6 July 2015

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

It's been about seven years since I bought Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield on a whim; roped in by a charming cover decorated with vintage florals courtesy of Cath Kidston.  Delafield's clever wit combined with traditional period values made my heart sing (well, not when it comes to drowning kittens but let's not focus on that).  At the time, chick-lit was everywhere and I didn't mind some of the stories by Jane Green and Raffaella Barker but after awhile I was left wanting.  When Virago reissued several twentieth-century classics in eye-catching cloth-bound covers it was a turning point for me and I was thrilled by the prospect of reading as many of these authors' books as I could.

I'm not sure when I first read The Uncommon Reader but it was years ago.  It was before I had heard of Winifred Holtby, Anita Brookner, or Ivy-Compton Burnett.  The beautiful Mitford girls were simply a name, all lumped together, and Hatchards was a bookshop but not a place I knew well.  The aspect of this novella that is all too familiar though is the mobile library.  When I was little, and the only reader in our house, there were no offers to drive to the library.  Books were signed out one at a time from the very small, and underfunded, school library and gobbled up far too fast.  Then one day a mobile library appeared in the parking lot of a local chapter of The Royal Canadian Legion.  I have clear memories of sitting on the front step on Saturdays, with hands clasped in anticipation, just waiting for the van to appear.  It was heaven.

The Uncommon Reader appealed when I first read it despite my unfamiliarity with Bennett's featured authors.  The image of Queen Elizabeth II thumbing through the books in the narrow aisle of a mobile library is still amusing but now the book is even better for having read the books she signs out.  I laughed at the part when the Queen's equerry thinks the poor woman has Alzheimer's because she jots in a notebook as she reads.  Anyone who blogs about books knows all to well that notebooks and pencils are indispensable reading tools.  I buy small notebooks in bulk.

Alan Bennett did make my eyes widen in shock at one point for writing...

'It happened that upcoming was a state visit to Canada, a treat that Norman was not down to share, preferring to go home for his holidays to Stockton-on-Tees.  However, he made all the preparations beforehand, carefully packing a case of books that would see Her Majesty fully occupied from coast to coast.  The Canadians were not, so far as Norman knew, a bookish people and the schedule was so tight that the chances of HerMajesty getting to browse in a bookshop were slim.'

It just so happens we love to read here in Canada and we have lots of....very interesting authors!  It's all in fun, I know, and there is plenty of it.  This is a delightfully charming little book and I'll be picking up copies as I find them to share with my bookish friends....yes, here in Canada!


Queen Elizabeth II

7 comments:

  1. I remember this one fondly. Have you read Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe? Alan Bennett is one of the quirky neighbors (as is Claire Tomalin, the wonderful biographer). I heard they might be making a movie (or BBC series) from her book...maybe he will play himself?

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    1. I haven't read Love, Nina but it sounds like fun...wonder if my library has it? Speaking of movies and Alan Bennett...The Lady in the Van! Watch the trailer, Audrey.

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    1. I wonder if the Queen has read it?

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    2. I have often wondered the same thing. I haven't read the book but have listened to it many times on CD.

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  3. Ivy Compton-Burnett! I love her books ... they are so very odd but one (me anyway) cannot stop reading them ... I am trying to possess them all with dedicated shelf space for her, but my word, they are mostly out of print & so expensive ... Anne, fellow Cdn in England

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    1. Manservant and Maidservant is the only ICB book that I've read but I really enjoyed it! The wax voodoo doll is a stand-out memory...that scene made me laugh out loud! You're right, her books are quite rare in second-hand shops so it would be wonderful to see them reissued.

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