Yearly Archives: 2016

A note from our intern, Beth

By Beth Mills, MA student at the University of Exeter (2015-2016)

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Having had the pleasure to assist as an intern on this project over the spring and summer, I am delighted to be rejoining Thomas Hardy and his acquaintances for the remainder of this year. As the new term begins and I prepare to return to the University of Exeter’s Special Collections, I would like to share some reflections that the experience of working on ‘Hardy and Heritage’ has prompted so far.

Aside from the sheer number of his correspondents, the archive reveals the high esteem in which these individuals held Hardy. Whilst the letters of such notable figures as Florence Henniker bespeak valued friendships, admiration for Hardy and his many fictional works can be found throughout the collection. Given that some of my time spent photographing the letters coincided with that of writing an essay on The Return of the Native and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, I was especially drawn to messages from eager university students, some of whom were writing theses on Hardy’s novels. Undertaking their degrees during the first decades of the twentieth century, these young scholars must have been exhilarated by the possibility of conversing with an author whose reputation was by that point well-established.

Of particular relevance to my own research were two telegrams from the Canadian-born writer of popular fiction and science, Grant Allen. Like Hardy, Allen had attracted criticism for a novel centred on a heroine who diverged from dominant moral codes: Herminia Barton, the Cambridge-educated heroine of The Woman Who Did (1895), eschews established conventions of marriage. Having praised Jude the Obscure (1895) a year earlier, in January 1896 Allen promised to send Hardy a copy of his own controversial work, declaring that “[i]t deals with problems of the time which interest us both” (Telegram to Thomas Hardy). Such windows into the political, social, and intellectual attitudes of Hardy and his contemporaries afford his correspondence dynamism. Through everything from brief comments such as Allen’s to more detailed exchanges on pressing contemporary topics, the archive animates Hardy’s context and paints a rich portrait of the diverse relationships that he sustained through the written word.

Grant Allen

Grant Allen

Through an exciting combination of photography and digital encoding, ‘Hardy and Heritage’ unites late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literary heritage with technologies and research practices of the twenty-first century. It has introduced me to the method of digitisation using the Text Encoding Initiative, along with the challenges that this process entails. As such, the project has been a constant source of intellectual stimulation, as I am confident that the finished database will prove to be for Hardy’s readers and researchers today and for many years to come.

“The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.” D.Nevill

While carefully photographing the contents of the N box, I was particularly drawn to the letters and postcards of Lady Dorothy Nevill (1826-1913) – writer, hostess and horticulturist, daughter of Horatio Walpole, the third Earl of Oxford, and correspondent to both Darwin and Hardy.

Illustration of Lady Nevill printed in Vanity Fair, 1912

Illustration of Lady Nevill printed in Vanity Fair, 1912

Although there are only fourteen letters from Lady Nevill across a nineteen-year period, the small collection stands out because of its aesthetic appeal. Floral borders and headers catch the eye and an array of different coloured paper make an attractive archive bundle. The Victorian communication revolution resulted in a boom in the range of personal stationery available and Lady Nevill’s choice of notepaper suggests something of both her warm, enthusiastic personality and her passion for horticulture.

A selection of the letters sent from Lady Nevill to Hardy.

A selection of the letters sent from Lady Nevill to Hardy.

After marrying her cousin, Reginald Henry, in 1847 Lady Nevill turned the Dangstein estate in Sussex into a horticultural landmark boasting over seventeen conservatories of exotic plants. In 1861 Charles Darwin wrote to Nevill as a highly regarded orchid grower and she obliged him by supplying various specimens to further his research. Their epistolary exchanges can be read online at the Darwin Correspondence Project , and in due course I hope it will be possible to link data from our digital archive to others, so that a whole network of Victorian correspondence can be rebuilt online.

Nevill’s first letter to Hardy was sent in 1891 after the serial publication of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. In 1892 Hardy gave her a copy of the novel which Nevill valued highly.  Her letters indicate that she was one of a number of female readers who wanted to voice their support for Hardy’s honest portrayal of Tess.

It was Lady Nevill’s fondness for Dorset that drew her to Hardy’s work. In Life and Letters of Lady Dorothy Nevill (1919) her son, Ralph Nevill, describes how his mother’s ‘recollections of old-time Wessex rippled as sweetly through her memory as a stream through a pleasant dell.’[1] The biography’s depiction of Lady Nevill riding across the ‘wild country’ as a young girl also seems to cast her in the shape of a Hardy heroine.

Beyond their shared love of the landscape, Hardy and Lady Nevill developed an enduring friendship through her enthusiasm for holding salons at her home. An accessible railway link from London to Sussex brought a large circle of writers, artists and politicians, including Disraeli, to Dangstein and Nevill was one of a number of English hostesses who not only entertained the literati but were also writers themselves.[2]

While the transient conversations of the salon are lost in time, evidence of their friendship remains within the pages of her letters which are not only visually appealing but also reveal a playful way with language and a familiarity with Hardy as a valued Dorset friend. One postcard written in 1899 reads:

Dear Mr Hardy,

You have behaved very badly never coming near me but I am a philosopher and forgive you. Will you and Mrs Hardy have luncheon on Saturday the 16th?

Yrs D Nevill



[2] Leaves from the Notebooks of Lady Dorothy Nevill (1907)







Happy Birthday Hardy!

On reading Hardy’s Birthday Letters…

By undergraduate volunteer, Maddie Henshaw-Greene

Volunteering on the Hardy and Heritage Project was an eye-opening experience in a number of ways. Perhaps what struck me the most, however, was how beloved Thomas Hardy really was (and still is). So many of the letters in this collection are filled with rapturous praise and thanks to an author who changed the way in which his readership perceived the world. (His fan club was not limited to Britain, but expanded all the way to Russia, India, and North America.) Although Hardy undoubtedly received criticism for his often dark and disturbing material, he was constantly overwhelmed by admiration for his craft. None of this was more evident than in the letters addressed to him on his birthday.

One of the many reasons that letter-writing is so fascinating to us nowadays is because it took time. These days, you can wish someone a happy birthday via Facebook post in a matter of seconds. But back then, you actually had to sit down at your writing-desk, with pen and ink, and actually write.

Some of the birthday letters contain commonplace messages, ones that simply wished him “many more years of well-earned rest”, while others were more personal, thanking him for the novels that offered “a keener enjoyment…than those of anyone else” or for his “nobility of outlook and integrity of conscience”. Letters poured in from people of every class and employment, ranging from ex-soldiers to university students to King George V, who offered his “personal congratulations” along with those of “the people of the empire who love your writings”.

Reading Hardy’s birthday letters was a privilege because it reinforced my belief in just how greatly literature can touch people’s lives. I can only hope that, despite the fact that letter-writing has fallen out of fashion, readers around the world will still take a moment to wish this beloved author a happy birthday.

(Maddie volunteered on the project from January to June 2016 and her help was greatly appreciated. She will start the final year of her BA English degree this September – good luck Maddie!)

The Letter M

Deep in Dorset County Museum, on the shelves of the Hardy archive, can be found 25 alphabetically labelled boxes containing the letters that were sent to the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy during his lifetime. The total runs to several thousand. Since September I have been carefully photographing these beautiful letters from the 19th century and early 20th century, to preserve snail mail in a digital age. I’m working through each box, photographing every page and every envelope to form the basis of a digital database – currently I have reached M.

The goal of this blog is to track and share my thoughts about the wide array of letters I’m discovering in the collection. Currently I’m working through the ‘M’ boxes, which contain about 460 letters. They are a wonderful example of the diversity of this letter collection and include the earliest surviving letter from Hardy’s close friend, Horace Moule, written in 1860, alongside notes from editors (John Morley and Mowbray Morris) and publishers (Macmillan) – taken together these show the public and private face of Hardy’s correspondence.

In the last few days, some of the most visually appealing material to have come out of the archive boxes has been from John Masefield O.M. (Poet Laureate from 1930-1967). Writing to Hardy in the 1920s – both on a personal level and as the Director of the Hill Players – several of Masefield’s letters come with wax-sealed envelopes.
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Using a seal ensured that a letter had not been tampered with and confirmed it was written by the supposed sender, so it speaks of the privacy that surrounds familiar letter-writing. However, before the postal reforms of the mid-19th century a seal was also used instead of an envelope to keep down the overall cost. Appearing on Masefield’s envelopes as late as the 1920s it is not necessary on a functional level but the red wax impression is an immediate mark of distinction and a personal flourish that takes us to the heart of letter culture.

Other things ‘M’…

130 years ago Hardy published The Mayor of Casterbridge .To celebrate this, a local book club called the ‘Duryard Readers’ have taken on the challenge of reading the novel and will then have the opportunity to pop in for a sneak preview of relevant letters.

Beth Mills – Currently completing a Masters in English, Beth has temporarily joined the team to help photograph and digitally transcribe some of the letters. Beth will be helping out until the end of July (and we predict we’ll be safely onto Q by then).
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