It’s not every day that you come across a book where the Queen of Britain herself is the main character, especially since portraying such a historically important and recognizable figure in a respectable and accurate light is an incredibly difficult task.
In The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett manages to grant readers a realistic portrayal of the Queen’s daily duties within Buckingham Palace while also giving her plenty of wit, humor, and so much personality to make her feel like a fully-fledged character.
When flicking through the first few pages, it can seem like The Uncommon Reader is going to be a fairly quick and whimsical read, but as it goes on, the author dips into a lot of quite serious and thought-provoking themes that make this such a captivating book to pick up!
Overview Of The Novel
It all started when the Queen’s corgis led her to the Buckingham Palace library for the very first time.
Initially, Her Majesty sees no point in reading some of the classics by Jane Austen or Arthur Conan Doyle, but when she finally picks up a book by Ivy Compton-Bennett, she soon becomes obsessed with reading and the emotions that stories can evoke in the reader.
Very soon, the Queen is adamant to get her hands on as many different books as possible, whether it’s the work of Tom Hardy, Oscar Wilde, or Joseph Conrad, it doesn’t matter what genre or author, she simply needs to experience every story first-hand for herself.
As the Queen becomes evermore infatuated with the act of reading and feverishly moves from one book to the next, it begins interfering with her royal duties while also becoming an annoyance for many of her advisers such as Sir Kevin who is as royal and righteous as they come.
As her equerries conspire to end the Queen’s period of obsessive reading, she begins to wonder how her own life would be described in a book and whether it would be filled with love, joy, sadness, regret, or pride.
Her advisers, and the Prime Minister, immediately remind Her Majesty that she would need to abdicate the throne if she were to publish a book herself, a decision that she struggles with until the end of the book.
About The Author
Alan Bennett is one of the most celebrated English authors to have ever lived, having won two BAFTA Awards and four Laurence Olivier Awards for his films and publishing countless best-selling novels including The Clothes They Stood Up In and Keeping On Keeping On.
It was the satirical revue Beyond the Fringe that helped boost Bennett’s popularity with his first stage play coming in 1968 by the name of Forty Years On. Following this, he would continue to write many more plays over the next two decades.
It actually wasn’t until the 1990s that Bennett decided to work on publishing books alongside his screenplays, though there are many novels of his that were unpublished which were donated to the Bodleian Library.
The Uncommon Reader is his latest full novel, aside from the memoirs and essays that he has been working on, and was released in 2007 to very positive reviews.
Since the book was released years ago, there haven’t yet been any indications that Bennett has been working on releasing a new novel, but he does provide the voiceover for a lot of audiobooks including Winnie-the-Pooh and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Review Of The Uncommon Reader
Many people will begin reading The Uncommon Reader out of curiosity for how unusual the premise is, but a lot of them stay for the rather surprising revelations and emotional beats that carry the story forward.
The gentle and satirical tone throughout the book ensures that the story never becomes too serious or daunting, with clever jokes and witty humor being found on nearly every page, especially when the Queen herself is talking to her servants and her corgis.
None of the characters ever feel bland or boring, with each of them having very clear and defined personality traits that make them instantly likable and very memorable.
Whether it’s the highly disciplined and loyal Sir Kevin or the shy but friendly Norman who works in the palace kitchen, each major player in the story feels like they have a purpose, so it never feels like the author is just trying to fill out the story.
Even when the story starts to become a lot more serious and dramatic towards the latter end of the story, Bennett still manages to include just enough humor to ensure the plot always feels lighthearted and jovial.
We also can’t forget about the many novels, short stories, and poems that are mentioned in the book, all of which are described in incredible detail and really highlight just how much love Bennett has for reading, and the benefits that come with it.
Themes Of The Uncommon Reader
Throughout the story of The Uncommon Reader, Alan Benett dives deep into some incredible interest themes that help elevate the plot, making it a lot more than simply a satirical tale about the Queen and her latest obsession.
Benefits Of Reading
It becomes clear very quickly while reading through The Uncommon Reader that Alan Bennett has a deep appreciation for reading and the many ways it can enhance our lives, which can easily be seen by how The Queen’s view of the world changes as she reads.
A lot of the time, we can struggle to make sense of the world with our own thoughts and words, but when someone else describes it in a better way than we ever could, it can help us to better understand our own lives, our emotions, and our aspirations.
We see this development happen with the Queen as she starts pondering her life and career in a very different way once she discovers the viewpoints of other authors and how they describe their own role within the world.
Of course, Bennett still ensures to highlight the negatives that can come with overindulgence too, like when the Queen starts to struggle to keep up with her duties, but it only helps to create an honest reflection on the impact reading can have on our lives.
Royal Duties And Desires
Bennett makes it clear to readers at the beginning of the book that the Queen was molded from a very young age to be someone who should have “no preferences” so that all of her energy and time could be dedicated to her royal duties.
When she begins to discover the joys of reading, it is those in higher-up royal positions who condemn her and try to persuade her out of it, while the people working in the kitchens and as cleaners around the palace encourage her latest hobby.
When Her Majesty is reminded that she cannot publish her own book because of her status, it grants insight to us readers on how restrictive being a monarch can be and the sacrifices that must be made to become “royalty”.
There is actually a beautiful quote in the book highlighting the escape that reading offers the Queen that goes “Books did not care who was reading them. All readers were equal, herself included”
At one point in the book, the Queen comes to define herself as an “Opsimath, someone who learns only late in life”.
This introspectiveness comes after her reading obsession begins and she begins to wonder just how many years she had wasted which could have been spent not just reading, but also exploring other hobbies that she may have loved too.
There is a very memorable passage in the book where she meets many of the authors who were behind some of her favorite books and begins to wonder how she had gone through her life not even aware of their existence beforehand.
Throughout the book, we see many instances where some of the Queen’s advisors see Her Majesty’s reading habits as a symptom of battiness and simply a desperate attempt to relive her youth.
Some advisors who catch her reading call her deranged, while others say that it could even be caused by Alzheimer’s.
These constant mocking comments indicate a harsh and unpleasant hostility towards a person in their older years simply because they’re trying something new, which is a kind of attitude that is unfortunately far too normal in our own world.
The Uncommon Reader might seem like a short and comedic novel on the surface, but Alan Bennett made sure to include a lot of deep ideas and themes when writing it, including the sacrifices and regrets that inevitably come with being part of a royal family.
Of course, anyone who has ever been in a phase of reading obsessively and who is well aware of the positives and negatives that come with it will also be able to relate to what this fantastic book is trying to show through the Queen’s actions and thoughts.
Despite these themes though, Bennett still ensures to maintain a lighthearted and satirical tone throughout which gives this book so much character and makes it very memorable.