Friday, 31 July 2020

One reads for pleasure. It is not a public duty.

The Uncommon Reader I've been watching Season 1 of The Crown again and particularly enjoyed episode 7, Scientia Potentia Est*. Poor Princess Elizabeth struggles with the intricacies of the UK constitution, schooled by the Vice-Provost of Eton under the beady eye of his pet raven. It was a singular education, tutored at home with her sister Princess Margaret. Apparently she speaks French like a native thanks to her governesses.

If we're to believe The Crown, the Queen's educational achievements have never been tested in the way that your average British teenager would recognize. Alan Bennett's fictional Queen Elizabeth II is also lacking in knowledge and appreciation of literature. In his humorous 2006 novella The Uncommon Reader Queen Elizabeth discovers a mobile library in the grounds of Buckingham Palace and out of politeness borrows a book, something by Ivy Compton-Burnett, which she describes as "too hard going altogether." Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate is her second, more enjoyable choice, and the Queen is soon an avid reader. Unfortunately this leads to a less conscientious performance of her duties, neglectful even, as she prefers to lose herself in a good book. Her private secretary is not pleased.

The Uncommon Reader can be finished in a couple of hours and is a wormhole through which to discover new writers, for example the previously mentioned Ivy Compton-Burnett. I wonder how much of Bennett's own preferences are mirrored in Queen Elizabeth's thoughts. Why would you want "to give Henry James a good talking-to?" and is it really worth reading Dr Johnson when "much of it is opinionated rubbish?" And is it a good or a bad thing when a book of Ian McEwan or A.S. Byatt is "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."

There can't be many who envy a monarch's life of duty and courtesy. Those who marry into it often struggle. Perhaps someone could put together a list of essential reading for the new Royal, literature "about other lives. Other worlds."

* Beloved quote of librarians and researchers: knowledge is power.

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