Quite by chance, as I perused the new release shelf at the library, I picked up the 2015 movie based on Alan Bennett’s autobiographical narrative and play, “The Lady in the Van.”
In the movie, Maggie Smith revisits her original West End role of Miss Shepherd, a sixty-year-old woman who parks her van in Bennett’s driveway at 23, Gloucester Crescent in north London, and stays for fifteen years, from 1974-1989. Her character is self-centered, exasperating and problematic. Somewhat pitiable, her eventual death is sad and uplifting at the same time.
Miss Shepherd is an enigma, a woman of no known address, for whom no one, except Bennett, especially cares. She is a registered voter, receives government benefits, and has a bank account. Miss Shepherd writes political pamphlets and sits on the sidewalk and sells pencils. During her fifteen-year residency, she paints her succession of vans a brilliant “scrambled egg” yellow.Bennett is perplexed by his situation. Should he evict her, or enlist the assistance of social services to find her suitable housing? Over the years, he takes careful notes of conversations with his driveway tenant. She tells him she was an ambulance driver during World War II, a novitiate in a convent, and a concert pianist—all which Bennett verifies, as well as her mental breakdown. After her death, he learns that she held herself responsible for hitting a motorcyclist with her van, though in fact was only guilty of leaving the scene of the accident.
Though Miss Shepherd is the star of the show, we’re aware of Bennett’s successful career as a playwright. Is it an act of kindness that he lets her squat in his driveway, a sense of helplessness, or would his life be empty without her constant, odiferous presence?
In Bennett’s play about his years with Miss Shepherd, he splits his role between two actors:
“The device of having two actors playing me isn’t just a bit of theatrical showing off and does, however crudely, correspond to the reality. There was one bit of me (often irritated and resentful) that had to deal with this unwelcome guest camped literally on my doorstep, but there was another bit of me that was amused by how cross this eccentric lodger made me and that took pleasure in Miss Shepherd’s absurdities and outrageous demands.” (Bennett, The Lady in the Van, xxii).
In addition to the play, which the movie closely follows, Bennett published his diary excerpts about Miss Shepherd:
“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. In the garden she was at least out of harm’s way.” (The Clothes They Stood Up In and The Lady in the Van, p.148).
At the end of her life, using a wheelchair and walking sticks, Miss Shepherd agrees to visit a day center where she takes a bath and has her clothes laundered. Bedded down in the van between clean sheets, she dies in her sleep that night.
“It is a beautiful day, with the garden glittering in the sunshine, strong shadows by the nettles, and bluebells out under the wall, and I remember how in her occasional moments of contemplation she would sit in the wheelchair and gaze at the garden. I am filled with remorse for my harsh conduct towards her, though I know at the same time that it was not harsh.” (The Clothes They Stood Up In and The Lady in the Van, p.197).
Readers, have you cared for an elderly or eccentric person? Or have you contemplated life in a van? I’ve easily lived half my life during the past twenty years in my ’97 van, transporting my children and their belongings.
Bennett, Alan. The Lady in the Van, London: Faber and Faber, 2000.
Bennett, Alan. The Clothes They Stood Up In and The Lady in the Van, New York: Random House, 2002.
“The Lady in the Van,” 2015. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, screenplay by Alan Bennett.