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The King's Speech, by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi

John Ford | 01.03.2011

Book review by John Ford. Quercus Publishing, 2010

Cover of The King's Speech

In a curious way, King George VI is a most important person in the history of stammering. Many famous people have begun life stammering, but very few have entered public life without greatly improved speech. George VI is a rare exception, because he had no choice. Possibly the Roman emperor Claudius, chosen against his will by the imperial guards to become emperor, was another, in which case this book follows Suetonius's Lives of the Emperors as an account of only the second person who stammers compelled to reign.

Although King George VI did not end up by being poisoned, he probably had a much tougher time than Claudius, who did not have to cope with state openings of Parliament, Christmas messages on the radio and tours of Canada and the United States, not to speak of special wartime radio broadcasts. There are two excellent biographies of George VI, an official one by Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, who himself had a stammer, and another by Sarah Bradford. Although both do deal with George VI's stammer at some length, neither has anything like the sympathetic detail in this book. It does its best to show how the stammer began, how it affected his childhood and early career and how devastating a blow it was when George VI's elder brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated in 1936, leaving him king, a word that ironically George VI found particularly difficult to pronounce.

It was an Australian called Lionel Logue who after many other failed attempts finally had considerable success in helping George VI to overcome his stammer. He began to see him in 1926. The book, part written by Logue's grandson, rightly makes a lot of his colonial Australian background. He was born in Adelaide in 1880, the son of a brewer, so was never a pauper. But to advance from this background to a practice in Harley Street shows considerable verve and courage. Speech therapy in those days was even less of a science then than now, and some of Logue's methods would probably not be much thought of today. He often corrected George VI's speeches so he could avoid certain difficult words and he placed great stress on correct breathing. But his real gift was in giving the king confidence to speak, and assuring him, in my view rightly, that his problem was physical rather than psychological.

I think Logue realised how evanescent his methods might be if applied generally, and not by him, in a way specifically tailored to each client. He refused to write a book about his system, and indeed denied that it was really was one. As he explained in a letter to Sir Alan Lascelles, George VI's private secretary, in 1937, "unfortunately, in the matter of speech defects, when so much depends on the temperament and individuality {of a person}, a case can always be produced that can prove you wrong. That is why I won't write a book."

This is a pity, for if Logue had written one, he could have developed at greater length his idea that an individual assessment of each client is important. Here he and George VI had a great advantage. Logue kept copious diaries which form an important source for this book. These show that he charged the king a lot of money, though the records show too that he sometimes gave his services free when his client was poor. He saw the king one-to-one over a hundred times, and this concentrated treatment, not possible for most people, must have helped greatly. Indeed I believe Logue himself thought, until at least the end of the Second World War, that the king's speech difficulties were likely to return unless he saw him fairly frequently.

This is an excellent book, which goes into as much detail as possible about George VI's stammer and about Logue's treatment for it. What it cannot do without more detailed records is explain exactly how Logue treated the king. But that his therapy was successful no one can doubt.

John Ford is BSA's volunteer librarian.

From the Spring 2011 edition of Speaking Out, page 7.