Subject to fate
IN the introduction to his 2004 play, “The History Boys,” Alan Bennett accused Britain’s “so-called Labour Government” of “stamping on the grave of what it was once thought to stand for.” Though he offered this indictment while lamenting the death of free university education, his other writings reflect a disgust that encompasses essentially the entire Tony Blair era. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Labor prime minister who visits the queen each week in Bennett’s clever and entertaining new novella, “The Uncommon Reader,” is smug, disingenuous and remarkably ignorant, a politician who does not “wholly believe in the past or in any lessons that might be drawn from it.”
“The Uncommon Reader” is about what happens when the queen of England (yes) begins to read. The book opens with Her Majesty’s corgis tearing off along a palace terrace to yap at a traveling library parked outside. Out of politeness, the queen randomly selects a book by Ivy Compton-Burnett -- a name she recognizes -- and checks it out. “A little dry,” she tells the man when she returns it.
Next, she takes home Nancy Mitford’s “The Pursuit of Love” -- “a fortunate choice,” Bennett suggests, for “[h]ad Her Majesty gone for another duff read, an early George Eliot, say, or a late Henry James, novice reader that she was she might have been put off reading for good. . . . Books, she would have thought, were work.”
Luckily, the queen is not put off reading; just the opposite. Soon she has embraced not only light fare but also classics. She becomes a reader, in other words, picking up the eccentricities that a passion for books tends to engender: perpetual lateness, poor grooming, an unwillingness to embark on pointless day trips.
Worse yet, she starts to get ideas, growing opinionated and curious. She flummoxes the prime minister by suggesting that she read from Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain” for her yearly Christmas broadcast. It would show, she says, “that fate is something to which we are all subject.”
“I’m not sure that is a message the government would feel able to endorse,” the prime minister responds. After all, the public “must not be allowed to think the world could not be managed. That way lay chaos. Or defeat at the polls, which was the same thing.”
In its witty, economical satire, “The Uncommon Reader” recalls the late work of Muriel Spark, whose “The Finishing School” sent up the business of publishing. Like Spark, Bennett relies on plot twists that strain credulity at every turn, but the book is such a romp, it doesn’t matter.
Bennett grew up above his father’s butcher shop in Leeds. Although he went on to study at Oxford and to achieve success on the page, screen and stage, he remains preoccupied by his beginnings.
“The Uncommon Reader” is a celebration of both reading and its counterpart, independent thinking. In this age of corporate politics, Bennett suggests, even a monarch may have greater potential for empathy with her fellow man than does the machine of democratic government. *