Two novellas written by playwright and author Alan Bennett which both showcase his sense of humor and his gentle handling of people’s odd foibles and habits. I had read Bennett’s autobiographical work of letters and essays last year or so, and had enjoyed it although the name-dropping was wasted on me as I was not familiar with most of them. It was in that book (Writing Home) that there was the first mention of The Lady in the Van.
Bennett must have had a heart of pure gold to allow curmudgeonly Miss Shepherd (the namesake of the van story) to live in her rickety old van permanently for years in his own driveway in London. I think that the original agreement for her and her van/home to stay there must have been somewhat impulsive and occasionally regrettable as she was filthy and rudely eccentric. His neighborly heart must be bigger than mine. I wonder how his neighbors felt about this act of generosity?
This novella, The Lady in the Van, is an entertaining collection of Bennett’s diary entries over the fifteen years she lived on his property and she was quite the character. Bennett does a great job of describing the ongoing mix of charitable intentions and unutterable frustration this neighbor caused in his life, but regardless of what obstacles she raises, he continues in a vein of kindness. Not a God-like level of kindness, but just an ongoing sweetness of spirit that I can’t imagine having myself for this woman. (She was a very cantankerous woman who had unexplainable and unchanging filthy habits not helped by the fact that she elected to live in a space that was without plumbing or electricity.) When she eventually died, it was received by a perfectly understandable mixture of relief and grief for Bennett.
The other novella, The Clothes They Stood Up In, concerns the fictional story of a middle class middle-aged couple who, after having lived in their flat for 35 years, come home after an evening at the opera to find that every single thing they had previously owned had been stolen — everything from the silver tableware to the box of matches and the casserole that was cooking in the oven.
Bennett is very skilled at describing characters and writing their thought processes so that I, as the reader, really felt as though I would know these people in real life – the husband, a staid solicitor with conservative views and a quiet subdued wife who takes everything at her husband’s word. Their differing reactions to the burglary and how it changes these two individuals was well described and although the explanation about the robbery was somewhat contrived, the ending rang very true for me.
Bennett is a master writer and it is not surprising that he has been recognized with numerous awards. He seems to have an affinity for damaged characters, but perhaps it’s more of a fondness for the human race as aren’t we all damaged in some way really?
A funny and poignant read.