted to shout, "You go, girl." (Of course, that just wouldn't do.) This is a little gem of a gem.