Famous for his hilariously ironic comic sketches in Beyond the Fringe and Talking Heads, and for his recent Tony Award-winning play The History Boys, among other productions, Alan Bennett here gives some insights into his own life and personality. In "The Lady in the Van," he details the twenty-year relationship he had with someone who, under any other circumstances, would be considered a homeless person. In this case, Mary Shepherd is not "homeless" because she lives, unkempt but unfettered, in a filthy van--which she ultimately parks in the garden of his house. The van and its occupant remain there for years.
Beginning in 1969, when Bennett tells of meeting her for the first time, after she has parked her van on a lot across the street from his house, and concluding in 1989, with her death at seventy-seven, Bennett gives a diary of Mary Shepherd's life--and, incidentally, his own life, not as her benefactor (which suggests conscious "do-gooding" on his part) but as a person who respects the independence of those around him, even those like Mary Shepherd who challenge his good nature every step of the way.
The founder of her own political party (membership: two, including a nun suffering from Alzheimer's), writer of political tracts (which she sells, along with pencils), devoutly religious dropout from a convent, and fiercely independent challenger of "the system," Miss Shepherd lives without sanitary facilities, in a series of vans (each of which she paints yellow, "the papal color").
As Bennett describes her colorful clothing and headgear (all of it foully odoriferous) and the unsanitary conditions under which she chooses to live, the reader is aghast at Bennett's tolerance and ability to continue letting Miss Shepherd live her own life on her own terms--and on his property.
Respectful of his subject, while selecting details which reveal her unique (and impossibly difficult) qualities, Bennett shows himself to be genuinely caring and thoughtful--and perhaps the only person in England who could have tolerated the lifestyle Miss Shepherd brought to his yard. n Mary Whipple