“While ma’am had been in the Lords, the sniffer dogs had been round and security had confiscated the book. He thought it had probably been exploded.”
‘Exploded?’ said the Queen. ‘But it was Anita Brookner.’
The young man, who seemed remarkably undeferential, said security may have thought it was a device.
The Queen said: ‘Yes. That is exactly what it is. A book is a device to ignite the imagination.”
This delight of a novella considers what would happen if the Queen of England were suddenly to become an avid reader (not that I have reason to believe she isn’t!). Encountering a travelling library one day while walking the corgis, she feels obliged to patronise it and selects a volume of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s, simply because she recognises the name. A few attempts later she happens on Nancy Mitford, a much better choice. Over time, she becomes so absorbed in her reading that her attention to her duties and her wardrobe slips.
Bennett won’t be winning any competitions for significant literature with this one, but it is a sweet little volume, with beautiful characterisation and gentle humour. He doesn’t try to sculpt the Queen as a character – instead she appears much as portrayed by Dame Helen Mirren, very restrained, very bound up in the idea of duty and doing rather than relaxing. Reading is not doing.
Not that many other characters get much of a look in – Sir Kevin Scatchard is the tedious private secretary one expects him to be from the first minute, Norman the kitchen boy is not all that thoroughly developed but I do like him as an idea, the Queen’s amanuensis, her personal literary assistant. Apart from them, and the Duke of Edinburgh getting an occasional reference (“Extraordinary to think of it, the dashing blond boy he’d been.”), the Queen’s family and equerries are referred to in the collective. The Prime Minister comes across as a bit boorish and useless and again, much like in the film.
But what makes this book beautiful is the language about reading. Bennett uses words like amanuensis and panoply.
“The appeal of reading, she thought, lay it its indifference: there was something lofty about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic… Books did not defer… There was something of that, she felt to reading. It was anonymous; it was shared; it was common. And she who had led a life apart now found that she craved it. Here in these pages and between these covers she could go unrecognised.”
There is plenty of gentle humour, reminiscent of Flowers for Mrs Harris (is this a feature of every novella?):
“Did Her Majesty ever let a book fall to the carpet it would straightaway be leaped on by any attendant dog, worried and slavered over and borne to the distant reaches of the palace or wherever so that it could be satisfyingly torn apart… Patron of the London Library though she was, Her Majesty regularly found herself on the phone apologising to the renewals clerk for the loss of yet another volume.”
“Her private secretary… was left to gather up his papers and wonder why ma’am needed a travelling library when she had several of the stationary kind of her own.”
“The next morning she had a little sniffle and, having no engagements, stayed in bed saying she felt she might be getting flu. This was uncharacteristic and also not true; it was actually so that she could get on with her book.”” ‘I feel, ma’am, that while not exactly elitist it sends the wrong message. It tends to exclude.’ ‘Exclude? Surely most people can read?’ ‘They can read, ma’am, but I’m not sure that they do.’ ‘Then, Sir Kevin, I am setting them a good example.’ “
Thoroughly recommended to all and sundry.