Sir Philip Pullman has praised the Duchess of Cornwall for her work championing literature, saying she has taken an active interest in the nation’s “greatest strength”.
The acclaimed author joined Camilla when she visited Oxford to tour an exhibition celebrating the 400th anniversary of the publication of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy Of Melancholy, described by Sir Philip as a funny book about depression.
Camilla’s Instagram based book club the Reading Room has proved popular, she holds more than six patronages related to literature, including the National Literacy Trust, and has presented the prestigious Booker Prize in past years.
Sir Philip, famed for his fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, said: “It’s a great thing that a member of the royal family should show such an active interest in what has always been this country’s greatest strength which is its writers, its authors, its poets and playwrights and novelists.
“It’s nice to have the recognition – this is an area of life which is important, it signifies something.”
The duchess was guided around the display by its lead curator Professor John Geddes and when he told her: “What (Burton) said about mental health was get outside, exercise, and reading”, she replied “all the things people talk about now”.
She added a few moments later: “It’s almost going back to nature – exercise and fresh air.”
Sir Philip, who has worked on projects from Camilla’s Reading Room, said later: “Robert Burton’s The Anatomy Of Melancholy is the funniest book in the English language.
“You’ve got to find the plums in his book, they’re there but there’s a lot of old pudding as well.
“But if you read and keep going it is hilarious, the best bits are so funny, I still laugh when I think of them.
“Unusually for a book about melancholy it’s a very funny book and a very wise book, full of good sense ‘be not idle, be not solitary’, he says.
“And the importance of keeping your rooms well lit, and friendship and eating and drinking, good diet.”
Prof Geddes said Burton suffered from depression and in writing the book he gained knowledge of his affliction and also helped others.
But its style and humour has proved popular, he added, saying: “The form he wrote it in is innovative and exciting.
“He talks to the reader, he’s witty, he’s discursive so it becomes very influential on lots of creative writers down the centuries.”
During her tour of Weston Library, part of Oxford University’s world famous Bodleian Libraries, the duchess met conservators restoring centuries-old books and quietly watched as academics studied in a reading room and later met university students who use the facilities.
Camilla was also shown the Bodley Bestiary, a 13th century illuminated manuscript of the then-known animal kingdom.
Dr Martin Kauffmann, head of early and rare collections at the Bodleian libraries, told the duchess and Sir Philip: “This is a mixture of David Attenborough, the wonders of the natural world and also a book about Christian creation.”