Queen Elizabeth is known for loving her horses and her corgis. She has sat, reportedly, for more than 120 portraits, conferred some 400,000 honors and awards, met with a long parade of prime ministers and attended countless garden parties and receptions. She has frequently been described as an exemplary monarch, dedicated, dutiful and decent. And just as frequently described as a forbidding mother, chilly and withholding and given to playing ostrich whenever it comes to emotions.
One thing she has never been described as is an avid reader. One biographer asserted that the queen once asked if Dante were a horse - or a jockey. Another biographer declared that she rarely reads a book unless it is horse-related.
Enter Alan Bennett, the deft, virtuosic author of plays like The History Boys, The Madness of George III and The Lady in the Van. In The Uncommon Reader Bennett poses a delicious and very funny what-if: What if Queen Elizabeth at the age of 70-something were suddenly to become a voracious reader? What if she were to become an avid fan of Proust and Balzac, Turgenev and Trollope and Hardy? And what if reading were to lead her, in turn, to becoming a writer? Bennett's musings on these matters have produced a delightful little book that unfolds into a witty meditation on the subversive pleasures of reading.
Bennett, of course, has depicted the queen before, in his play A Question of Attribution. In that play the queen has a chat with the royal family's curator of art, Sir Anthony Blunt, who is concealing his identity as one of England's most notorious spies, and she more than holds her own with this condescending aesthete, suggesting that she is perhaps on to his dangerous game. As played by Prunella Scales, the queen emerged as a shrewd and self-possessed woman, sly and witty and dignified, and decidedly loath to have the wool pulled over her eyes.
The queen in The Uncommon Reader is very much that same woman: not remotely intellectual, but inquisitive and intelligent and quite impatient with overly long-winded or self-indulgent writers. Reading Henry James, she blurts out, "Oh, do get on." And reading Samuel Johnson, she remarks, "I can see why Dr Johnson is well thought of, but surely, much of it is opinionated rubbish?"
She starts reading out of duty - when her corgis stray toward a mobile library parked near the palace, she feels an obligation to borrow a book - and unexpectedly finds duty turning into curiosity, and curiosity into pleasure. Though she has to plow through her first choice, a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett, she is delighted with her next pick, The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford, and from there it's onto a slew of other novels, memoirs and poetry.
For the first time in her life, Bennett writes, the queen "felt there was a good deal she had missed."
"She had been reading one of the several lives of Sylvia Plath and was actually quite happy to have missed most of that, but reading the memoirs of Lauren Bacall, she could not help feeling that Bacall had had a much better bite at the carrot and, slightly to her surprise, found herself envying her for it."
She regrets all the opportunities she's missed to get to know writers she has met, like T.S. Eliot, Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. And she regrets that she's come to reading so late in life and sets about making up for lost time.