Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Life After Betty

Life After Betty:  The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett always makes me think of A Girl to Love, one of Betty Neels’s six stories to feature a non-doctor in the role of hero/future husband.  In that one, Oliver Trentham is a wealthy, well-known writer for television.  That’s what Alan Bennett is!  And he’s about the only writer for TV I could name, and he was rather handsome as a youngster.

Bennett in 1973 – not bad for a bisexual intellectual comedian who writes TV plays with Wittgenstein references, right?

In addition to TV scripts, Bennett has also written a host of plays, movie screenplays, essays, short stories and novellas.  Apparently he acts, too, with a thick Northern (Leeds) accent.  The Uncommon Reader is one of the more recent of the novellas, published in 2007.  At about 25,000 words, it’s a quick read, and with Bennett holding the pen it’s a delightful and inspiring one that repays re-reading.

The central conceit of the story is that Queen Elizabeth II, stumbling upon a mobile public library, picks up a novel to be polite and gets captivated by the world of literature.  Bennett conjectures that the queen had previously not been a reader in part because of the requirement attaching to her role that she avoid obvious preferences.  “And besides, reading wasn’t doing.  She was a doer.”  On her first attempt, she inadvertently chooses a “duff read,” but perseveres:  “That was the way one was brought up.  Books, bread and butter, mashed potato – one finishes what’s on one’s plate.”  To escape a dull meeting, she takes out a second novel, and Nancy Mitchell’s The Pursuit of Love captures the queen.

She becomes a voracious reader with a catholic taste that encompasses Jean Genet, Lauren Bacall and Alice Munro.  Staff and family are forced to make adjustments in schedules and standard procedures to accommodate her majesty’s reading.  Various functionaries try to curtail it, but their efforts are powerless in the face of literature’s pull.

This imaginary queen makes important discoveries in her reading, both as she thinks over what she’s read and as she moves on to writing down her thoughts.  “Briefing is terse, factual and to the point.  Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting.  Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.”  “A book is a device to ignite the imagination.”  “You don’t put your life into your books.  You find it there.”  As she writes, she is liberated to discover, for the first time, her own voice.

This is a wonderful, chatty little story with some great suggestions for future reading, and some thought-provoking reflections on the causes and effects of literature.  The queen, as Bennett imagines her, is a delight – smart, thoughtful, forthright.  His suppositions seem so reasonable that I have a hard time remembering this is a novel, not a biography, and I still finish up with a strong affection for the real queen, as it seems so possible she could be just like the one in the book.  And then I read it again.

Brighton:  not even vaguely
Clothes:  the queen becomes very slightly less attentive to her wardrobe as she reads more; “’I’d outlaw that cardigan,’ said her maid.”
Food:  boeuf en croute!, poires belle Helene, a wicked trifle, etc.


  1. Nice review BVDB! The book looks fun.
    Bennett looks a bit like Robert Redford, at least in the young pic.
    Can't say I'll read it, there's got to be a romance and a Betty-like implied Brighton outing to get on my book list!
    However, I did enjoyed the review.

  2. Hi! I can't remember the other five books with non-doctors heros. Which are they? I'm always looking for new Betty N. material :).

    1. Hi, Betty Unknown. According to Betty van den Betsy's guest blog "Betty by the Numbers: Heroes' Jobs," there are six Neels books with non-medical heroes. You can find the book titles there.

      By the way, are you the same Betty Unknown who posted about a month ago?

    2. Sorry, they're there by heroes' names, not book titles. So here are the books:

      Heaven Around the Corner
      A Girl to Love
      All Else Confusion
      Roses and Champagne
      Year's Happy Ending

    3. Hello, again. No, I'm not the Betty Unknown who posted a month ago. Last night (here in Brazil) was the first time I commented on your blog =).
      Thanks for the answer. And now that you told me I remembered that one of the non-doctor heros was (of course) a professor of Economics...
      Betty from Brazil.

    4. There's also more about the non-doctor heroes in "Betty by the Numbers: Heroines' Jobs" from January. Here's the relevant paragraph:

      As an aside, I note that Mrs. Neels began featuring non-nursing heroines at about the same time she tried her brief experiment with non-doctoring heroes. There are a total of six non-medical heroes, beginning in 1981 and ending in 1984. For the record, they are: civil engineer Simon Savage of Heaven Around the Corner (1981), history professor Charles Cresswell of Judith, television writer Oliver Trentham of A Girl to Love, factory owner and board chairman Jake Royle of All Else Confusion (all 1982), accounting-firm owner Lucius Massey of Roses and Champagne (1983) and economics professor Gideon Beaufort of Year’s Happy Ending (1984). They loved, respectively: a nurse, another nurse, a housekeeper and sensible countrywoman, a vicar’s daughter and companion, an illustrator with family money, and a trained nanny.

      And a hearty welcome to you, Betty from Brazil! I look forward to your future additions to the blog, especially when our heroines and their heroes visit Madeira and Portugal.

    5. Welcome, Betty from Brazil!

  3. Thank you, thank you for reminding me of this wonderful book. I read it when it was published and somehow forgot all about it. Something to look forward to when I hit the library stacks again.