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Who Was Miss Shepherd?

Updated on July 28, 2015

The Lady in the Van

Alan Bennett is a truly brilliant British author and had a curious 'neighbour' for over fifteen years.

Except 'neighbour' isn't the quite the right word. Not exactly. You see, Miss Shepherd lived in a van in his garden.

She was an older lady. She wore clothes made out of old dusters and her footwear normally consisted of cast-off men's slippers. She usually wore bizarre headgear.

She often fell foul of the authorities but had her own strong opinions and a forceful personality.In the nineteen eighties she offered her services to prime minister Margaret Thatcher, desiring to be an advisor to the Ministry of Transport and at much the same time, was writing letters addressed 'To Someone In Charge Of Argentina' offering her wisdom and advice.

She had also given the College of Cardinals the benefit of her advice (by letter, of course) when they were electing a new pope.She was delightfully eccentric and has been immortalised by Alan Bennett in his book The Lady in the Van. I'm so pleased. In future generations people will still be reading about the marvellous Miss Shepherd. Quite right too.

Images via Wikimedia Commons.


Miss Shepherd's van

One thing I want to make clear is that this was a small van.

I've seen reviews where the writer has referred to Miss Shepherd as living in an RV. As you can see from the images, that's far from the case.

As you can see in the image here, her 'RV' was about the same size as a London taxi. All her possessions lived inside - or underneath or on top of - this tiny vehicle. It was her bedroom, kitchen, lounge ... we won't go into the bathroom thing.

By the time it had made its way from being parked in the street to Alan Bennett's driveway, the van didn't actually work. Miss Shepherd would sit in the driver's seat and rev it gleefully though.I looked up the dimensions of this particular make and model and it was - and these are the external measurements - 70 inches wide by 154 inches long.

Definitely no room to swing a cat.


Miss Shepherd

There were actually three vans over the fifteen year period.

Miss Shepherd loved the colour yellow and painted them all herself .She paid no regard to the difference between car enamel and regular house paint, leaving the vehicles (as Bennett says) looking as though they had been 'plastered with scrambled egg'.

She was never concerned about minor trivialities such as a driving licence or insurance.Indeed she believed that the vehicle had been 'insured by heaven' and that its tyres were 'miraculous' because they had only been pumped up twice in ten years.

So what was her background? How was it that she came to live in a van? Didn't she have any relatives? In fact, was Miss Shepherd really her name?During the fifteen years that Miss Shepherd lived in his garden, Alan Bennett actually found out very little about her.

In the postscript, written five years after her death, he reveals what he found out about his long-time neighbour. Fascinating indeed.

A double treat

The Clothes They Stood Up In and The Lady in the Van (Today Show Book Club #5)
The Clothes They Stood Up In and The Lady in the Van (Today Show Book Club #5)

In this book you can read the full story of Miss Shepherd including what Alan Bennett later discovered about her life and background. It's totally fascinating.

But as a bonus, you also get the novella 'The Clothes They Stood Up In'. This is a totally delicious story of a couple who return from the opera one evening to find that their apartment has been burgled. Everything has gone. Everything. Even the toilet roll from the bathroom and a casserole that was cooking in the oven.(And the oven too, of course).


Alan Bennett

The author, pictured here as a young man, is twenty years older than me.

Yet we were both born and brought up in Yorkshire, within about ten miles of each other. I mention this because of Yorkshire traditions.You see, I wondered why the book title referred to the Lady and not the Woman.

I think many authors would have used 'woman', don't you? But I suspect that Alan Bennett's mum (who he mentions often) was a bit like mine and had some strange ideas about language.

Mum: Would you like some more tea or have you had sufficient?
Me: I've had enough, thanks.
Mum: We do not say 'enough'. We say 'sufficient'.

To this day I don't know why.It was the same with people.

Me: Look at what that man's doing.
Mum: You mean that gentleman. (Thwack)


Me: See that woman over there...
Mum: You mean that lady. (Thwack)

So I think it's a Yorkshire mum thing.

Quotes from the book

Click thumbnail to view full-size

© 2014 Jackie Jackson


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    • BritFlorida profile image

      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Colin323: "Humanity' - the perfect word,Colin.

    • BritFlorida profile image

      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Merrci: What he found out about her is truly fascinating in itself. A remarkable book.

    • BritFlorida profile image

      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Brite-Ideas: She was remarkable. She had her own strong and determined ideas, that's for sure! What an interesting relationship - the gay playwright with a bag lady (or rather, van lady) living in his garden ... you couldn't make this up :)

    • BritFlorida profile image

      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @DawnRae64: It's funny, it's sad, it's a bit of everything!

    • BritFlorida profile image

      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @David Stone1: Truly wonderful, isn't he? This is a brilliant book.

    • profile image

      Colin323 3 years ago

      I have Alan Bennett reading this on audiotape. His ironic wit and humanity are writ large in this book

    • Merrci profile image

      Merry Citarella 3 years ago from Oregon's Southern Coast

      What s delightful character she sounds like! Definitely going on my list. Now i have to know what and how he learned about her! Great review.

    • Brite-Ideas profile image

      Barbara Tremblay Cipak 3 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      this lady sounds like a hoot! you had me giggling throughout this Jackie! ..'insured by the heavens'....I want to say that to my insurance company now..a trend worth starting? what an interesting character!

    • DawnRae64 profile image

      Dawn 3 years ago from Maryland, USA

      Another book to add to my huge to-read list. Thank you for sharing. This sounds lik a story that is right up my alley!

    • David Stone1 profile image

      David Stone 3 years ago from New York City

      Interesting, especially considering what a delightful writer Bennett is.