The Lady in the Van
by Alan Bennett
This is my third Alan Bennett and, honestly, my least favourite. It’s also the first of his non-fiction memoirs that I’ve read, which doesn’t bode well for completing his backlist as that’s the bulk of his work.
This particular story, made into a film last year starring Maggie Smith, is about the decidedly odd Miss Shepherd, who lived in a van on Bennett’s driveway from 1974 until 1989. First published in 1989, this is essentially annotated and edited excerpts from Bennett’s diaries in those years. He is fighting very hard not to judge the elderly “Miss S.” for her eccentricities, and he is certainly extremely tolerant in the face of her difficult temperament. And she is extremely difficult.
“October 1969. When she is not in the van Miss S. spends much of her day sitting on the pavement in Parkway…She sells tracts, entitled ‘True View: Mattering Things’, which she writes herself, though this isn’t something she will admit…She generally chalks the gist of the current pamphlet on the pavement, though with no attempt at artistry…She also makes a few coppers selling pencils. ‘A gentleman came the other day and said that the pencil he had bought from me was the best pencil on the market at the present time. It lasted him three months. He’ll be back for another one shortly.’ D., one of the more conventional neighbours…stops me and says, ‘Tell me, is she a genuine eccentric?’ ”
That said. I feel a little odd about the fact that Bennett wrote a book, then a play, then a screenplay based on funny anecdotes of an old sick woman who really existed. This is less funny than Bennett’s fiction, as the humour is mixed with drama and pathos. It’s touching. It’s also extremely brief. We, like Bennett, learn very little about Miss S. and even less about Bennett’s life in those years. This is simply a series of vignettes. There are some eye-opening and even upsetting details about the indignities of old age.
I’m very keen to see the film because Maggie Smith is amazing. And as for Bennett, should I give his memoir-style books another chance? I have Writing Home on my TBR so I guess that’ll be the test!
First published 1989 by London Review of Books. Postscript added in 1994.
Source: Present from my Dad.