K.B. McFarlane is remembered by Alan Bennett, his former student, and the life of a Forties Oxford don is evoked in two of his letters

Alan Bennett

K.B. McFarlane was one of the most influential medieval historians of postwar Britain, but his name is unknown outside academic circles. This would have pleased him. He grew up in Dulwich, the son of a civil servant in the Admiralty. A day boy at Dulwich College, he won an open scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford and then a senior demyship at Magdalen where in 1928 he became a fellow and spent the rest of his life.

In terms of published output his career might not seem to amount to much; there was a small book on Wycliffe and a handful of scholarly articles in historical periodicals, with most of his work, notably the Ford Lectures on The Nobility of Later Medieval England published after his death. However, through his teaching and lecturing and the supervision of a large number of graduate students who then went on to greater things, he was undoubtedly the leading medieval historian of his time. A perfectionist in both his research and writing he shunned popularity and publicity and was feared for his acerbic and deflating comments. But those who broke through his reserve knew him as a gentle and compassionate man and an incomparable friend.

I first met him late in Michaelmas term 1957. I had read history at Exeter College and in Final Schools the previous term rather to my own surprise (and very much to the surprise of my college) had just scraped into the first class. So instead of being thrust out into the world as I had expected I was offered the chance of putting Life off a little longer by staying on, as I thought vaguely ‘to do research’, though into what I had no idea. In quest of a supervisor and also a subject I paid a disastrous visit to Beryl Smalley at St Hilda’s, thinking I might do something on the Franciscans. There had been a torrential thunderstorm and forgetting to wipe my feet I trailed wet footsteps all across her white carpet, thus putting paid to any hope of research into the friars, barefoot or otherwise. I then went to see K. B. McFarlane.

My special subject in Schools was Richard II so I had been to McFarlane’s lectures on the Lollard Knights; I also had a copy of some notes on his 1953 Ford Lectures that was passed down from year to year in Exeter. I knew of his austere reputation and of his reluctance to publish from David Marquand, who was at Magdalen and who told me how he had been scared out of his wits one dark night in the cloisters when Bruce had swept past him in his Spanish cloak.

I must have written to him and been told to come down to Magdalen, though I remember nothing of that first meeting except that Bruce was sitting in his armchair, possibly with a cat on his knee, and that I marched awkwardly into the room, stood on the hearthrug and said ‘I’m Bennett’, at which he laughed. And the laughter and the angle of his head and the smile that was so often in his eyes is how I recall him now. Freesias bring him back, too, as there were always some in a glass scenting the whole room, with its collection of keys hung on the plain plaster wall, the bleached oak, the Thirties paintings and bits of brocade. But as one came in, the last smell was always the fish that was put out in the vestibule for the cats.

We settled on the royal retinue of Richard II 1388-99 as my research subject and there-after I used to go down and see him pretty regularly, though not in my recollection talking much about work; these visits, very often around teatime, gradually became less tutorial and more social. I’d generally take with me a cake from Fullers or some establishment in the covered market, cakes that can have done him no good but which he ate with relish, meringues particularly.

I had never come up against as strong a personality as this before and I found without any conscious effort that my handwriting now began to resemble his. He always wrote ‘Esq.’ with the superscription ‘re’ and I found myself doing that too. It’s rare enough nowadays to write Esq. at all but I still write it Esqre and note that others of his former pupils do the same.

Bruce was very set in his ways, though perhaps no more than I am now. At Stonor once I was helping him change some sheets and had put the bottom sheet on with the crease folding down, not up ... the fact that I find my mistake hard to describe indicates how finicky I found it. Bruce reproved me, explaining that the creases should always go the other way. I thought this pedantic and probably said so but I have always observed his method ever since.

Stonor, his pied-à-terre in the country, was hardly the cottage I had thought but a sizeable house with an extensive garden tended largely by Helena Wright, the pioneer of birth control with whom he shared the house, who was often knelt there working, planting out the beds, with her radio (a source of irritation to Bruce) always beside her. Brudenell House at Quainton, to which he subsequently moved, was more imposing, but I never stayed there. Food was fairly simple with lots of soups and salads, the soup in the evening always drunk with a set of 16th-century silver apostle spoons. In those more expansive days one took elaborate table silver for granted, undergraduates at my own college regularly drinking beer in Hall from 17th and 18th-century silver tankards. The spoons, though, I knew were in a different class and indeed they had to be deposited in the bank between visits. Bruce enjoyed food and was quite funny and snobbish about it. Dining once with him at the Randolph (a more intimidating experience then than it is now) I chose scampi, which I’d never eaten. Bruce sniffed: ‘Commercial traveller’s food.’

McFarlane has figured in accounts of the period chiefly as the colleague and opponent of A.J.P. Taylor with whom he shared the history teaching at Magdalen. Taylor achieved the kind of fame Bruce wanted none of, but, unlike Taylor, Bruce managed without effort to acquire a body of pupils who were both friends and disciples and who carried on his work and cherish his memory. Anyone though who did research supervised by McFarlane must have been aware that they had a long way to travel before they reached the frontier of his own knowledge and there was very little any of his students could tell him that he didn’t already know, though this didn’t stop one trying. Having come under his spell I wanted very much to please him, even though it gradually became apparent to me that I was pretty hopeless at research and not much better as a teacher. Still he steered a number of his surplus pupils my way which financially was a great help, finally getting me appointed a junior lecturer in history at Magdalen.

He did too much teaching himself and grumbled about it but never treated it as a chore; what takes me by surprise in these letters is how much his happiness and wellbeing was bound up with the progress and responsiveness of his pupils – and not just the cleverest ones either. A good tutorial even with an average pupil put him in a good mood and was thought worth mentioning in a letter. This dedication to teaching, though, could make him intolerant of what he saw as laziness and he was harsh with pupils who, it seemed to him, were performing below their capacity. Although his zeal was tempered by his relish for oddity and his interest in the personalities of those whom he taught, it could make him seem unfeeling. One of his pupils, who was briefly a pupil of mine, was Adam Roberts, now Professor of International Relations at Oxford. Adam was a demy at Magdalen and was thought likely to get a first but didn’t; he was understandably a little mortified but his self-reproach can’t have been helped when he received a note from McFarlane saying, ‘Here are your marks and pretty miserable they are, too.’ Others of his year with less resilience than Adam received similar notes and I find this hard to understand, let alone sympathise with. It wasn’t that he measured intellectual worth by success in examinations, though he did believe that one had to play the system and that if a good degree bought you time or opened doors and gave you the opportunity to do what you wanted you were a fool not to take examinations seriously. I had used stratagems myself to get through Finals and felt a bit shabby for doing so, though mine were probably cruder (artful quotations, a selection of facts learned by rote) than anything Bruce would have advocated. Still they did the trick, but Karl Leyser having been one of my examiners, Bruce would have known that it was a close-run thing, so I always felt intellectually I was on very thin ice.

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[*] Karl Leyser was born in Düsseldorf in 1920 and sent by hit parents to England in 1936, when he entered St Paul’s School. He won a demyship to Magdalen and was briefly McFarlane’s pupil before being interned on the Isle of Man. Eventually he was released to join the Pioneer Corps, ending up as an officer in the Black Watch. At the time of McFarlane’s letter, he was awaiting embarkation for Normandy. After the war he was elected a fellow of Magdalen and in 1984 was appointed Chichele Professor of Medieval History at All Souls. He died in 1992.