ON SECOND THOUGHT
By Carol Ferguson
Queen Elizabeth II seems to be the current royal subject of choice when it comes to the arts.
Earlier this year actress Helen Mirren won an Academy Award for her spot-on portrayal of Elizabeth in the film “The Queen,” and now British playwright Alan Bennett has come out with a wonderfully funny novella titled “The Uncommon Reader.” It’s a palace fantasy for adults.
If you are a book lover, if you enjoy a chuckle and if you’re an Anglophile at heart, this is the book you’ll want to find in your Christmas stocking.
Just the first few paragraphs will tickle your fancy. Elizabeth, as imagined by Bennett, is hosting a state dinner in Windsor Castle for the president of France. As the guests are seated and the queen picks up her soup spoon, she turns to the president and says, “I’ve been longing to ask you about the writer Jean Genet ... Was he as bad as he was painted? Or more to the point, was he as good?”
Unprepared as he is for this topic, the president looks wildly around for the minister of culture, who is conversing with the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The queen patiently repeats her question, adding that Genet interests her.
The president puts down his spoon, realizing it is going to be a long evening indeed.
Bennett then backtracks to tell us that this love affair the queen is having with books is all the fault of her dogs, that miserable little bunch of corgis who are eternally yapping and scampering about the palace.
One morning when Elizabeth is taking them for their “walkies” on the grounds of Buckingham Palace, the dogs dash around the corner of the building where a City of Westminster traveling library van is parked outside the kitchen entrance. Surprised, and wishing to apologize for the ruckus, she goes up the steps of the van.
Inside in addition to the driver/librarian is a young man, a member of the palace kitchen staff who is crouching in the aisle, reading.
Not really liking books — she read, of course, but left “liking books” to others — Elizabeth is nevertheless embarrassed at the situation.
Asking, “Is one allowed to borrow a book?” she then hesitantly selects one by Ivy Compton-Burnett, only because she vaguely remembers having given the author a title — Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1967. Looking at the photograph on the back of the book jacket, Elizabeth comments, “Yes. I remember that hair, a roll like a pie-crust that went right round her head.” She smiles, and checks out the book.
What Elizabeth does not realize is that she is about to become hooked on books, and that it will change her entire life and the lives of her subjects.
What the reader does realize — and quite soon — is that Alan Bennett has a sly, contagious sense of humor.
Bennett was born in Yorkshire and attended Oxford University where he received a “first” degree in history. While there, he performed comedy in the Oxford Revue with a number of future actors. In August 1960, along with Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook, Bennett appeared in the satirical revue “Beyond The Fringe” which is still available on DVD. In 1994, he adapted his much praised play, “The Madness of King George III,” for film, and it received four Academy Award nominations.
Queen Elizabeth awarded him a CBE in 1998, which he turned down, as well as a knighthood in 1996 which he also declined to accept.
Readers might well wonder if Elizabeth has read “The Uncommon Reader,” although in a radio interview Bennett said he thought she was probably “too busy ruling.”
I suspect the queen might just manage a smile if someone calls the book to her attention.
Elizabeth is a bit more savvy about life outside the palace than her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, who, on being told what she considered an inappropriate joke, replied rather haughtily, “We are not amused.”
Bennett’s little book can be read in an afternoon, and unlike Victoria, readers will be amused.
Ferguson is a feature writer for the Herald-Banner.
ON SECOND THOUGHT
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