The Fan Club

Manuel Jobert writes in Etudes de Stylistique Anglaise, 3 (2011):

“The purpose of this article is to account for Alan Bennett’s concise and effective way of creating fictional worlds. Readers / viewers of his monologues find themselves plunged in a universe they instantly feel familiar with. Two main narrative strategies account for this particular reader- response. Alan Bennett resorts to what I venture to call “narrative islands”, i.e. short narratives inside the main story that incite readers / viewers to sympathise with the speaker. Furthermore, the readers’ experience is repeatedly called upon : schemas are reinforced and / or refreshed and specific lexico-syntactic constructions are utilised to convey implied meaning…

Although the twelve monologues of Talking Heads form a whole, each monologue can be read / watched independently. “Bed among the Lentils” (BAL) is the monologue of a vicar’s wife, Susan, who is an alcoholic and has an affair with an Indian shop-keeper. The discourse world, which encompasses the discourse participants, is rather straightforward with the speaker, Susan, addressing the viewer. However, she hovers between two different modes : a confession mode (addressed to an invisible friend, i.e. the viewers) and a self- reflecting mode (addressed to herself, the viewers eavesdropping). This dual audience principle is crucial to prevent the monologue from being too contrived and protracted and these constant shifts between two modes add to the fluidity of the piece. The overall impression is that of a one-to-one conversation, albeit one-sided, thus creating some proximity with the speaker.

…Several “narrative islands” can be found in BAL, including the “after service ritual”, the “lunch with the bishop”, the “love scene with the Asian grocer” etc. They depict very concrete situations in which objects – like props – play a crucial role, thus adding to the physicality of the scenes…

…The orientation is made explicit : “On this particular morning” ; Susan, the speaker, Mrs Frobisher and Mrs Belcher ; at the church. The complicating action is the argument between Susan and the two ladies about flower arrangement. The resolution is Susan’s collapse because of alcohol. The coda is her coming round with the shift in the tenses…

…In the following examples, the speaker leaves the time reference of the episode in order to express her point of view on the situation in hand whilst retaining the same tense :

“Is that blood Veronica ?” […] “Well”, says Mrs Shrubsole, reluctant to concede to Mrs B on any matter remotely touching medicine, “it could be, I suppose”. (78)

The speaker’s point is to highlight the petty rivalry between the two ladies while keeping a seemingly impartial stance. Impartiality collapses in the following example but is counterbalanced by humour that swiftly takes over :

“Why ?” She smiled sweetly. “Do you have any preference ?” The only preference I have is to shove my chrysanthemums up her nose but instead I practise a bit of Christian forbearance and go stick them in a vase by the lectern…”…”

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