Author and playwright Alan Bennett has generously bestowed his entire life’s work to the Bodleian Library for free. He said the gift was “a kind of recompense” for the free education he received at Oxford, which he contrasted with the “burden of debt” that today’s graduates face.
Bennett told Cherwell that when he attended Exeter College in the 1950s there was “no question of ending up with a massive debt. You never even had to consider the question of money. If you got in, that was the only thing you had to think about.”
His remarks come as implicit criticism of Oxford Chancellor Lord Patten’s recent remarks, which called for a complete removal of the cap on tuition fees, as well as government policy on tuition fees. He added, “It should be possible. It should be the state’s job to fund and organise state education. It ought to be possible.”
Speaking of his own experience, he said, “It’s not fashionable to thank the state but I’m very grateful the system was in place.” He added that such a situation would be a dream to today’s students.
In recognition of this, Bennett has donated his entire archive to the Bod, a stark contrast to many other writers or their heirs who chose to make a fortune selling the papers. Bennett’s bequest follows news of the £500,000 purchase of Ted Hughes’ manuscripts by the British Library in mid-October.
Bennett said, “There’s so much I’m quite glad to see the back of. I just pity the poor research student who may have to make sense of it all.” Among the collection are original manuscripts, typescripts, drafts and handwritten notes for all of Bennett’s stage and television plays, his memoirs and various novellas and short stories.
Dr Sarah Thomas, Librarian and Director of the Bodleian, called Bennett’s generosity “a model and inspiration for others.” She added, “it’s marvellous to have the papers of such a gifted writer, but absolutely extraordinary for them to be given, not sold, to the Bodleian. In a time in which many people are worrying about material success, he points the way to a different value system.”
Richard Ovenden, the Bodleian’s assistant director, spoke of the library’s “great joy” at receiving the work of “one of the greatest writers to have written in the English language.” Gaining the papers, he said, was the first great acquisition of the 21st century.
At a reception held to mark the gift on Monday, Bennett was presented with the Bodleian medal, awarded in recognition of his services to the Bod. David Vaisey, ex-librarian of the Bodleian and long-standing friend of Bennett, presented the award.
Vaisey called the medal, which uses copper taken from the library roof “the greatest honour the Bodleian can bestow upon anyone”, and a fitting gift for the “the most admired and most loved contemporary English playwright.”