I chose this slim, brown volume, encased in plastic, from the fiction shelf because I’m on the first fiction shelf and I’ve been choosing paperbacks. I checked it out because it’s by Alan Bennett, who wrote The History Boys, the film version of which I absolutely loved. And then I read the inside cover. Queen Elizabeth becomes a reader after her corgis stray off their usual path and she discovers a mobile library outside the palace.
The Queen meets a young man in the mobile library, Norman, whom she makes her amanuensis. Norman becomes her literary guide and the Queen becomes a devoted reader who finds her duties, which used to command her complete attention, a bother, a distraction from reading. She begins keeping a commonplace book in which she records lines she likes from various books as well as her ideas sparked by the books. This volume becomes a series of notebooks and, eventually, she realizes that reading has sensitized her to other people, their feelings and their circumstances. Reading opens her mind and, after a meeting meant to dissuade her from further reading, the Queen decides she needs to write. She says, “books, as I’m sure you know, seldom prompt a course of action. Books generally just confirm you in what you have, perhaps unwittingly, decided to do already. You go to a book to have your convictions corroborated. A book, as it were, closes the book.”
Along the way Bennett presents a highly sympathetic portrait of a woman by turns held on a pedestal and criticized categorically. She’s a woman enslaved by duty and held above human relationships by her status. Even her relationship with the Duke seems formalized.
Bennett includes moments of humor. The Queen’s closest servants mistake her absorption by books as signs of Alzheimer’s. When the Queen begins giving the prime minister books to read during their weekly meetings, his special adviser calls her private secretary to tell him this behavior is out of order. When the private secretary responds that “Her Majesty likes reading,” the special adviser replies, “I like having my dick sucked. I don’t make the prime minister do it. Any thoughts, Kevin?”
Bennett gets in a little jab at J.K. Rowling by saying that whenever a subject tells the Queen that he or she is reading Harry Potter, she responds that she’s saving it for a rainy day because she has no time for fantasy.
The best part of the novella is when the Queen realizes that she has no voice. The Duke asks her if it’s her throat. It’s the need to make her voice known that drives her to write. Bennett’s voice comes through this novella loud and clear.
Begun 9/2. Finished 9/3.