It is a truism that truth is stranger than fiction, and Alan Bennett’s The lady in the van is one work that proves it. It is strange – and wonderful – that a woman could have lived the way the eponymous lady did for as long as she did, and it is equally strange – and wonderful – that Bennett allowed her to do so in his front yard for as long as he did.
This piece was first published in the London Review of Books in 1989, but I only happened across it this year, twice! First was in the form of a BBC-4 audio CD given to my mother-in-law for Christmas by my brother. She was both mystified and entranced by it and insisted I hear it. Second was, soon after, in a review by kimbofo at Reading Matters. It became clear that this was meant to be my year for The lady in the van! And so, a couple of weeks ago I finally heard the CD, and today I finished the book. Like many before me, I was charmed.
The lady in the van is a simple tale about an eccentric old lady (though she’s only in her late 50s when the story starts in 1969) who lives in a van which Bennett eventually allows her to park in his front yard. That was in March 1974 and it continued until her death in 1989. Fifteen years! It reminded me a little of the Maylses Brothers‘ documentary film, Grey Gardens, which documents the lives of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, also Edith Bouvier Beale, Jackie Kennedy’s aunt and cousin. Due to lack of funds they lived for years in dilapidation and squalor. But, while Bennett’s lady, Miss Shepherd, also lived in squalor, it’s the feisty eccentricity in all these women that associate them in my mind. They are all women who, despite their rather desperate circumstances (for whatever reason), refused to be ground down by it, who maintained some sense of pride and self in the face of a life most of us could not comprehend.
Anyhow, back to Bennett. The story is told primarily through diary excerpts, with a brief introduction, and a postscript added in 1994. In the beginning, there was Miss Shepherd (the name she gives but not her real name) and she was parked in the street in Alan Bennett’s neighbourhood. The first diary entry starts in October 1969, nearly 5 years before she moves into his front yard. Bennett explains how it is that she managed to live in her van on the neighbourhood streets for so long:
What made the social set-up funny was the disparity between the style in which the new arrivals found themselves able to live and their progressive opinions: guilt, put simply, which today’s gentrifiers are said famously not to feel … There was a gap between our social position and our social obligations. It was in this gap that Miss Shepherd (in her van) was able to live.
The whole thing does, I have to say, sound particularly English – the tolerance that enabled her to live that way for so long, and the polite and reserved rather than familiar “relationship” she and Bennett maintained over the years. Throughout the twenty years that the story covers, we learn a fair amount about Miss Shepherd despite her pretty effective attempts to keep herself to herself. We learn that she is committed to the Catholic Church (had in fact tried to be a nun) and politically conservative, and that she occupies herself selling pencils and writing letters and pamphlets. We also learn some things about Bennett, that he is kind (keeping an eye on her throughout, while respecting her privacy) but also that he likes a quiet life:
I was never under any illusion that the impulse [to let her in and stay] was purely charitable … But I wanted a quiet life as much as, and possibly more than, she did.
Bennett gives us a vivid picture of Miss S, through her bizarre sense of dress (including a skirt made of dusters) and her little speech mannerisms, such as her frequent use of the word “possibly”. One of Miss S’s problems is hygiene and toileting, and by the end she is incontinent. Throughout the story, Bennett refers to the smell (stench, actually) of her van. One day he mentions the smell to her, and she responds:
Well, what can you expect when they’re [construction workers] raining bricks down on me all day? And then I think there’s a mouse. So that would make a cheesy smell, possibly.
This is a woman with pride, despite the destitute situation she finds herself in. She is also resilient and sly, and contrives to pretty well always get what she wants. Bennett tells the story with humour but not patronisingly – and this is because it’s a humour that contains admiration for her resourcefulness, for someone who “even when she is poorly … knows exactly what she is about”. How could he do otherwise with a woman who announces to him: “I was a born tragedian … or a comedian possibly”. He clearly struggles with how much he should intervene and how much he wants to intervene. It’s a pretty invidious position to be in really – how far can you (should you, do you) extend charity?
All this said, there is something uncomfortable about it all, as there is about Grey Gardens, and this is the voyeurism involved. Both are truly fascinating stories – but a fascination tinged with horror. Are we plundering their lives for our own entertainment, or are we learning something about the resilience of the human spirit? It’s a fine line: I think Bennett, like the Maysles, has managed to draw it in the right place, and this is because of the humility and real affection with which they have presented these women. Bennett ends up, in the postscript
wondering at the bold life she has had and how it contrasts with my own timid way of going on – living, as Camus said, slightly the opposite of expressing. And I see how the location of Miss Shepherd’s van in front but to the side of where I write is the location of most of the stuff I write about; that too is to the side, and never what faces me.
The lady in the van
London: Profile Books, 1999
The lady in the van (audio)
BBC Audiobooks, 2009
85 mins running time