‘What does Your Majesty like?’

The Queen hesitated, because to tell the truth she wasn’t sure. She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn’t have hobbies. Jogging, growing roses, chess or rock-climbing, cake decoration, model aeroplanes. No. Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; preferences excluded people. One had no preferences. Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself. And besides, reading wasn’t doing. She was a doer.

The first time I visited London, a friend took me on a guided tour of sorts, taking in all the sights with a particular emphasis on Buckingham Palace. We stood outside the gates with the throng of tourists and my friend drew my attention to the flag on top of the building. “That means the Queen is in residence”, she said. At the time I expressed a great reluctance even to stand outside Buckingham Palace. I am a lapsed Irish nationalist, but every now and then I feel a flush of wounded racial pride. When I found myself looking up at that flag and all the pomp and ceremony of the guard patrols, the ornateness of the palace itself, I felt a surprising degree of sympathy for the royals. It all seemed so insular and removed from the life of modern London.

Over the course of my own lifetime their status as national symbols has become ever more precarious. How much worse must the decay of that esteem for the institution seem to the Queen herself, remembering how important her family’s refusal to leave London was regarded during the Blitz?

This perception of the increasing irrelevance of the role of the British Monarch is treated of in Alan Bennett‘s comic novel. The push and pull between the public and private lives of the Queen herself becomes rich material for a surprisingly thoughtful examination of the potential future importance of the Royal Family in British affairs.

It is also a book about how the love of reading can change one’s life.

Her Royal Highness has come to discover an interest in reading late in life. A fortuitous meeting with a member of her kitchen staff at a mobile library introduces her to a new kind of activity – reading for pleasure. The Queen’s life is dominated by her sense of duty, one which has isolated her from her own privileged existence. She has been to so many places, met so many great minds and leaders – and yet conversation has been limited to polite chit-chat, her experiences stage-managed for public consumption.

Norman the former kitchen staff becomes her ‘amanuensis’, a guide to a wider world of letters. Amusingly she chooses the works of Nancy Mitford as her introduction to literature – after all, she knew the family – and from there often finds herself reading the words of authors she has met, even knighted, but sadly had nothing to say to. Norman encourages her interests and quickly comes to be seen as a nuisance by the staff at the palace, especially Sir Kevin who has taken on the role of making HRH more appealing to the general public. The Queen’s new interest has inspired her to inquire more into the lives of the people she meets, a topic of conversation they are often unprepared for. Even the Prime Minister of France finds himself nonplussed when she asks his opinion on Jean Genet. Obviously the books – and Norman – will have to go.

Fans of the recent Oscar smash The King’s Speech will find much to enjoy here, although Bennett has bigger fish to fry. As I have mentioned above, one of the fascinating threads in this novel is how the Queen’s new found interest causes her to question much of the tired and moribund traditions controlling her life. The cynicism of government ministers towards this newly invigorated Queen drives the plot to a fascinating climax. With some unexpected help from Marcel Proust.

Of course, Bennett’s optimism of how this scenario of a suddenly engaged Monarch would play out must contend with the actual behaviour of the current heir to the throne, who thinks nothing of using his position to interfere with government policies on issues that interest him.

Witty, humane and even somewhat radical in a genteel sort of way, which is only fitting.

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