Jenny McCartney Jenny McCartney

The Queen’s Reading Room needs more Queen

Plus: Free Thinking's episode on the art of the essay is perfect for January

Queen Camilla reads from Lion and Mouse during her 2023 visit to Nairobi. Photo: Samir Hussein / Wire Image

In the dog days of winter, when venturing out under darkened, sleety skies is to be avoided if at all possible, an online book club often seems the most appealing kind there is. Here in the UK, on territory in which the daytime TV hosts Richard and Judy once held undisputed reign, a bookish royal has entered the fray: Queen Camilla, whose ‘reading room’ and associated charity was launched on Instagram during the pandemic, and has now branched into podcasts.

The first episode of The Queen’s Reading Room was introduced by the charity’s chief executive Vicki Perrin, to the background music of insistently vivacious strings, the kind they let rip in royal period dramas as squealing young duchesses chase each other through palace corridors before coming face-to-face with a tight-lipped governess. Perrin gave way to the episode’s star guest, crime novelist Sir Ian Rankin, who – the questions having been edited out – appeared to be cast adrift on a long personal reflection about his literary journey and tastes.

What the podcast seems to be missing is a great deal of the Queen herself

Still, it made for agreeable listening. Sir Ian’s one of the growing band of prominent men (see also Rishi Sunak) who attest to a deep affection for the works of Jilly Cooper. Snowbound in a French farmhouse one year, and having devoured all other available books, he fell back on his wife’s copy of Rivals, only to relish its ‘fantastic escapist fun’. Those who grew up, as I did, reading the breezy and saucy Imogen, Harriet and Octavia, with a younger Jilly gamely pouting in soft focus from the cover, may well share the nostalgia. But the book he revisits every few years is Muriel Spark’s The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie. It’s a slim volume at only 120 pages, but it’s ‘a Tardis’: its interior life gets bigger every time he reads it.

What the podcast seems to be missing, as others have noted, is a great deal of the Queen herself: she appears briefly in an audio clip from a 2021 chat with the crime writer Peter James to ask him how he thinks up his plots, and again to reveal that she enjoys reading Harry Potter to her grandchildren, although Charles is better at mimicry and can ‘do all the voices’. Although these are early days, it would be a pity if the Queen were only to make snippety cameos on her own podcast, especially as she is an enthusiastic reader and – one suspects – sparkier in real life.

On the charity’s website, for example, her longer Clarence House chat with the grande dame of Irish literature, the marginally more regal Edna O’Brien, was curiously compelling. With a sharper format – more akin to Desert Island Discs, say – selected guest interviewers and a more relaxed Queen given freer rein when she does make an entrance, this podcasting gambol in the royal library could have a lot further to run.

Over on Radio 4, Rana Mitter and his guests were mulling the art of the essay, and what made a good one. The father of the genre, everyone agreed, was the 16th-century nobleman Michel de Montaigne, whose Essais, or ‘Attempts’, emphasised their exploratory nature. Montaigne enjoyed collapsing certainties and sauntering through the avenues of doubt: he had a medal inscribed with the words ‘What do I know?’, and often revised his essays.

The group were keen to banish grim memories of university essay crises, and reframe the genre as a playful, elegant intellectual game. ‘For me, the essay begins with the question “what if?”,’ said the author Kirsty Gunn: you have to pick up the idea and follow it ‘as far as it can go’. The direction should be surprising and the connections unexpected. Various titles had impressed them as models of the art: Virginia Woolf on being ill; Alexander Lee on the search for the origins of swifts; Zadie Smith on changing her mind.

Sometimes the essay’s journey is literal as well as metaphorical: Paul Lay, the former editor of History Today, described writing one about joining the long, snaking queue to pass Queen Elizabeth II as she was lying in state. He found himself surprisingly moved by this solemn ritual playing out between people and sovereign, even as historians on social media were being determinedly sneery. Elsewhere, Lay threw a few small but welcome firecrackers into the otherwise acutely harmonious discussion. The problem with many academic essays, he said, is that ‘a lot of academics can’t write’. He even described Orwell as ‘quite a malign influence on the English language’ – to the host’s evident excitement – but only because Orwell’s beautifully spare essay style spawned so many imitators that it had stultified the form. 

This type of programme is particularly suited to January, the month of self-improvement. It allowed me to add ‘revisit Montaigne’ to a long list that otherwise included ‘assemble information for the tax return’ and ‘clean out the bathroom cupboards’. But first, recovering from the mid-winter lurgy, I thought I’d read Woolf’s On Being Ill for the first time. ‘What wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light,’ she wrote. Too right, Virginia.