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Testimonies from the Margins

A ‘Dorothy Hodgkin of vagabonds, a derelict Nobel Prize-Winner’ (PB 65):1 The Spectacularisation of Social Invisibility in Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van (1989)

« Une Dorothy Hodgkin des vagabonds, une lauréate pouilleuse du prix Nobel » : la spectacularisation de l’invisibilité sociale dans La dame à la camionnette d’Alan Bennett
Georges Letissier


Avant de devenir un récit, une pièce de théâtre et, plus récemment un film (2015), La dame à la camionnette a été un (non-)événement fortuit dans la vie d’Alan Bennett. Tout a commencé quand une clocharde qui vivait dans une camionnette s’est retouvée dans l’allée de son pavillon résidentiel à Camden Town. Tandis que la clocharde s’installait progressivement dans sa routine, Bennett nota dans son journal intime comment cette présence envahissante allait peu à peu entamer son quotidien. A travers La dame à la camionnette le témoignage sociologique se transforme en création esthétique. L’œuvre de Bennett est un mélange de biographie et de drame et Mademoiselle Shepherd tire sa substance d’un être en chair et en os, ou plutôt de détritus et de fèces dans la mesure où, sur le mode hyperréaliste, elle devient rapidement une pustule purulente qui gangrène une banlieue plongée dans l’ataraxie. En se scindant en deux personnages dans la pièce — Alan Bennett et Alan Bennett 2 — le dramatuge contemporain met en exergue le motif de la spécularité/spectacularisation. L’hypervisibilité théâtrale de Mademoiselle Shepherd pourrait souligner en creux le déni d’une individualité sur le plan existentiel et ontologique. Une telle existence interstitielle et liminale, en dépit de son côté spectaculaire — et l’interprétation de Dame Maggie Smith est une véritable prouesse — pourrait bien en dernier ressort effacer le modèle original.

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  • 1 Three sources are cited in the following: first the transcript of Alan Bennett’s feature article ti (...)

1Before becoming a feature article (The London Review of Books 1989), a pocket book (1999), a stage play (1999), a radio play broadcast on BBC radio 4 (2009) and, more recently, a film (2015), The Lady in the Van was a fortuitous (non-)event in Alan Bennett’s life. It all started off when a tramp woman, living in a van, ended up in the driveway of the playwright’s suburban house in Camden Town. Bennett let things happen, out of laziness, complacency and passive fatalism. He was obviously not driven by any commitment to alleviating the plight of the poor and needy woman. Then, as the old bum settled in her routine, Bennett noted down in his diaries how her encroaching presence progressively took its toll on his daily routine.

  • 2 Bennett has repeatedly dealt with the issue of mental illness from first-hand experience, as his mo (...)
  • 3 A similar confusion in the political stance of the lower classes may be seen in Didier Éribon’s Ret (...)

2Alan Bennett’s so-called Lady in the Van, in its many guises (memoirs, review article, play, film-script) resonates with many of the topics raised through the issue of ‘Invisible Lives, Silent Voices’. Firstly, through a paradox, Miss Shepherd, the eponymous lady in the van, leads an invisible life, relegated to the fringes of society. Indeed, she is hardly ever taken any notice of until she starts making a nuisance of herself by intruding into a peaceful gentrified district—with her van. She only happens to be granted a vocal, and subsequently visual, presence through the mediation of a well-known actor and author, Alan Bennett. The latter, for his part, was born in a lower-class family and has shown a sustained interest in the working classes in a play like Enjoy (1980) or in mental illness as a form of exclusion in The Madness of George III (1995), as well as in his 2005 prose collection Untold Stories.2 So today Bennett finds himself in the limelight, his plays are shown in West End venues, and he is a regular guest at radio or TV programmes, while he has repeatedly granted visibility to the downtrodden and unfortunate invisibles in his oeuvre. Moreover, in many respects, he also reflects, more or less wittingly, some of the contradictions inherent in British society today. Disgusted by the Brexit vote, he compared the chief Brexiteers to the Home Guard who during the Second World War believed they would defeat Germany with pitchforks and bravado. Yet, simultaneously, he expresses support and sympathy for the muted and neglected underdog who, in 2016, found an outlet for their anger and resentment in voting Britain out of the EEC. As a result of his humanist, well-intentioned feelings towards the worse off, he supported Jeremy Corbyn whose stance on Europe has not always been consistent before the referendum, nor his position on the issue of antisemitism, which caused division within Labour. Precisely, Bennett crystallises some of the inner contradictions which have sometimes increased the lack of visibility, let alone intelligibility, of the lower classes in the public debate.3

3The purpose of this article is to obviate the temptation of any hasty, conciliatory, feel-good response to The Lady in the Van, a play and film which have been hugely popular, probably largely thanks to Maggie Smith’s amazing performance in the lead role of Miss Shepherd. Indeed, the wonderful repartees of the tramp lady—a telling oxymoron in itself—added to the flamboyance of the savvy, rugged old crone elicited enthusiastic response. Yet they may have eclipsed, if not erased altogether, the original model, the real woman who crashed on the playwright’s property in a succession of more or less grotty and derelict cars, probably for want of any better place to stay. So, to take up Guillaume Le Blanc’s conclusion to L’invisibilité sociale, there might be the risk that the spectacular presence given the bum woman on stage could freeze her into a fixed entity, a permanent fixture for West End entertainments, likely to raise a laugh amongst cheering audiences. Said differently, turning a socially invisible woman into a spectacle entails some form of stylisation and reification. A ghostly life may not attain to ontological plenitude due to the trappings of theatrical performance.

  • 4 This translation and the following are mine.

4Interestingly, drawing from Merleau-Ponty, Le Blanc recalls how life in its plenitude articulates the visible and the invisible. The two are constantly correlated in the living experience. So they do not constitute two polar opposites, such as with light and night: ‘All lives are thus enfolded into a nothingness which prevents them from freezing into a single apparition’/ ‘Toutes les vies s’enveloppent ainsi à un néant qui les empêche de se refermer sur leur seule apparition (2009, 193) as ‘The visible is [. . .] therefore sewn onto the invisible’/‘Le visible est donc cousu à l’invisible’ (194).4 To take up Merleau-Ponty’s own words: ‘In reality there is neither me nor the other as positive, positive subjectivities. There are two caverns, two opennesses, two stages where something will take place’/ ‘En réalité, il n’y a ni moi ni autrui comme positifs, subjectivités positives. Ce sont deux antres, deux ouvertures, deux scènes où il va se passer quelque chose’ (Qtd. in Le Blanc 2009, 193). Can a theatrical scene be an opening, i.e. afford the possibility of a cavern, an openness? On the face of it, it seems to give to see, to provide a vision affording a sustained act of perception, pandering to the spectators’ scopic drive. What may be lost in the theatrical, or for that matter, in the cinematic set-up, is the indeterminate opening, the gaping hole, possibly the spectral double or, concerning Miss Shepherd, the whole range of the others’ denying glances, which negated her original model’s very existence. The theatrical scene, unlike Merleau-Ponty’s ontological scene, could perhaps contribute to reducing the dramatic persona to a two-dimensional, ‘positive subjectivity’.

5So the challenge that the theatrical genre has to face resides in its very etymology: θέατρον—a place for viewing. The spectacularisation—again the same idea of viewing—of the character could, in this perspective, deny or even negate the part of invisibility which is intrinsic to the plight of many precarious lives and their attendant distress: ‘certain forms of grief become nationally recognized and amplified, while other losses become unthinkable and ungrievable [. . .] what counts as a livable life and a grievable death?’ (Butler 2004: XV, XIV). As Le Blanc aptly remarks by quoting Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, invisibility is in the others’ glances, or rather in their refusal to glance: ‘I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me’ (Ellison 7, Le Blanc 2009, 195) and I would add the remainder of Ellison’s quote ‘Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows.’ Of course, The Lady in the Van is not a circus sideshow per se, but, admittedly, as a thespian character in the limelight of theatrical or cinematic performance, Miss Shepherd is not devoid of farcical attributes or grotesque aspects. So the main issue addressed in the following could be how by morphing a social testimony (originally in the form of a personal diary) into an aesthetic creation, Bennett negotiates the paradoxes of visibility/invisibility, or voicing/voicelessness.

Writing, Staging, Filming a Disreputable Life

  • 5 The stimulating research currently conducted on ‘biofiction’ does not fall within the remit of this (...)

6Le Blanc uses the word genre: ‘the social genre’ (Le Blanc 2009, 27) to designate what is commonly called the social group (i.e. the dominating social group which can exclude and marginalise). This is interesting because it envisions social inclusion or exclusion as a modality of existence, as a certain way of being. This echoes what Marielle Macé in her study Styles, Critique de nos formes calls ‘a modal anthropology’ (2016, 70–81). The modus, the manner—manner of being, manner of doing—makes up the matter, and as such becomes the foundation of sociology.5 Underscoring the word ‘manner’, as a sociological premise, entails a form of precariousness since a manner of living is constantly reinventing itself, as it has to negotiate permanently with the demands of the mainstream social environment or genre. For example, the excluded minority may no longer be recognised and so forced to get out of the genre, thus becoming a life of disreputable genre (vie de mauvais genre) (Le Blanc 2009, 27), at bay (aux abois), on the fringe of genre, haunting it insistently or intermittently. The lady in the van perfectly fits in with this modal pattern of genre as a manner of existence, by going awry and by being thus forced to occupy a liminal position (à la lisière).

7Miss Shepherd’s van is parked in Bennett’s driveway, neither inside his rather luxurious abode, nor out in the streets. In this respect, the eponymous lady does not share in the nomadic life of vagrant tramps. However, Miss Shepherd’s destiny literalises the fact of getting out of the genre ‘sortir du genre’ as it is later revealed to Bennett that ‘The turning-point in her life came when, through no faults of hers, a motorcyclist crashed into the side of her van’ (PB 75). Because she had not insured the vehicle and was not officially allowed to drive, she left the scene of the accident out of fear of what might happen to her consequently. As the cyclist subsequently died, her skedaddling—her literally crossing the red line between the fully legal and the tangentially unlawful—amounted in retrospect to a criminal offence, at least in her own estimation, condemning her to a clandestine life thereafter:

Underwood A crossroads. Stop. Give way, you know the kind of thing. Major road ahead anyway. Barnstead or thereabouts. Our lady at the wheel. Motor bike comes up, too fast maybe. Raining. Brakes, skids, hits the side of the van. Nobody’s fault. His, maybe but not hers. She’s stationary at a junction. Gets out. Looks. He’s dead. Only young. Dead on the road. Thinks: licence? No. Insurance? No. Sees it all coming. So in a moment of panic . . . and sin . . . our holy lady drives off. Does a bunk. A boy dead on the road and she fucks off. Thereby, you see, committing a felony. (ff 66)

8The clipped, telegraphic style of Underwood, Miss Shepherd’s old acquaintance and blackmailer after the accident, underscores the implacable chain leading to life-long culpability, self-ostracising and invisibility as the only viable solution left. The Roman Catholic undertones: ‘Our lady at the wheel’, ‘our holy lady’ heighten the acquiescence to sanctifying sufferings and place said lady in the camp of a religion that has been historically persecuted in Anglican England. The momentous event of the accident marks what Le Blanc calls the ordeal of disqualification, often linked to job loss which induces not only the disappearance from the play of social interaction but also the attendant deprivation of the meaning that goes with it (Le Blanc 2007, 113–114).

9The issue of identity is crucial to anchor social visibility. This involves a close attention paid to naming. Therefore ‘a life of disreputable genre’ is likely to be correlated with a destabilisation of the patronymic signifier, symptomatic of the loss or blurring of a trace or inscription. This awareness of the stakes attached to naming is first evidenced in a dialogue between the dramatist’s two personae in the play:

A. Bennett 2 It’s obviously not her name. Mary Shepherd is not her name. She’s changed it. Not that I blame her. I’d change mine if I could.
A. Bennett Alan?
A. Bennett 2 Everything I’ve written has been an attempt to give some flavour to my name. Alan. It’s got as much flavour as a pebble. (ff 36)

10Admittedly, Alan Bennett who had become a household name in the English theatre when the play was first performed at The Queen’s Theatre in London on 19 November 1999, is probably indulging by proxy in self modesty. Nevertheless, the brief parenthetical aside between the two figures of Bennett underlines by contrast the unstable process of naming relating to the lady. This confusion on naming is a token of the fate of the socially invisible. Through an unmotivated decision, the playwright plainly confesses to having arbitrarily altered the woman’s patronym: ‘I have always spelled her name Shepherd but I think the correct spelling, if an assumed name can have a correct spelling, was Sheppard’ (ff XVI). The fact is, actually, borne out by the paratextual dedication: ‘in memory of Miss M.T. Sheppard’. Incidentally the old woman complied with the author’s whim which somehow tends to prove a troubled relation with her social identity that was to last throughout her troubled life: ‘I called her Miss Shepherd, a designation which she did not immediately correct’ (ff XVI).

11As a matter of fact, name-changes keep happening during the whole play, from a misunderstanding about the first name, in turn Mary and Margaret, to the final revelation that ‘She was born Margaret Fairchild’ (ff 67), the onomastic seems to underscore ironically the process of infantilisation reserved to the marginal, when they do not prove a risk to society. In Sauf le nom (Post Scriptum), Jacques Derrida analyses the ambivalent status of the name, both as deprivation: as what is always missed—sauf as want or lack—and what should, nevertheless, be saved—sauf as succoured. The French philosopher draws from negative or apophatic theology, according to which God’s name is proffered to claim what He is not, rather than to indicate any referent, in order to conjure up the ineffable quality of divinity. The force of naming is therefore in the performative act of the utterance. Naming conveys a desire to gesture towards a unique and irreducible place beyond language itself. Conversely, the plurality of the names attributed to the eponymous lady is not correlated to the attempt to seal an inscription as it results in an erasure plainly expressed by the character herself:

Miss Shepherd I prefer that.
A. Bennett What?
Miss Shepherd
The incognito position.
A. Bennett
Mum’s the word.
Miss Shepherd Yes. Mum is always the word. I’m all for mum. (ff 52)
Miss Shepherd How many more times? I am in an incognito position. Take an anonymous view of it. (ff 55)

12For Miss S. (the abbreviated form is also used in the pocket book version), ‘Living on the fringe’, ‘always at bay’ entails the need to pass unnoticed in the play whose chief protagonist she is nonetheless supposed to be, as advertised in the title.

13If a set of social norms ruled by types of activities inscribes a life in the social genre and contributes to widening the sense of belonging by participating in the general economy and common good, Miss S.’s actions are out of synch with the rhythm and logic of society’s activities. For example, she is shown setting a selling point in front of a bank, William and Glyn’s. What she sells are tracts, which she has authored herself, though she denies the very authorship which would be a tangible proof of her involvement in the exchange logic of marketing economy: ‘I sell them, but so far as the authorship is concerned I’ll say they are anonymous and that’s as far as I am prepared to go.’(PB 13) Besides, having strayed from the socially endorsed path of the communality of shared interests and values, she chalks in the message ‘St Francis FLUNG money from him’ (PB 13, original capitals) on the pavement. Prospective customers have to step over the inscription to access the bank. In doing so, she symbolises her social marginality, by forcing ordinary citizens into an incongruous street performance. Before they can withdraw their own money from the profit-making establishment, they are reminded of Francis of Assisi’s celebration of the joy of poverty as spiritually uplifting and of his physical proximity to the lepers, which the neglected, unclean old bum herself embodies, to some extent, in twentieth-century England. Moreover, the whiff of superstitious popery attached to a patron saint in a non-Catholic country is a further alienating element, making of the old woman ‘a genuine eccentric’ (PB 14, original emphasis).

14Miss Shepherd also naively deregulates the laws of the economy by making of priceless goods trivial items, fetching a scant profit margin, through the bond of reciprocal commitment they establish with their faithful buyers. Of the pencils she peddles on the pavement, she says: ‘A gentleman came the other day and said that the pencil he bought from me was the best pencil on the market at present time. It lasted him three months. He’ll be back for another one shortly’ (PB 14). In this destitute economy of the impecunious down-and-outs, this form of commercial exchange is reminiscent of Mauss’s contract of the gift and return gifts. The transaction does not matter so much through the circulation of money it entails as through the mutual engagement tacitly agreed on by the two partners. And this tenuous bond is all the more precious as the lady in the van is socially ostracised.

15Sociologists have often noted and studied the correlation between social exclusion and the particular relation to language it induces. In Vies ordinaires Vies précaires, Le Blanc observes that ‘to a given form of life—always to be interpreted, as we see it, like a specific mode of living—must correspond a particular play with language’/ ‘à une forme de vie donnée—toujours à interpréter, selon nous, comme un mode de vie spécifique—doit correspondre un jeu de langage particulier’ (Le Blanc 2007, 149). So social precariousness is not confined to material conditions, it also results in a form of linguistic vulnerability. Because she has received some education in her youth, Miss Shepherd speaks standard English. However, her ‘life of disreputable genre’ is perceptible through her maverick use of semantics and a medley of linguistic registers which renders her unclassifiable and as such not quite socially identifiable.

16Miss Shepherd is prone to inflect words with new meanings, dictated by her peculiar political agenda, for instance she objects to the common market for the following reasons:

She was vehemently opposed to the Common Market—the “common” always underlined when she wrote about it on the pavement, as if it were the sheer vulgarity of the economic union she particularly objected to. Never very lucid in her leaflets, she got especially confused over the EEC. (PB 39)

  • 6 A neologism coined after the name of Mrs Malaprop, a character who in Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775) (...)

17What could be a linguistic deficiency is of course a staple of comedy. Such a theatrical device is no doubt as old as the hills. Through her malapropism,6 i.e. ‘common’ for vulgar, the old woman may sound like a twit. Yet through a process of reversibility, whereby what stigmatises, may also be used as a weapon against oppression, the old woman’s misinterpretation, whether unconscious or deliberate, could be construed as a form of resistance. After all, although she is not very consistent in her views overall, Miss Shepherd leans towards populism: ‘No political party quite catered to Miss S.’s views, though the National Front came close’ (PB 38). This said, at other moments, she also displays a streak of anarchism, through her own particular arrangements with words. For example, when a statutory order is issued for the removal of her obstructing van, Miss S. comes up with a somewhat unexpected explanation: ‘This order, Miss S. insists is a statutory order: “And statutory means standing—in this case standing outside number 63—so, if the van is moved on, the order will be invalid.”’ (PB 14) Taking up the notion of ‘reading as poaching’ propounded by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life, this linguistic error could be seen as an instance of linguistic poaching; i.e. a poetic ruse, the ultimate last-ditch attempt of the vulnerable to procrastinate by delaying the inevitable enforcement of the law:

The reader [. . .] invents in texts something different from what they ‘intended’. He detaches them from their (lost or accessory) origin. He combines their fragments and creates something unknown in the space organized by their capacity for allowing an indefinite plurality of meanings. (1984, 169)

18In sum, Alan Bennett illustrates Miss S.’s linguistic precariousness; the fact that she is ‘outside the social genre’, through what amounts to a type of linguistic medley, a total lack of verbal cohesion. This disqualifies her belonging to any well-identified social category: ‘She was middle class and spoke in a middle class way [. . .] it wasn’t a gentle or a genteel voice. Running through her vocabulary was a streak of schoolgirl slang [. . .] All her conversation was impregnated with the peculiarity of her peculiar brand of Catholic fanaticism’ (PB 32). This polyglossia, transgressing age categories or the established religion, prevents the possibility of any consistent identity and condemns Miss S. to a form of invisibility due to the absence of clear social markers. Yet, in a play, what could be felt as a lack in real life, affords dramatic potential.

The rebellion of a tiny, insignificant life?

19Part of the pleasure spectators draw from watching The Lady in the Van, the play or the film, lies in the spectacle of the probably largely unconscious rebellion of a tiny, insignificant life. However, there is also the more embarrassing impression that the old woman is humoured, more than empowered, after all she is showcased in a West End spectacle and her quirks are destined to entertain the haves. Metatextually, the possibility of exploiting the old woman as a sort of freak show is expressed by none other than Miss S. herself, in a note embedded in Bennett’s own text:

August 1980. I am filming, and Miss S. sees me leaving early every morning and returning late. Tonight her scrawny hand comes out with a letter marked ‘Please consider carefully’:
An easier way for Mr Bennett to earn could be possibly with my cooperative part. Two young men could follow me in a car, one with a camera to get a funny film like ‘Old Mother Riley Joins Up’ possibly. [. . .] Comedy happens without trying sometimes, or at least an interesting film covering a Senior Citizen’s use of the buses can occur. [. . .] Then Mr Bennett could put his feet up and rake it in, possibly. (PB 37–38)

20Dramatic irony comes from the fact that the old woman rightly anticipates all the dramatic and comedic potential she may represent for a playwright or filmmaker, while wrongly assuming that she will hold the place of agency. In actual fact, it is not the script she sketches in her letter that hoists her up to a form of authorial visibility. Instead, it is only a sketchy, stylised representation of her precarious life, pandering to the spectators’ voyeurism, which allows for her transient moment of one-upmanship, or rather one-upwomanship. Then, she is irretrievably returned to the invisibility she never really left: ‘Her grave in the St Pancras Cemetery is scarcely less commodious than the narrow space she slept in the previous twenty years. It is unmarked, but I think as someone so reluctant to admit her name or divulge any information about herself, she would not have been displeased by that’ (PB 91). Only the play version briefly restores, through prosopopoeia, the old lady’s voice from beyond the grave, in a last bid for posterity:

Suddenly Miss Shepherd rises from the grave
Miss Shepherd Excuse me, I’m supposed to be the centrepiece here. You should be fighting back the tears, not eyeing up the talent. [. . .]
I’ve been wondering. Would either of you object if the van were to become a place of pilgrimage, possibly?
A. Bennett 2 No.
They should probably be on either side of her.
A. Bennett I’m getting rid of the van. The van is going.
Miss Shepherd am thinking of the car that Catholic priest was murdered in in Poland. (ff 68–69)

21It is as if, until the end, the eponymous character’s credentials to be the central protagonist were not firmly ascertained. Moreover, her last wishes to be treated like a Catholic martyr are bluntly rejected as the final eccentricity of a bigoted fanatic.

22In fact, the spectacularisation of Miss Shepherd, underpinning the dynamics of the play, may be in the end partly eclipsed by the specularisation of the double figures of A Bennett, who takes part in the action and A. Bennett 2, who describes and comments on it. To put it differently, the attention paid to Miss Shepherd is constantly deflected by the metatheatrical dialogue sustained between the living man providing first-hand material and his literary alter ego, trammelled in the act of composing. The tension engineered by this confrontation appears forcefully in the film script where A. Bennett becomes A.B. and A. Bennett 2, Alan Bennett:

A.B. catches ALAN BENNETT’S eye as he passes the study door.

23The writer is double. There is the self who does the writing and there is the self who does the living. And they talk. They argue. Writing is talking to one’s self, and I’ve been doing it all my life (fs)

24The end of the film script even goes as far as to suggest that Miss Shepherd may have been after all no more than a pawn in the literary game played out between A.B. and Alan Bennett, both parts being acted, in turn, by Alex Jennings in Nicholas Hytner’s 2015 cinematic adaptation:

You wanted me to make things happen and I never have much. But it doesn’t matter, because what I’ve learned—and maybe she taught me—is that you don’t put yourself into what you write. You find yourself there.
I never wanted to write about her. And if there’d been a bit more in your life, I wouldn’t have had to. (fs)

25Whereas in the play Bennett’s two selves are embodied by two different actors, respectively Nicholas Farrell for A. Bennett and Kevin McNally for A. Bennett 2, on the first performance, in the film it is the same actor for the two, which heightens the self-reflexive, postmodernist aspect of the script. Precisely because the exchange quoted above happens shortly before the end of the film, it cynically displaces the dramatic interest from the eponymous lady in the van to a metatheatrical dialogue bearing on what prompts the creative process. In a sense, Miss Shepherd, who has so far been in the limelight, is twice erased. Firstly, by A.B. who having owned up to the uneventfulness of his life and the difficulty of providing his writerly double with juicy titbits to feed his creation, recognises that the old woman has been a mere trigger for his own self-discovery. Secondly, by Alan Bennett the writing figure who plainly dismisses Miss Shepherd as second-best choice, in other words as the only option left him due to the sheer vacuousness of his double’s existence: ‘If there’d been a bit more in your life’. Need the theatrical representation of a tramp’s life be no more than a casual accident to fill up a blank in the playwright’s inspiration? Does the performance on stage of a vagabond’s existence somehow make up for an ontological void? Or does it afford a genuine, albeit thespian, visibility that somehow humanises and fleshes out those spectral presences that are more often than not unacknowledged in the frenzy of contemporary life?

26Interestingly, the lady in the van has her own say in this debate through a seemingly casual remark at the play’s beginning, which may pass unnoticed:

A. Bennett Somebody’s been banging on the side of the van.
Miss Bennett Oh yes? What did he want? [. . .]
A. Bennett Miss Shepherd. This was a hooligan.
Miss Shepherd Some people might say I was a tramp. It’s just want of perception. You rub people up the wrong way. You should be like me, take people as they come. (ff 16)

27While the plot has hardly been set in motion, the eponymous lady hints that her character could be hastily taken for granted. In other words, she points to a possible epistemological vacuum: ‘want of perception’, which could lead to a misreading of both the lout and herself. She anticipates the likelihood that her personality could be narrowed down to a stereotype: the tramp. In fact, in doing so, she unwittingly propounds a gloss on what Miranda Fricker designates through the concept of ‘hermeneutical injustice’. ‘Hermeneutical injustice’ occurs each time someone is denied a full understanding of his or her social experience owing to prejudicial flaws in shared resources for social interpretation (Fricker 2009, 147–169). In a sort of deconstructive stance, the play’s main protagonist deems it as possible that her character, in its various facets, may not been rendered convincingly owing to the failure of the author to perceive her rightly. Possibly, because he is not ideologically ready to grasp hold of her subtle complexities, or because the temptation to project previously built-in frames of reference onto her cannot be resisted.

28Admittedly, the tramp is a stock character in the absurdist tragicomedy of both Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter for example, where he/she is invested with an existential (in the philosophical acceptation) or metaphysical dimension. The tramp as motif may also be encountered in the lurid psycho-drama of ‘in yer-face theatre’, in the so-called naughty nineties, where characters are shown bumming around in a context of anomic disintegration and provocative violence. By contrast, would Alan Bennett, through a commitment to realism, succeed in inscribing a tangible, albeit transient, form of visibility for his tramp woman, without surrendering only to the lures of ham-acting and histrionics?

Style as a Mode of Being. Making an Ontological Claim

29In L’insurrection des vies minuscules Le Blanc proposes an aesthetisation of minuscule lives through the example of Charlie Chaplin’s iconic persona, the tramp. The tramp, through his nomadic wandering, foregrounds the periphery by holing up the centre. So it could be claimed that if Bennett makes an ontological claim for Miss Shepherd it is through a celebration of her indomitable vitality by foregrounding the outsider’s creativity: ‘all these flights of fancy swirling above social causality.’/‘tous les petits délires qui virevoltent au-dessus des causalités sociales’ (Le Blanc 2014, 52).

30Firstly, Miss Shepherd is modelled on a precise life experience, she cannot be fully assimilated with the generic paradigm of the tramp that may be encountered in absurdist drama. In a sense, Alan Bennett is the biographer of a life that would not be normally eligible for a form of writing which enhances and sublimates a destiny. The play’s plot records a narrative arc from annoyance at an unwelcome visitor’s intrusion to a growing proximity with her, metonymically expressed through the emblematic van: ‘The more I laboured, the less peculiar the van seemed—its proprieties and aspirations no different from those with which I had been brought up’ (PB 83). What Le Blanc writes about the circus in Charlie Chaplin’s life: ‘la vie-Charlot’ (Le Blanc 2014, 38) may equally apply to the van. Indeed, the van, like the circus, is a ‘heterotopia’. It blurs all the boundary lines of regulated social life, to cite Michel Foucault: ‘We live, we die, we love in a checkered, divided, multicoloured space, with clear and dark zones, and level differences’/ ‘On vit, on meurt, on aime dans un espace quadrillé, découpé, bariolé, avec des zones claires et sombres, des différences de niveaux.’ (2009, 8). The van abolishes such distinctions. Miss Shepherd eats, sleeps, shits, ails, plots, prays, curses, soliloquises and spies in her van. Not only is the van a ‘heterotopia’, by defining ‘another’ space beyond divisions and classifications, but it could also be designated by coining the term ‘pluritopia’, i.e. as a quintessence of plural othernesses. It is both metaphorically Miss S’s womb and literally her tomb, as she coils up foetus-like in the vehicle cubicle, in which she breathes her last. It is the spot where she listens to the radio and where she fancies hosting programmes of her own, by having a contraption installed to broadcast phone-ins with large audiences (ff 29). It is where she lives but also where she exceeds the limits of her life through her imagination. The van is the catalyst of her artistic creativity:

Miss S. was fond of yellow (‘It’s the papal colour’) and was never content to leave her vehicles long in their original trim. Sooner or later she could be seen moving slowly round her immobile home, thoughtfully touching up the rust from a tiny tin of primrose paint, looking in her long dress and sunhat, much as Vanessa Bell would have looked had she gone in for painting Bedford vans. (PB 16)

31Because the van somehow erases and neutralises the spatial divisions and nomenclature of social life, it could be construed as counter-space. It disrupts what Jacques Rancière calls the partition or distribution of the sensible (Le partage du sensible), i.e. the articulation between manners of doing, their forms of visibility and the way in which these connections may be thought: ‘a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience’/‘le découpage des temps et des espaces, du visible et de l’invisible, de la parole et du bruit qui définit le lieu et l’enjeu de la politique comme forme d’expérience’ (Rancière, 14). Miss S. is on the fringe of the common, or commonality, yet Alan Bennett propounds a disruption or perhaps a dissensus in what is representable or thinkable. This is achieved not only by allowing an invisible woman a form of transient visibility, for the duration of the play’s performance at least, but also by upsetting the hierarchy of sensory perception, whereby eyesight ranks highest. Odours are, as a rule, dismissible tokens of human existence, which are still largely taboo as inscriptions of the abject or the obnoxious. In his press version of The Lady in the Van Bennett elevates stench to celebrate it as a condensed testimony of existence. Instead of treating it as lack or deficiency, he points to its added value: ‘[A] crust of ancient talcum powder [s]prinkled impartially over wet slippers, used incontinence pads and half eaten tins of baked bins, it was of a virulence that supplemented rather than obliterated the distinctive odour of the van’ (PB 81, emphasis added). ‘Supplement’ positively affirms an increase of tangible organic presence where odours would call for suppression in the name of common well-being or comfort. It is as if the pestilential reek cried out to be acknowledged, as it were, for being the lady in the van’s trademark. And this extends the question of the distribution of the sensible in another way, as what can be written on a page—suggestive evocations of noxious smells—cannot be, for the sake of social decorum, rendered on stage. So there is always bound to remain a form of lack, anosmia rather than invisibility, in the theatrical representation of the old woman.

32And, finally, it could be claimed that to Charlie Chaplin’s tramp peregrinations would correspond Miss Shepherd’s drives, whenever her car is being pushed by reluctant passers-by, fearing to be judged negatively by witnesses for not lending a helping hand to a poor, old woman in distress. Here again a form of dissensus is introduced as those rides are not dictated by needs but by the sheer pleasure of enjoying moments of escape. These erratic jaunts are choreographed, with the old lady at the wheel making arm waves through the open window to give orders to the respectable, well-intentioned citizens who find themselves in the position of menials. Besides, Miss S. subverts the common function of utility contraptions, a wheelchair becomes a racing vehicle and she propels herself with walking sticks to gather speed for the thrill it gives her. She delights in showing off in Camden piloting a three-wheeled Reliant Robin that seems to advertise her own resiliency, and when she is lifted up aboard an ambulance by a small crane, she asks the driver to lower her down and to give her another ride, just for the thrill it provides her:

The chair goes on the hoist, and slowly she rises and comes into view above the level of the garden wall and is wheeled into the ambulance. There is a certain distinction about her as she leaves, a Dorothy Hodgkin of vagabonds, a derelict Nobel Prize-winner, the heavy folds of her grimy face set in a kind of resigned satisfaction. (PB 65)

33Her victories are brief instants of unalloyed bliss wrenched from a hard life. No scientific breakthroughs to earn her a Novel Prize, but proofs of an indomitable vitality when confronted to adverse circumstances, this may be seen as an achievement in its own right. At this point, Alan Bennett, the chronicler, in his feature article for the London Review of Books, waxed lyrical. To take up Le Blanc’s study of Charlie Chaplin once again, the lady in the van ‘undoes the territory, engenders the elsewhere, sprouts lines of escape which are, at their incipient stage, pure potentialities of the body, vital, untamed vitality’/‘Défait le territoire, elle engendre l’Ailleurs, fait surgir des lignes de fuite qui sont, en leur commencement de pures potentialités du corps, des intensités vitales non apprivoisées. (Le Blanc 2014, 53–54)


34Morphing the testimony of a bum woman’s marginal life into a West End spectacle raises a whole range of issues. It begins with the inevitable bias of the playwright in his note-taking. The limited scope of his perception cannot be dismissed altogether, nor his potential bias owing to his upbringing, education and system of values. This may potentially lead to the sort of hermeneutical injustices which the character herself briefly envisions as possible at the beginning of the play. Besides drama favours the visual dimension and the display of linguistic fireworks. For obvious reasons, a tramp’s living experience involves many facets which are not eligible for a performance. From the Eastcheap rogues in William Shakespeare’s Henriad to the tramps in both Beckett’s and Pinter’s plays the down-and-outs have arguably been accorded flamboyant or at least blatant visibility. It was however to serve an ideological or aesthetic agenda which was most often extraneous to their own predicament.

35The question remains ultimately that of the compatibility between the comedic and the spectacle of raw destitution. How far is laughter congruent with helpless poverty which is more likely to arouse compassion? Is laughter cruel by reifying its victims into a condition of despicable, ridiculous stasis or does it afford empathy? None of these two alternatives are of course satisfactory as they do not make allowance for subtle cognitive and emotional gradations in the way playwrights fashion their destitute personae and spectators respond to their performances.

36The above analysis has attempted to establish that Bennett succeeds in making Miss Shepherd visible as a dramatic role by granting her unpredictability. Indeed, the comedy resides in her capacities to outrun the playwright. This effect is reinforced by the simultaneity, both on stage and in the film, between the act of writing and the old woman’s antics. To the occasional lack of inspiration of the former answers the constant resourcefulness of the latter, driven by an inexhaustible vitality till her death.

37If anything, through her thespian and filmic omnipresence Miss Shepherd confirms a foundational tenet of comic characters, convincingly exposed by Alenka Zupančič: ‘As a rule, comic characters do not invite the identification of spectators, but instead do their best to divert it.’ (2008, 197) In this severance of the actor/spectator’s link lies the integrity of the comic performer which momentarily grants her visibility. Yet the resounding theatrical presence of the indomitable lady in the van is haunted by the elusive memory of one Miss S., Shepherd, or was it Sheppard?

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Note de fin

1 Three sources are cited in the following: first the transcript of Alan Bennett’s feature article titled ‘The Lady in the Van’, published in The London Review of Books (26 October 1989), and then released by Profile Books Ltd, abbreviated as PB, second the play published by faber and faber in 1999, referred to as ff and thirdly the script of the 2015 film adaptation: (last accessed 1 January 2021) which is signaled as fs. The three combined sources illustrate different facets of Bennett’s polygeneric work.

2 Bennett has repeatedly dealt with the issue of mental illness from first-hand experience, as his mother and other members of his family suffered from dementia. There is, to all intents and purposes, an autobiographical streak to Alan Bennett’s writings.

3 A similar confusion in the political stance of the lower classes may be seen in Didier Éribon’s Retour à Reims (2009) in the aftermath of the collapse of the French Communist Party and the subsequent rise of populism. Thomas Ostermeier’s theatrical adaptation of the French sociologist’s autobiographical study was performed as Returning to Reims at St Ann’s Warehouse in New York in 2018. As with The Lady in the Van the aim is to grant the invisibles some form of visibility.

4 This translation and the following are mine.

5 The stimulating research currently conducted on ‘biofiction’ does not fall within the remit of this study which is primarily concerned with the articulation between drama and the way individuals in daily life construct their reality. It is therefore more consonant with American ethnomethodology (Harold Garfinkel, Erving Goffman and Howard Becker). This perspective influences Le Blanc’s analyses. For a thorough investigation of biofiction applied to the neo-Victorian corpus, see Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben (eds.), Neo-Victorian Biofiction. Reimagining Nineteenth-Century Historical Subjects, Leiden & Boston: Brill Rodopi, 2020.

6 A neologism coined after the name of Mrs Malaprop, a character who in Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775) constantly tries to show off, by using learned words which she either mispronounces or uses wrongly, causing the spectators’ hilarity.

Works Cited

Bennett, Alan, The Lady in the Van (1989), London: Profile Books, 1994.

Bennett, Alan, The Lady in the Van (1999), London: Faber and Faber, 2009.

Bennett, Alan, The Lady in the Van, script play, 2015, last accessed at on on 1 January 2021.

Butler, Judith, Precarious Lives. The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London & New York: Verso, 2004.

Certeau, Michel (de), The Practice of Everyday Life (1980), Trans. Steven Randall, Berkeley: U. California P., 1984.

Derrida, Jacques, Sauf le nom, Paris: Galilée, 1993.

Ellison, Ralph, Invisible Man (1952), London: Penguin, 1981.

Foucault, Michel, Le corps utopique, les hétérotopies, Paris: Lignes, 2009.

Fricker, Miranda, Epistemic Injustice. Power & the Ethics of Knowing, Oxford: O.U.P., 2007.

Le Blanc, Guillaume, Vies ordinaires, vies précaires, Paris: Seuil, 2007.

Le Blanc, Guillaume, L’invisibilité sociale, Paris: PUF, 2009.

Le Blanc, Guillaume, L’insurrection des vies minuscules, Paris: Bayard, 2014.

Macé, Marielle, Styles. Critiques de nos formes de vie, Paris: Gallimard, 2016.

Mauss, Marcel, The Gift (1925), Selected, annotated and translated by Jane I. Guyer, Chicago: Hau Books, 2016.

Ranciere, Jacques, Le partage du sensible, Paris: La Fabrique, 2000.

Zupancic, Alenka, The Odd One In. On Comedy, Cambridge & London: The M.I.T. Press, 2008.

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Référence électronique

Georges Letissier, « A ‘Dorothy Hodgkin of vagabonds, a derelict Nobel Prize-Winner’ (PB 65): The Spectacularisation of Social Invisibility in Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van (1989) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 61 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2021, consulté le 06 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Georges Letissier

Georges Letissier, Professor of English Literature at Nantes University, France. After defending a thesis on Neo Victorian literature and culture (1997), he published a monograph on Ford Madox Ford (Éditions du temps, 2005) and edited two volumes: Rewriting/Reprising: Plural Intertextualities (Cambridge Scholars, 2005) and L’héritage de Darwin dans les cultures européennes (with Michel Prum, L’Harmattan, 2011). He has also published chapters both in French and English, in France and abroad (Aracne, Palgrave Macmillan, Rodopi, Routledge, Dickens Quarterly, Wiley Blackwell, V&RUnipress). His field of speciality is nineteenth century literature (Charles Dickens, George Eliot) and contemporary British fiction (Will Self, Graham Swift, Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson etc.) Last book published “The Higher Inward Lifeʺ George Eliot’s Middlemarch (Presses Universitaires Paris Nanterre, 2020).

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