Sunday, 6 February 2011

New books: George VI and his speech therapist

As authors writing about their relatives often have a tendency to overestimate their subject and his or her importance I was somewhat sceptical when I read the publisher Quercus’s presentation of the book Mark Logue and Peter Conradi have written about Logue’s grandfather, titled The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy.
“One man saved the British Royal Family in the first decades of the 20th century [...] Had [Lionel] Logue not saved Bertie (as the man who was to become King George VI was always known) from his debilitating stammer, and pathological nervousness in front of a crowd or microphone, then it is almost certain that the House of Windsor would have collapsed”. On the back cover we read that it was the speech therapist Lionel Logue “who single-handedly turned the nervous, tongue-tied Duke of York into one of Britain’s greatest kings [...]”.
This is utter nonsense. The British monarchy has survived greater ordeals than a monarch who was a bad public speaker and its survival in the twentieth century can be put down to many other factors than Lionel Logue. That George VI became such a good king was also largely due such things as the influence of his wife, Churchill and other figures, the opportunity given him by the war to become a national symbol and not least the personal qualities of George VI himself.
Luckily the book itself is free of such sensationalist oversimplifications as dominate the publisher’s presentation of it. Quite on the contrary it is in fact a sober, well-written and informative account of how King George VI worked to overcome his speech impediment in close cooperation with the Australian-born speech therapist Lionel Logue.
The story is not quite unknown from previous books on George VI, but the authors base their work on Logue’s own papers and are thus able both to tell the story more from his perspective than what has previously been done and to add much of value and interest.
We learn of both Logue’s and the future King’s respective backgrounds and how Logue migrated from Australia to set himself up as a speech therapist in London. Throughout the book we learn quite much about Logue’s family and personally I felt the book could have done without some of that material. It does of course provide some sort of backdrop against which the man can be seen, but what is told about Logue’s children’s studies, career choices etc are probably of greater interest to the author/grandson and other family members than to the general reader.
It was in 1926 that the then Duke of York, Prince Albert, became one of his clients and Logue soon made the diagnosis that the Duke’s stammer was not psychologically conditioned. “The real cause of the Duke’s impediment was that his diaphragm did not work properly in conjunction with his brain and articulation, and consequently the defect was purely physical”, Logue concluded.
Under the expert care of Lionel Logue, the Duke learned how to overcome this physical obstacle which had until then made public speaking a torment to him. Such was the success of Logue’s treatment that his services were eventually no longer needed, which seems to have been a blow to him.
He would send the Duke annual birthday presents, but months and years would go by without him seeing his royal patient despite his writing to him requesting meetings. “I am sorry I have not seen you for so long (2 years as you say), but I have very seldom felt that I have needed the help that you can give me”, the Duke replied to one such letter in 1934.
But when the abdication occurred in 1936 and the Duke of York rather suddenly found himself king, Logue was again called into service. In the following years, up until well into World War II, Logue was normally at the King’s side when he made his broadcasts. Here I feel that the authors might have done more to explain why it was that the King after 1936 again felt the need for Logue’s services.
The most obvious explanation is of course that the King was more often called upon to make speeches after his accession than before. The authors state that the King “had made huge progress” in the past decade, “but he was not completely cured of his nervousness”, something which seems to contradict Logue’s diagnosis that the reasons for the speech impediment were purely physical and not psychological.
Nevertheless the authors succeed in giving the reader an insight into the closeness of the relationship between monarch and speech therapist. Obviously Logue was a very important support to the King as he faced the dreaded microphones, but it also becomes clear how much the success of the treatment also depended on the patient’s determination.
This again gives the lie to the publisher’s claim about Logue’s single-handedly saving the monarchy. In fact the publisher’s hyperbole does not do this book or its authors justice. It is a far more sober and thoughtful account than the cover suggests and as such it is a welcome addition to the literature on a king upon whose death 59 years ago on this very date the French Ambassador René Massigli wrote: “If the ‘greatness’ of a king can be measured by the extent to which his qualities corresponded to the needs of a nation at a given moment in history, then George VI was a great king, and perhaps a very great king”.
As such he is a monarch worthy of many books and Mark Logue’s and Peter Conradi’s book will take its place among the significant volumes in the literature on this important era for the British monarchy.


  1. I did not read the book and I am not going to. But I saw the movie a couple of weeks ago. It was interesting but not that good that it really deserves all the the rewards which it apparently has been nominated for. Colin Firth is excellent as the Duke of York/King George VI although one gets a bit tired of the constant expression of fear in his face. Helena Bonham Carter is perfect as the Duchess/Queen.
    I had a childish pleasure in participating at some private moments within royal family which of course are pure fictional and have no connection with the book. I particularly enjoyed the scene when the the duke and duchess are going to visit King Edward VII at some palace in the countryside and are received and welcomed instead by Mrs. Simpson.The polite disgust showing from the face of the duchess is unbeatable.
    It was also great fun to see how one of my favourite royals Queen Mary were acting when the brothers Wales and York came late to the family dinner table.
    It was also sweet to see the small princesses Elizabeth and Margaret saluting their father by means of a deep reverence when seeing him for the first time as king./Martin Rahm Rahm

  2. I have not yet seen the film, but in her memoirs the Duchess of Windsor described that meeting with the Duke and Duchess of York - at Fort Belvedere, I think - and wrote acidly about her sister-in-law that "her justly famous charm was highly evident".


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