Posted on 25th September 2019
Neil Pearson offers a first edition of A Christmas Story by actor Richard Burton published in New York by William Morrow in 1964. It is inscribed by Burton to literary scholar Nevill Coghill (1899-1980) who was Tutor of English Literature at Exeter College, Oxford, for more than thirty years.
'February 1965, Dublin. To Neville [sic] with great admiration and respect and affection, Richard. If I can persuade Elizabeth to keep me free for three months I'll write a book of bulk and prove, I hope, that actors can be literate. R.'
"The two men first met in 1944, when Burton studied English at Oxford for six months while doing his National Service in the RAF. Coghill was Burton's tutor, and also directed him as Angelo in an OUDS production of Measure For Measure after Burton had auditioned with a rendition of Hamlet's 'To be or not to be...' speech which Coghill later described as 'the most perfect rendering I had ever heard.' Later, Coghill paid tribute to Burton's intellect as well as his talent: 'I have had students of very great gifts and many of very little. But I have only had two men of genius to teach: W.H. Auden and Richard Burton. When they happen, one cannot mistake them.'
Burton's regard for Coghill was equally strong. The two remained in constant touch down the years, and in 1964 Burton drove to Oxford to introduce Elizabeth Taylor to his old tutor and friend. During the visit the plan was conceived to stage an OUDS production of Doctor Faustus to raise funds for the University Playhouse. Burton was as good as his word, and in 1966 the show ran at Oxford for three weeks, directed by Coghill, and starring undergraduate members of OUDS alongside the most famous couple in the world. (The production was filmed in Rome the following year, financed by Burton, directed by Coghill, and featuring the same cast.)
This book, memories of a childhood in Wales, was inscribed during Burton's ten-week stay in Ireland in 1965 while shooting The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. (He received one of his seven Oscar nominations for the film, though he never won.)
Burton knew his worth as an actor, and - God knows - enjoyed the life it gave him. But he always hankered for the life of the mind, and revered writers and academics to the point of envy. The inscription here speaks both to the depth of Burton's affection for Nevill Coghill, and the profound and permanent effect Coghill had on Burton's life."