Friday, November 16, 2007

The Clothes They Stood Up In and The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett

These two stories, packaged together in one volume, provide an interesting take on homes and possessions, and what they mean.

In The Clothes They Stood Up In, Mr. and Mrs. Ransome return from the opera to find that their lovely middle class home has been stripped bare. The burglars have even taken the light bulbs and the telephone. What does it mean to lose all your possessions? Once the Ransomes recover from their initial shock, both find it freeing, for different reasons. The story is silly on a grand scale; in an earlier post I likened it to Ionesco’s Bald Soprano, where odd people pop in and out, saying even odder things. Yet it’s also poignant and touching, especially at the end.

In The Lady in the Van, Bennett tells the story of Mrs. Shepherd, who lived in a van in his driveway for 15 years. This is not a novella; I think this story must be true. Bennett refers to himself by his own name throughout the story. He recounts how Mrs. Shepherd arrives in his upper-middle-class London neighborhood, parking her van on his street at night, and how she insinuates herself into the lives of the residents, eventually becoming dependent on their help. It’s obvious that she is one of the many mentally ill people who inhabit large cities, not sick enough to be institutionalized, not really well enough to live independently. She is in turn charming, bull headed, creative, and exasperating. What good people Bennett and his neighbors were to care for this woman. When she finally dies, it is Bennett’s job to empty and dispose of her van. His recounting of the contents is funny and revealing.

I didn't like either of these stories as much as I liked The Uncommon Reader which I read a few weeks. It's interesting though that all three of these stories feature women going through transformations.

(Book 51, 2007)


Anonymous said...

The Lady in the Van may well be a true story. I remember reading a similar story in Free Lance in the TLS years ago. edgar

herschelian said...

The Lady in the Van is indeed a true story. 30+ years ago when I was newly married my husband and I lived in a flat in Camden Town just round the corner from Alan Bennett's house, and walked past Miss Shepherd and her van many a time. She could be quite intimidating. I always thought that it was very noble hearted of Bennett to put up with her for all those years, most people would have called the authorities and had her removed.

Becky Holmes said...

Herschelian, thanks for this information. I am lucky you read this post!

Anonymous said...

What fascinating stories, particularly the latter. The fact that it's true just makes it all the more poignant.

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