This post came about through one of those cases in which you read a book that leads you to another title, and then another. After reading Andrew Morton’s biography of Diana this summer (Diana: Her True Story – In Her Own Words), I realized that as much as Diana was an interesting and polarizing figure, what I really wanted was to learn more about the life of Queen Elizabeth II.
Maybe The Crown also had a little effect on this. It’s startling to watch a TV series set in the 40s and 50s (for Season 1 at least) and realize that the protagonist is still alive today and has lived through 9 decades of history, social change and economic upheavals. My research on biographies of the queen led me to Sally Bedell Smith’s book Elizabeth: The Queen, and when Bedell Smith mentioned Alan Bennett’s novella on the queen – The Uncommon Reader – I knew that I wanted to pick that up as well.
I’m planning more similar fiction to nonfiction book pairings in the future. Hope you enjoy this first take on a new feature on the blog!
Elizabeth The Queen by Sally Bedell Smith
Publication Date: January 1st 2012
Publisher: Random House
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Perfect for fans of The Crown, this magisterial biography of Queen Elizabeth II is a close-up view of the woman we’ve known only from a distance—and a captivating window into the last great monarchy.
From the moment of her ascension to the throne in 1952 at the age of twenty-five, Queen Elizabeth II has been the object of unparalleled scrutiny. But through the fog of glamour and gossip, how well do we really know the world’s most famous monarch? Drawing on numerous interviews and never-before-revealed documents, acclaimed biographer Sally Bedell Smith pulls back the curtain to show in intimate detail the public and private lives of Queen Elizabeth II, who has led her country and Commonwealth through the wars and upheavals of the last sixty years with unparalleled composure, intelligence, and grace.
What I Liked
I learned A LOT about the functioning of the British court. Sally Bedell Smith’s account of the queen’s life is very detailed. You won’t just learn about Elizabeth II’s youth, her father’s unexpected accession to the throne, the queen’s marriage and early years of her reign, and the lives of her 4 children. Bedell Smith also provides a comprehensive account of the queen’s daily routines, various state trips, vacation houses, hobbies, and relationships to each of the 14 prime ministers that have served Elizabeth II to date. Alongside accounts of pivotal moments in the monarch’s tenure like Diana’s funeral and her silver, golden and diamond jubilees, Bedell Smith delves into the minutiae of the queen’s private life, including her love for corgis, her eating regimen, her passion for horse breeding and her consistent journaling habit. I think this level of detail might be too much for some readers, but I was fascinated by the mix of public and political versus private and intimate that the author struck in this biography.
It was a personal and warm portrait of the Queen. The author’s partiality to Queen Elizabeth II is apparent throughout this biography. It’s a loving and respectful portrayal of the monarch, who is depicted as a caring mother and grandmother not just to her own children, but to the United Kingdom and the rest of the Commonwealth. Despite the deluge of facts about every aspect of the queen’s life and the events she’s lived through, Bedell Smith is able to bring Elizabeth to life as a humanized and relatable person by including warm anecdotes about the Queen’s sense of humor, her compassion and concern for others, and even some of her quirky, unexpected preferences. For example, I didn’t know that the queen continued to ride horses daily well into her old age (I’m unclear on whether she continue to ride sporadically today at the ripe age of 91). Bedell Smith also shares with the reader the queen’s predilection for making scones or hosting barbecues (at which she would cook herself) for visitors to her vacation estates. I finished the book with the sense that I had gained both a historical perspective on the queen’s reign, and a feeling for who the person behind the crown might be as well.
What I Didn’t Like
The author shows her bias. It’s very clear throughout most of the book that Sally Bedell Smith is enamored with the figure of the queen and the monarchy. It’s somewhat inescapable that and author who chooses to write a biography of a historical figure likely has an admiration for that figure. Unfortunately, this also makes Bedell Smith a biased and therefore somewhat unreliable biographer. Bedell Smith’s partiality to the queen honestly didn’t bother me much as a reader – it’s just good to keep it in mind as you read. The real issue I had with the author’s bias was in the case of Diana. Bedell Smith seems to absolutely hate Diana and takes every possible chance in the book to berate her and judge her for her choices. The author’s outlook on Diana and Prince Charles’ marriage is essentially that Diana was a disturbed person who drove Prince Charles to cheating on her out of frustration. As a woman, that’s a difficult interpretation to swallow. I’m not one of those people who think everything Diana touched turned to gold, but having read a very intimate biography of her, I think Bedell Smith’s account of the Princess is so obviously prejudiced that it was annoying to read and a real failing in this biography.
Highly detailed and engaging account of Queen Elizabeth II’s life that mixes the historical and the private in creating a warm and inspiring portrait of the queen – despite obvious negative bias on the author’s part towards Princess Diana.
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
Publication Date: 2007
Publisher: Farrar, Sraus and Giroux
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
The author of the Tony Award winner The History Boys, Alan Bennett is one of Britain’s best-loved literary voices. With The Uncommon Reader, he brings us a playful homage to the written word, imagining a world in which literature becomes a subversive bridge between powerbrokers and commoners. By turns cheeky and charming, the novella features the Queen herself as its protagonist.
When her yapping corgis lead her to a mobile library, Her Majesty develops a new obsession with reading. She finds herself devouring works by a tantalizing range of authors, from the Brontë sisters to Jean Genet. With a young member of the palace kitchen staff guiding her choices, it’s not long before the Queen begins to develop a new perspective on the world – one that alarms her closest advisers and tempts her to make bold new decisions. Brimming with the mischievous wit that has garnered acclaim for Bennett on both sides of the Atlantic, The Uncommon Reader is a delightful celebration of books and writers, and the readers who sustain them.
What I Liked
It was delightful. I didn’t know what to expect exactly from the premise of this novella, but it was like finding the perfect present you never even knew you wanted. While Sally Bedell Smith’s biography of the queen is a tour-de-force of details and analysis, Bennett’s fictional take on the queen’s life is whimsical, light and brief. I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of the factual account of the queen’s life to Bennett’s re-imagining of her private thoughts and inward candor. Bennett mixes realistic elements of royal ritual and retinue that will be familiar after reading Bedell Smith’s book, while giving the reader a fanciful glimpse into the imagined sarcastic wit and rebellious spirit of the monarch. From an improbable starting point – the queen stumbling on a mobile library behind Buckingham Palace one day – Bennett’s portrayal of the queen as a newfound bibliophile felt unexpectedly relatable to a book-lover like me. Only for someone like the queen would taking up such a mundane hobby as reading become not just a matter of personal enjoyment and enrichment, but a state scandal.
It was written for readers. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but if you love books like I do, this novella will touch your heart. There are so many great quotes about reading pressed into its 120 pages (a few good ones below), and it’s very amusing to follow the imaginary journey of a pubic figure like the queen as she discovers reading for pleasure – something many of us already know is thrilling. It was endlessly charming to watch the queen explore different places to read, be so engrossed in a book that she refused to put it down even while in a car on the way to a state function, and realize how reading was reawakening a mind that had stagnated from needing to seem impartial on all issues. I ended up highlighting all of the authors/books that were mentioned in the book, and you can find an incomplete list of them on the novella’s Wikipedia page. Among them were some of my favorites and then some which I had never read but would consider picking up, now that they’ve been indirectly recommended by the fictional monarch.
“What she was finding also was how one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren’t long enough for the reading she wanted to do.”
“The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something undeferring 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.”
“I would have thought,” said the prime minister, “that Your Majesty was above literature.” “Above literature?” said the Queen. “Who is above literature? You might as well say one is above humanity.”
What I Didn’t Like
It left me wishing for more. Part of me was intrigued by the idea of reading a book that is barely more than 100 pages long, after the 300 to 500 page ones that are my usual fare. It was nice to be able to tick one of the boxes on my Goodreads challenge to read 120 books this year, and to do so in just a few hours. However, I was so utterly enraptured with Bennett’s portrayal of the queen that I wanted to see more of her, whether within this same plot or another one. In Bennett’s imagination, the queen is shrewd, curious and with a biting-wit she often only lets loose within her own thoughts. I started to imagine what it would be like to read a series of crime mysteries with this version of the queen as accidental detective – maybe the case of the missing tiara, or something like that. I just loved the character, loved the writing and wished badly that this was part of a series of novellas of the queen discovering new hobbies late in life (maybe chess or astronomy next?).
Sweet, charming, delightful (and every other synonym you can think of for these words), The Uncommon Reader is the perfect palate cleanser for the serious reader.
Have you read Elizabeth The Queen or The Uncommon Reader? What did you think of them? Do you agree with my ratings? Let me know in the comments.
I compiled links to all the 28 book reviews I posted in Summer 2017 on my blog in this post – check it out for more recommendations.
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