The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett

I’ve not seen the movie, or the play.  I’m not sure that I want to see either, even though I expect that Maggie Smith is magnificent in the movie.  I found this book unsettling, as it reminds me of uncomfortable truths, of lives lived on the margin of our supposedly civilized society.  I found this book uplifting, too, as Miss Shepherd was more or less able to live her life on her own terms.

The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett

‘In the garden she was at least out of harm’s way.’

In a series of short diary entries, in a book of 100 pages, Alan Bennett writes of Miss Mary Shepherd, ‘The Lady in the Van’.  A film has been made of this book, as has a play.  The book is short enough to read in one sitting, but it isn’t a book to read and forget.  Who was Miss Mary Shepherd, and why did she live like this?  Would we know anything about her if she hadn’t crossed Alan Bennett’s path?

‘In giving her sanctuary in my garden and landing myself with a tenancy that went on eventually for fifteen years I was never under any illusion that the impulse was purely charitable.  And of course it made me furious that I had been driven to such a pass.  But I wanted a quiet life as much as, and possibly more than she did.’

Miss Mary Shepherd lived in a succession of vans in author Alan Bennett’s front yard during the 1970s.  From Mr Bennett’s description, she was a cantankerous, eccentric and homeless old woman with mental health and hygiene issues living in squalid conditions.  She was also fiercely independent, not wanting help.    Mary Shepherd was a name that she’d adopted, and it wasn’t until after she’d passed away that Alan Bennett found out anything much about her family or her past.

Yet, sad as Miss Shepherd’s situation seems to me, she was clearly engaging with the world on her own terms.  How many other Miss (or Mr) Shepherds are there, largely unseen, within our communities?

Jennifer Cameron-Smith