Click here to read reviewer Laura Strathman Hulka's take on The Uncommon Reader.
Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II is now 81 years of age and in her 55th year on the throne. She remains one of the world's longest-serving heads of state, and also one of the planet's most photographed women. She's often seen at home, living a quiet life with her prized pet Corgis.
It is this blend of her sense of regal duty with a love of simple pleasures that have come so uniquely to characterize the style of her reign.
Elizabeth rarely makes her political views public but is believed to be moderately liberal in her outlooks and views. Imagine, then, a work of fiction that reads like an autobiography, which can somehow bring her words and innermost thoughts to life
to delicately portray this exclusive and isolated world which she inhabits.
In The Uncommon Reader, author Alan Bennett reels out an insider's view of the Queen's life that manages to be both imaginative and touching, while also giving us a deliciously funny and rather wicked bird's-eye view of the Queen and the way that she, and the Monarchy, would be transformed if she ever became hooked on reading.
When Elizabeth decides to take her beloved dogs for a walk in the palace gardens, she happens upon the City of Westminster traveling library, which looks to be in the shape of a large removal van parked next to the bins outside of one of the kitchen doors. This isn't a part of the palace that the Queen sees much of and, determined to apologize for the din that her dogs are currently causing, she goes up to the van where she meets Mr. Hutchings, the traveling library's caretaker.
The Queen has never taken much of an interest in reading, her feeling that liking books is "something that should be left to other people." But with her sense of duty flourishing, she decides to do the right thing and actually borrow a book. Mr. Hutchings, encouraged by young Norman Seakins, an affable young kitchen hand, gives Her Majesty a copy of an Ivy-Compton-Burnett title even as he reflects, while shutting up the van and driving away, that a novel by "Dame Ivy is going to take quite a bit of reading."
Thus begins Elizabeth's multi-faceted journey into the world of reading, assisted by young Norman, whom she suddenly promotes to the status of literary advisor, mainly because he behaves uninhibitedly around her and seems incapable of being anything else but himself - something that most other people rarely ever do.
As her reading steadily grows, the days just aren't long enough for all of the reading that she has planned.
What she mostly finds is how one book leads to another and doors keep opening wherever she turns. Her private secretary, Sir Kevin Scatchard, an over-conscientious New Zealander of whom great things are expected, becomes
concerned with his employer's newfound propensity for books, especially when she
starts to off-handedly recommend titles to him at their weekly meetings.
Soon the Queen is abandoning her long lines of inquiry of her subjects and embarking on new conversational gambits about books to which very few of her loyal subjects have an acceptable answer. She reads more and more, steadily gaining the ire of Sir Kevin and even the Prime Minister, who both feel that the pursuit is selfish and solipsistic, even as they try to harness her reading to some larger purpose. The Queen however, will not be swayed: "One reads for pleasure, It's not a public duty."
At only one hundred and twenty pages, this novella proves to be a quite marvelous exploration of the power of books and how they can embolden, elevate, and even change one's life. Certainly for the Queen, the power of reading seems to take on an almost metaphysical force.
For her, books become an allegorical reflection of the world she inhabits, indeed even another version of it.
Bennett is able to get right to the heart of Elizabeth's soul while still offering up a fascinating portrait of a self-assured, single-minded woman.
Never having been that demonstrative, she is ultimately wry and intelligent,
with a wicked sense of humor.
Unquestionably, this novel is as much about the Queen's personal growth as a woman and an intellectual
as anything else. In the end, it is the power of books and the mysterious forces of literature that eventually enable her to gain a better understanding of both herself and of her place in the world.