The Lady In the Van (review)

The Lady in the Van
Alan Bennett

After I read Alan Bennett’s delightful The Uncommon Reader (review link here) I do what all readers do, I assume—I ran to get my hands on another of the author’s works. The library had a copy of a two-fer: The Clothes They Stood Up In (another novella) and The Lady In The Van (a non-fiction narrative); both pieces center around how the stuff in our lives can entrap us. The novella is about a couple who returns from a night out to find their flat bare, stripped of everything right down to the toilet paper and curtain rings. Now the Ransomes are a proper English couple, and LadyVanmuch of their life is spent keeping up appearances—but Mrs. Ransome finds that in shedding her possessions (albeit unwillingly), she gains a new sense of freedom and independence.

The book’s companion piece is the non-fiction The Lady in the Van.  Miss Mary Shepherd is a homeless (sort-of) elderly woman forced to move the van-which-was-her-home from spot-to-spot only to park at last on the writer’s street. Concerned for her safety, Bennett invites her to park in his yard—presumably for a short time. But days became weeks became months and we watch the relationship between the writer and Miss Shepherd develop with a kind of tumultous tenderness that changed them both. This is a story about mental illness and community and one would assume the story’s focus would be the Crazy Lady. And to some extent it is, of course. But it’s also a story (and I would contend it’s the real story here) about how reaching out to others often transforms us more than it does those we “help”.

The Lady in the Van was a 1999 theatrical production in London and is now a film to be released sometime this year  starring the inimitable Maggie Smith, who also starred in the original play. I had no idea this was in the making until my husband shared a film trailer he thought I’d like. “Of course I like it,” I said after watching, “ Considering I read the book several years ago.”

There’s little of Maggie Smith’s work that I haven’t adored and from what I can see in the trailer, she’s made for The Lady in the Van. I think you might agree.

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