This novella has a simple but enjoyable premise, which Alan Bennett exploits with his sharp and intelligent wit.
The queen, unusually for her, is at a loose end in Buckingham Palace and goes for walk. Around a corner she doesn’t usually walk around she discovers a mobile library. Thinking it rude not to, she borrows a book from it. This first book sets her off on an odyssey of reading. She reads for pleasure, but also her reading educates her and opens her mind. And all this reading leads to a surprising ending.
Bennett was the first playwright to include the queen as a character in a play, to have an actress portray her on the London stage. Her character stole the second act of his double bill of one-act plays, Single Spies. Here he portrays her as the central character of this story, through whose eyes we watch the gently unfolding events.
Bennett’s prose is simple but still very enjoyable, and his wit is not dampened here. There are many jokes and comic scenes, again with the queen getting some of the best lines. But Bennett’s prose is also very readable; you can almost hear his distinctive voice as you read it.
His characterisation of the queen is gentle and affectionate; he doesn’t send her up or portray her as too privileged and out-of-touch. But her character is written very much to serve his plot. This book is about the power and necessity of reading. Here books are a gateway into a new way of thinking and ultimately living. This story is also about the power and necessity of public libraries. The queen doesn’t discover the power of literature from the books hidden away in her own private library but from that most public of public libraries, a mobile library. It is ironic that Bennett uses a mobile library as the trigger for his plot, the thing that was invented to provide libraries to our remotest communities here turning up in the centre of London.
This is only a slight book, a novella, but no less enjoyable for it. Bennett knows exactly when to end it and how to quietly make his points.