The Queen and I

The reading of In Search of Lost Time has unexpected and fabulous consequences in Alan Bennett’s novella The Uncommon Reader – in which the Queen of England becomes the world’s most unlikely Proust scholar.

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One of my favourite reads of recent years – Alan Bennett’s delightful novella The Uncommon Reader, owes a debt of honour to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, as a novel that can transform even the grandest of lives.

A wandering corgi leads the Queen to a little-seen part of Buckingham Palace, where she discovers two things – a mobile lending library, and Norman, a gay ginger Northerner who works in the kitchens. The Queen politely takes out a book, and strikes up an unlikely acquaintance with Norman, who she quickly promotes to her personal assistant. Norman becomes the Boswell to her Johnson – or perhaps more accurately the Alice B. Toklas to her Gertrude Stein – and together they explore the continually surprising world of literature.

After a couple of false starts, the Queen becomes an avid reader, and starts to neglect her duties, disappearing into books when she should be showing deference to equerries and christening ships. She takes to keeping a book open on her lap during royal carriage rides, waving out the window while secretly reading. When she leaves an Anita Brookner novel in the carriage while opening Parliament, it is confiscated by security forces and exploded.

Her staff to cough politely with panic. “To read is to withdraw. To make oneself unavailable,” explains Sir Kevin, her New Zealand-born chief of staff, diplomatically articulating the Palace’s fear that Her Maj has become “a handful”. Anxious to smooth over any suggestions that the Queen is favouring English literature over the writers of other nationalities, he suggests putting out a press release announcing that Her Maj was also reading “ethnic classics”. The Queen is unimpressed. “Which ethnic classics did you have in mind, Sir Kevin? The Kama Sutra?”

Bennett has great fun imagining the eccentricity of the Queen’s reading habits. She enjoys Nancy Mitford, but has no patience at all with Henry James (“Oh, do get on!” she calls out in frustration one morning, accidentally frightening away one of the maids) and while fond of the Brontes, she fails to make any sense of Austen, because of “handicaps… that were peculiarly her own.”

The essence of Jane Austen lies in a minute social distinctions, distinctions which the Queen’s unique position made it difficult for her to grasp. It was such a chasm between the monarch and even the grandest a subject that the social differences beyond that was somewhat telescoped… Jane Austen was practically a work of entomology, the characters not quite ants but seeming to the royal reader so much alike as to require a microscope.

While Bennett’s tone is tongue-in-cheek, his view of reading as a transformative act is deadly serious. Reading allows the Queen for the first time in her life to escape her own circumstances and to level the playing field, understanding for the first time what it is like to be one of the common people. Such is the power of literature to transform and enlighten our experience.

She becomes particularly transformed by In Search of Lost Time. During a very dull Anglo-French reception, French president, who dismisses Jean Genet as “a denizen of the billiard hall”, encourages the Queen to read Proust. Norman recommends that she tackles the job during her summer holiday at Balmoral, and orders all thirteen volumes (I’m unsure which edition Bennett is referring to), along with George Painter’s biography of Proust. “Seeing the blue- and pink-jacketed volumes ranged across her desk, the Queen thought they looked almost edible, and straight out of a patisserie window.”

Reading Proust proves to be a revelation for the Queen, and a welcome distraction from life at Balmoral:

It was a foul summer, cold wet and unproductive, the guns grumbling every evening at their paltry bag. But for the Queen (and for Norman) it was an idyll. Seldom can there have been more of a contrast between the world of the book and the place in which it was read, the pair of them engrossed in the sufferings of Swann, the petty vulgarities of Mme Verdurin and the absurdities of Baron de Charlus, while in the wet butts on the hills the guns cracked out their empty tattoo and the occasional dead and sodden stag was borne past the window.

Emboldened by finishing the novel, Queen starts quoting from him liberally, devising games of charades in the evening with questions drawn from Proust. She even interrupts meetings with the Foreign Secretary to give him a biographical sketch of Proust:

“Terrible life, poor man. A martyr to asthma, apparently, and really someone to whom one would have wanted to say, “Oh do pull your socks up.” But literature’s full of those. The curious thing about him was that when he dipped his cake in his tea (disgusting habit) the whole of his past life came back to him. Well, I tried it and it had no effect on me at all. The real treat when I was a child was Fuller’s cakes. I suppose it might work with me if I were to taste one of them, but of course they’ve long since gone out of business, so no memories there. Are we finished?”

Bennett’s story culminates at the Queen’s 80th birthday celebrations, where she has called a special meeting of the Privy Council at which the Queen unexpected decides to make a speech. She starts by asking the crowds how many of them have read Proust.

Somebody deaf whispered ‘Who?’ and a few hands went up, the Prime Minister’s not among them, and seeing this, one young member of the Cabinet who had read Proust and was about to put his hand up didn’t, because he thought it would do him no good at all to say so.

The Queen counted. ‘Eight, none – ten’ – most of them, she noted, relics of much older cabinets. ‘Well, that’s something, though I’m hardly surprised. Had I asked Mr Macmillan’s cabinet that question I’m sure a dozen hands would have gone up, including his. However, that’s hardly fair, as I hadn’t read Proust at that time either.’

‘I’ve read Trollope,’ said a former foreign secretary.

‘One is glad to hear it,’ said the Queen, ‘but Trollope is not Proust.’ The Home Secretary, who had read neither, nodded sagely.

The Queen is unimpressed, though commenting encouragingly that while “[it] is a long book, though, water-skiing permitting, you could get through it in the summer recess.”  To assist her audience, she offers a characteristically succinct précis of In Search of Lost Time:

“At the end of the novel Marcel, who narrates it, looks back on a life that hasn’t really amounted to much and resolves to redeem it by writing the novel which we have just in fact read, in the process unlocking some of the secrets of memory and remembrance.”

She then announces that she intends to write a novel – though not one of a Proustian variety. “I am not interested in facile reminiscence,” she sniffs, suggesting that her work “might stray into literature.” A constitutional crisis ensues.

So there we have it. Proust is easily readable in three months, and the reading of In Search Of Lost Time can prompt even the most unlikely readers into grand and unexpected places.

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