On Books

My book of the month: The Lady in The Van

846520This month it’s not a book but a short story, The Lady in The Van by Alan Bennett.

There was a time when I read  Alan Bennett‘s books regularly. From my place in the world, Down Under, reading Bennett was like peering through a window into a neighbour’s front parlour. (Of course the very notion of a front parlour is quintessentially British; and colonial, perhaps.) In doing so I observed a way of life that was oddly familiar and yet simultaneously very different from my own in what the British like to call The Antipodes, but for me is Aotearoa—home.

Bennett’s politics, his antipathy to all things Thatcher, his pre-occupation with education and fairness and a decent life for everyone, and his warmth, his regard for the ordinary person sit well with me.  The collections Writing Home and Untold Stories, the play The History Boys, the movie The Madness of King George were amongst my favourites for years. And then after the release of the very funny The Uncommon Reader, I changed. Or perhaps he did. Like a friendship that grows distant, it’s difficult to say who was the first to step away. Whichever, my reading habits and my preoccupations moved to other matters and Alan Bennett dropped off my list.

But for a while, Bennett’s books were like a bridge into a world of might have beens. My forebears are English and, although our family had lived in New Zealand for almost a century by the time I was born, throughout my childhood my grandparents and parents referred to the UK as home. The books were a way of understanding what life might have been like  if I had, in fact, been born in the UK, had an Oxbridge education or, more likely, not, or lived out my life in London. Moreover, a New Zealander I knew did move to London and became, as people born immediately after WWII seemed to when they moved from “the colonies” to the UK, more British than the British of the day; reading Bennett afforded me a glimpse of their English life.

Earlier this year when I noticed that the movie The Lady in the Van was due to be released with Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd, I knew it would be a must see for me.

And I knew, in keeping with a long held tradition—read the book before seeing the movie—the story would be a must reread.

Reread it, I have.

To say reading Bennett again is like picking up where we left off, would be inaccurate. It wasn’t instant love. My reading tastes have changed.  After A God in Ruins, and The Neapolitan series, the minutiae of day to day life with Miss Shepherd ensconced in her van between Mr Bennett’s front door and his gate missed the point for me—at first. I wanted something bigger, something meatier to think about.

Eventually, Bennett’s ability to tell a story, his droll British humour, and his love of people drew me back in. I was the one missing the point. There’s no lack of substance in this story. If you pay attention.

I found myself laughing out loud as I read. There’s much to laugh at and with:

She retired early and would complain if anyone called or left late at night. On one occasion Carole Browne was coming away from the house with her husband Vincent Price, and they were talking quietly. ‘Pipe down’, snapped the voice from the van, ‘I’m trying to sleep.’ For someone who had brought terror to millions  it was an unexpected taste of his own medicine.

When Bennett drew the line at allowing Miis Shepherd regular access his bathroom, I found myself thinking, How could you. And then I thought, how could she, as again and again she imposed herself on him and others, more often than not, ungratefully.

Yes, this story brought my censorious self to the fore. But by the time I tapped the final screen on my Kindle, I was admiring Alan Bennett’s fortitude, and yet, like him, conflicted about the situation. Could he have done more? More importantly, would I have done as much?  The truth is, on both counts, likely not. Even more powerfully, although my life is vastly different from that of Miss Shepherd’s, Bennett’s astute observations, his skills in telling the story meant I could easily imagine what life was like for her, readily comprehend, despite the dominant narrative of our times—that we choose the lives we lead, it is chance and circumstance which separates her situation from mine. She was I concluded, merely making the best of things as best she could. And that is Bennett’s great talent: his ability to expose the humanity that resides in all of us:

In giving her sanctuary in my garden and landing myself with a tenancy that went on eventually for fifteen years I was never under any illusion that the impulse was purely charitable. And of course it made me furious that I had been driven to such a pass. But I wanted a quiet life as much as, and possibly more than, she did. In the garden she was at least out of harm’s way.

Reading Alan Bennett, after a long hiatus is like meeting up with an old friend, one where estrangement has set in, where life has taken you down different paths, or so you think, until you begin talking once more.

I’m going to the movie this evening. I’m glad I’ve read the story first. For now here’s a clip from the trailer.

The Lady in The Van is the fourth in the collection Four Stories. It is also included in the collection Writing Home.

Have you seen the movie, or read the short story? Tell me, what did you think of it?

24 replies »

  1. I love your piece on this, Jill. Alan Bennett has been on my shelves as long as Miss Shepherd was in his front garden. We are going to the film today and I am anticipating that Miss Shepherd will be a romanticized/sanitized version of herself. I hope I’m wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your book review and will await your review of the film. I have just reviewed it and invite you to drop in and compare notes. I’ve added you to follow.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello CineMuse and welcome to my blog! I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. Brenda from Burns the Fire (see below) commented that it was avery slow start and that’s right, it was. Although, I also think that’s typical of Alan Bennett’s writing, in general. He takes time to build the back story. I thought the scene in the cemetery at the end was just perfect. The whole thing could have been terribly bleak without that. The cameo of Alan Bennett, himself, was a lovely touch but then I’m a huge fan!

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  3. Like Anabel, I’m a huge Bennett fan, and also particularly admire the way he has written about his family. I’ve read The Lady in the Van, in Writing Home. Afterwards, I found myself thinking about it, and imagining Alan Bennett’s quite distinctive voice saying “you couldn’t make it up, could you?”

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  4. I have seen the trailer at the movies a few weeks back and it really touched a chord with me Jill, having lived in Matilda for so long I look forward to seeing Maggie Smith in her van. The movie starts at the cinemas today and we are going to see it next Tuesday with friends who are travellers too. I didn’t know of the book so now I will read it after the movie experience as I sometimes find reading first colours my perceptions of the characters and then the movie version is slightly ( sometimes more than slightly) disappointing.

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    • Gosh, Pauline, I wonder what you throught of the movie! I’m certain your life in Matilda would have differed in some very significant ways from the life Miss Shepherd lived. Did you enjoy the movie?

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      • Just got back from seeing the movie. What an amazing actress Maggie Smith is. Oh dear quite different to our experience of van living. I enjoyed the movie, but at times the friends we went with found it a bit harrowing having had parents with dementia . What a patient and tolerant man Alan Bennett was. What did you think of it.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I did enjoy the movie. I didn’t say this in the post but I was worried I might find it a bit on the bleak side. And although, like the short story it does grapple with some very difficult issues they were well handled and I walked out of the theatre thinking Miss Shepherd’s life had been honoured and respected.

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    • It was a slow start, Brenda. I think that’s typical of Alan Bennett’s style. Some people love it, others get frustrated. The story of Miss Shepherd and Alan Bennett’s response to her arrival in his life and ultimately her take over of his driveway, is very moving, isn’t it. I hope you enjoy the story, when you read it.

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  5. I have not seen the movie – but I have read the story, and most of Alan Bennett’s output. He is truly a national treasure (though I think he hates that idea). I find the stories about his parents the most moving, such tenderness – mixed with exasperation!

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    • Hi Anabel, yes, I suspect he would hate the idea that he is a national treasure. Nevertheless, somehow he manages a shine a light on what it is to be British—that’s what it looks like to me from my place in the world. But he does more than that, too. His work shows us the complexity of being human: that capacity we all have, that you have put so well, to be tender and exasperated with those we love all at the same time.

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