Thomas Hardy’s position as one of Britain’s preeminent writers meant he received thousands of letters from fans, friends and members of the public to express their admiration or enlist his support.
The letters show Hardy’s modern views meant he played a key role in debates of the time – from women and suffrage to war and vivisection – and also how much he inspired other writers. Now one hundred of these letters have been made publicly available for the first time.
Hardy had thousands of correspondents from all round the world, from countries including Australia, Canada, Chile, China, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Nigeria, the Philippines, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Syria, Tasmania and the USA.
Writers including J.M. Barrie, Florence Henniker, T.E. Lawrence, Amy Levy, Ezra Pound, Siegfried Sassoon, H.G. Wells and Virginia Woolf wrote to seek his opinion and express their admiration. He also received letters from illustrators, musicians and actors, as well as charitable and political organisations.
Experts from the University of Exeter, using equipment from their Digital Humanities Lab, are digitising more than 5,000 of Hardy’s letters, which are housed at Dorset Museum. These letters form part of Dorset Museum’s Thomas Hardy Memorial Collection, the largest Hardy collection in the world, recently selected for the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme
A new website, created by the team at the Digital Humanities Lab, shows images and fully annotated transcriptions of 100 letters to Hardy, with more to be added in the future.
Project lead Professor Angelique Richardson, from the University of Exeter, said: “By looking at the letters Hardy received we can see how he had a central place in national and international conversations and networks. He was engaged in intellectual and political debates, and discussion of subjects ranging from science and war to education, feminism and suffrage.
“Examining his correspondence also shows us how writers were seen in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, and about the practice of letter writing across class, gender, and geographical boundaries.”
Letters available to read on the website include a note from Duchess Nina Douglas-Hamilton, President of the Animal Defence & Anti-Vivisection Society, who wrote to Hardy in 1923 to ask him if he would accept election as Vice-President due to his sympathy with their work.
In May 1915 his friend, the novelist Florence Henniker wrote to ask Hardy to tell the Home Office he had known her friend Anna Hirschmann for “a considerable time, & that you believe her to be a most devoted honest, loyal person – (or any words you like to use?) who may safely be allowed to remain in England .”
The poet Ezra Pound wrote to Hardy in January 1915 from the Cote d’ Azure to thank him for comments he had made on his work and to ask for more feedback.
“It is so exceedingly difficult to get any criticism whatever from anyone whose reaction one respects … “I recognise the fact that the stuff in question may have the supreme fault of being ‘merely uninteresting’ — in which case no criticism is possible – & there is no remedy but the slender chance of doing better next time.
“I don’t know that I have any other excuse to offer for writing this note. I was very much surprised that you had heard of me at all — as indicated in your first reply to my importunities on behalf of the Dial.
“I don’t think mere praise is any good — I know where I can get it, & just what wrong reasons will lead one or two eminent contemporaries to like or tolerate certain passages. Forgive me if I blurt out this demand for more frankness than anything, save perhaps a lifelong friendship, can engender between two individuals.”
“It is not a cheerful performance, ‘coming back again’. I wish I could find a spark of glory in it. But there is none now: only organised destruction, & a general feeling of hopelessness. The Army is one vast Stupidity; one “does one’s job” & longs for ignoble comforts.”
The writer Virginia Woolf wrote to Hardy in January 1915 to express her admiration for his work.
“I have long wished to tell you how profoundly grateful I am to you for your poems & novels, but naturally it seemed an impertinence to do so. When however, your poem to my father, Leslie Stephen, appeared in Satires of Circumstance this autumn, I felt that I might perhaps be allowed to thank you for that at least. That poem, & the reminiscences you contributed to Professor Maitland’s Life of him, remain in my mind as incomparably the truest & most imaginative portrait of him in existence, for which alone his children should be always grateful to you.
“But besides this one would like to thank you for the magnificent work which you have already done, & are still to do. The younger generation, who care for poetry & literature, owe you an immeasurable debt, & in particular for your last volume of poems which, to me at any rate, is the most remarkable book to appear in my life time.
“I wrote only to satisfy a very old desire, & not to trouble you to reply.”
Jon Murden, Director of Dorset Museum said “This has been a wonderful opportunity for the partnership of the Museum and the University to work together on this project, to ensure the accessibility and preservation of these stories behind this unique collection of letters, for future generations to study and enjoy.”