The King and I

Alan Bennett

I’ve always had a soft spot for George III, starting all of forty years ago when I was in the sixth form at Leeds Modern School and reading for a scholarship to Cambridge. The smart book around that time was Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History, which took the 19th century to task for writing history with one eye on the future, and in particular for taking as the only path through the past the development of democratic institutions. On the Whig interpretation, historical characters got a tick if they were on the side of liberty (Cromwell, Chatham), a cross (Charles I, James II) if they held up the march of progress. Because he went in for active royalty and made some attempt to govern on his own account rather than leaving it to the Whig aristocracy, George III had been written up as a villain and a clumsy tyrant. This view Butterfield had helped to discredit, so a question on George III was thought likely to turn up in the Cambridge examination, which it duly did. Sitting in the freezing Senate House in December 1951, I trotted out my Butterfield and though I didn’t get a scholarship, counted myself lucky to be offered a place at Sydney Sussex, that Christmas when the college letter came the best Christmas of my life.

Before university, though, there was National Service to be got through, regarded at best as a bore but for me, as a late developer, a long dreaded ordeal; it was touch and go which I got to first – puberty or the call-up. I served briefly in the infantry, then like many university entrants at that time was sent on the Joint Services Language Course to learn Russian, first at Coulsdon, then at Cambridge. So what I had dreaded turned out a happy time and, although I didn’t realise it till later, far more enjoyable than my time at university proper. However, I began to think that since I was now spending a year at Cambridge studying Russian the gilt was off the gingerbread so far as Cambridge was concerned and I might get the best of both worlds if I were to go to Oxford. This wasn’t altogether the beady-eyed career move it might seem, in that I had a hopeless crush on one of my fellow officer cadets, who was bound for Oxford – that his college was Brasenose, then a mecca of rowing and rugger, somehow exemplifying the futility of it. Still, I suppose I ought to have been grateful: he might have been going to Hull – or even back to Leeds.

So now in the evenings, after we’d finished our Russian lessons, I started to read for a scholarship again, biking in along Trumpington Road to work in the Cambridge Reference Library, a dark Victorian building behind the Town Hall (gaslit in memory, though it surely can’t have been), where George III was about to make his second entrance. Sometime that autumn I bought, at Deighton Bell in Trinity Street, a copy of George III and the Politicians by Richard Pares, a book I have still, my name written in it by a friend, as I disliked my handwriting then as I do now. It was a detailed, allusive book, demanding a more thorough knowledge of 18th-century politics than a schoolboy could be expected to have, but I mugged it up. Like the good examinee I always was I realised that to know one book well is a better bet than having a smattering of several. A year in the Army had made me more flash too, so this time I did get a scholarship, to read history at Exeter College, where I went when I came out of the Army six months later.

The Oxford history syllabus takes in the whole of English history, beginning at ‘the Beginnings’ and finishing (in those days) at 1939. This meant that one didn’t get round to the 18th century until the middle of the final year. Seeing that Pares, of whom I knew nothing other than his book, was lecturing at Rhodes House, I went along to find it only sparsely attended, though, curiously for a general lecture, I saw that quite a few of the audience were dons.

When Pares was brought in it was immediately plain why. Propped up in a wheelchair, completely paralysed, nodding and helpless, he was clearly dying. Someone spread his notes out on a board laid across his knees and he began to lecture, his head sunk on his chest but his voice still strong and clear. It was noticeable even in the eight weeks that I attended his lectures that the paralysis was progressive and that he was getting weaker. I fancy that in the final weeks, as he was unable to turn his head, someone sat beside him to move his notes into his line of vision.

Now, the 18th century is not an inspiring period. Whether by the Whig interpretation or not, there are none of those great constitutional struggles and movements of ideas that animate the 17th and dramatise the 19th. The politics are materialistic, small-minded, the House of Commons an arena where a man might make a name for himself but where most members were just concerned to line their pockets. That Pares, with death at his elbow, should have gone on analysing and lecturing on what I saw as such a thankless time made a great impression on me – the lesson put crudely, I suppose, being that if a thing is not worth doing, it’s worth doing well. As it was, these must have been the last lectures Pares gave – he died the following year – but when I found I was able to stay on after taking my degree to do research and teach a little and possibly become a don, the memory of those lectures cast for me a romantic light on what is a pretty unromantic profession.

Pares kept cropping up in subsequent years. As the memoirs and letters of the Twenties began to be published, it turned out that as an undergraduate he had been one of the group round Evelyn Waugh and Harold Acton. But whereas most of that charmed circle went down without taking a degree, Pares turned his back on all that, took a First in Greats and was elected a fellow of All Souls. Thirty years later in December 1954, Evelyn Waugh wrote to Nancy Mitford:

I went up to Oxford and visited my first homosexual love, Richard Pares, a don at All Souls. At 50 he is quite paralysed except his mind and voice, awaiting deterioration and death. A wife and four daughters, no private fortune. He would have been Master of Balliol if he had not been struck down. No Christian faith to support him. A very harrowing visit.

My vision of myself pursuing an academic career did not last long, though as a postgraduate I was supervised by the Medieval historian K.B. McFarlane, who had, incidentally, shared a flat with Pares when they were both drafted into the Civil Service during the war. McFarlane was a great teacher and yet he scarcely seemed to teach at all. An hour with him and though he barely touched on the topic of my research, I would come away thinking that to study Medieval history was the only thing in the world worth doing. McFarlane himself had no such illusions, once referring to Medieval studies as ‘just a branch of the entertainment business’, though when with the onset of Beyond the Fringe I eventually abandoned Medieval studies for the entertainment business, this did not make him any less displeased. The rest, one would like to say, is history. But of course what it had been was history; what it was to be was not history at all and when a couple of years ago I began to read about George III, it was the first systematic historical work I’d done in twenty years.

In the meantime I found that George Ill’s rehabilitation had proceeded apace. No longer the ogre, he had grown altogether more kindly, wiser even, and in his attachment to his people and his vision of the nation over and above the vagaries of politics, he had come to seem a forerunner of a monarch of the present day. But it was a joke that made me think of writing about him – just as when a few years ago I thought of writing about Kafka, what started me off was a joke that Kafka had made on his deathbed. Dying of tuberculosis of the larynx, he was fetching up a good deal of phlegm. ‘I think,’ he said (and the joke is more poignant for being so physically painful to make), ‘I think I deserve the Nobel Prize for sputum.’ Nothing if not sick, it is a joke that could have been made yesterday. Less poignant, George III’s joke also occurred during his illness. He had an equerry, Colonel Manners, who, bringing him his dinner one day, discovered the King had hidden under the sofa. A Jeeves before his time, Manners imperturbably laid a place for His Majesty on the carpet and put down the plate. He was retiring discreetly when the King said (still sous bergère), ‘That was very good … Manners.’ The pun was thought to signal a further stage in the King’s recovery. The anecdote hasn’t found its way into the play, but it did make me think that George III might be fun to write about.

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