It was the corgis’ fault. When they strayed through the grounds of Buckingham Palace, the Queen discovered the City of Westminster travelling library.
The Queen has never had much time for reading – pleasure’s always come second place to duty – ‘though now that one is here I suppose one ought to borrow a book.’ She is about to discover the joys of literature, albeit late in life.
One book leads to another and the Queen is soon engrossed in the delights of reading. However, this uncommon reader creates an uncommon problem. The royal household dislikes the Queen’s new interest; it makes them uneasy. Books are devices that ignite the imagination. And devices like that are likely to explode.
Looking for audiobooks to listen to in our new (…internetless…) flat, I happened across this particular recording. Alan Bennett’s voice is well known as being a sonorous, relaxing, calm Yorkshire voice; his rendition of The Uncommon Reader emphasises what Bennett wants emphasised, and really draws the reader into this simple, slow, gentle, beautiful story and paean to the beauty of literature.
The characters are ones we’re familiar with; the Queen is, of course, the reserved, precise, punctual monarch at the start of the story, The Uncommon Reader of the title who is slowly changed by a developing love of literature into a maniac with a passion for words. The Queen’s voice is fantastic, steeped in propriety but increasingly also in the passionate interest and monomaniacal fascination of the most ardent readers. Her choice of reading matter seems rather canonical and proper to me, but then, her explicit comment about fantasy halfway through the story is incredibly frustrating and inaccurate. The rest of the cast are more caricatures than characters; the Duke of Edinburgh is exactly the genial duffer the media portray him as, the frustrated husband who has to share the limelight. The politicians are very straightforward portrayals of the Blair government, from the Prime Minister through his “special advisor” Alistair Campbell; and the palace functionaries are very, well, typical of palace functionaries, in their propriety and interest in simply keeping life simple.
Bennett’s story is incredibly simple; what would happen in the Queen became obsessed with reading? The Uncommon Reader sees the collapse and failure of functions of the head of state, the ceremonial obligations increasingly undertaken grudgingly, and the functionaries increasingly thrown into chaos as they try to limit the ramifications of the Queen’s obsession. Bennett’s lampooning of the functionaries and of the politicians plays into the plot as he drops a combination of characterisations and one-liners into his work to highlight his mockery and satirisations. That the plot of this two and a half hour audiobook is so thin is irrelevant because it’s not the point; the point is to be a paean to the written word, and also to the idea of the Queen (rather than who she actually is). Indeed, for something so disrespectful of everyone else, Bennett is stunningly respectful in his portrayal of the Queen; The Uncommon Reader constructs a brilliant image of the Queen as a very human figure.
Between brilliant writing and a wonderful voice, Bennett’s rendition of his story is absolutely fantastic; a great relaxing evening’s listening for the lover of literature.