A visit to Special Collections: viewing correspondence between Hardy and the Morrises

Peter Faulkner recently visited the project to view letters from William Morris and his daughter May Morris. Here he shares his experience.


I taught English at the University of Exeter from 1971 until my retirement in 1998, and devoted a good deal of my time to the study of William Morris and his colleagues. Two years after I had retired I was asked to co-teach a course on the nineteenth century with a newly-arrived Lecturer, Angelique Richardson , a Hardy expert.  Angelique has kindly kept in touch with me since then, and put me in touch with postgraduate students whose interests overlap with mine. One of these is Helen Angear, who is writing a PhD on Hardy’s letters, many of which are in the archive at the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester. Helen is also involved, through the Exeter Digital Humanities Team, in the digitisation of the over 5,000 letters in a project called ‘Hardy and Heritage’, a process which it is hoped will be completed by September 2018.

I was aware of one letter from Morris to Thomas Hardy, included in the third volume of the fine edition of The Collected Letters of William Morris, edited by Norman Kelvin and published by Princeton U.P. in 1996. Here is the letter as it appears in this edition, with five footnotes:

Kelmscott House

Upper Mall, Hammersmith

                                                                                                                             December 15 [1891]

Dear Sir               Thank you very much I shall be very pleased to receive your book & to read it.2 I have read two of your books with much pleasure, Far from the Madding Crowd,3 & The return of the Native.4 The first one is the most pleasing and I suppose you would look upon it as the most typical of your works. But there is a great deal of close study of nature, (I mean human  of that ilk) in the Return, besides the beauty of the mise en scéne5 which with you is a matter of course.

Again with many thanks                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        I am                                                                                                                                                             Yours faithfully                                                                                                                                                       William Morris

Kelvin provides five notes.     1& 2 refer us to Michael Millgate’s Thomas Hardy, a biography (New York: Random House, 1982); on p.319, Millgate states that Hardy sent Morris a copy of Tess in November 1891, adding that the two men never met. Kelvin agrees that there is no evidence of a meeting, but suggests that the two men might have met at a meeting of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, which Morris founded in 1877 and which Hardy joined in 1881 or 1882. In 1882-3 Hardy ‘offered … to keep a watchful eye on Wimborne Minster’ and in 1889 he was concerned about Stratton Church (Millgate, pp. 235 & 302).        3. Gives the date of publication, 1874.     4. Gives the date of publication, 1878. In neither of these notes does Kelvin respond to Morris’s critical remarks; nor does he comment on the rather odd bracketed expression ‘I mean human save of that ilk’      5. Kelvin draws attention, in a slightly embarrassed fashion, to Morris’s inaccurate use of French accents.

Knowing the letter in this form, it was a great pleasure to be invited by Helen Angear to read the original handwritten version, which I did on Wednesday 22nd February of this year in the Special Collection at Exeter University Library, to which Helen had brought the letter with some other material of interest to me. A considerable surprise was the small size of the piece of notepaper on which Morris wrote – the seven lines of Kelvin’s main paragraph take up no fewer than fifteen short lines, while the address is printed in small capitals, with the date written in beneath. As a reader, I became aware of the extent of regularisation in the Collected Letters – which is no doubt typical of all such editions. Reading the original, I felt more than usually involved, while the letter seemed more vulnerable and its survival more remarkable. There is a special pleasure in this proximity to a text.

I was also shown two letters to Hardy from Morris’s younger daughter, May. In the first, she addresses Hardy as ‘Dear Sir’ and asks a favour. At the time, May was engaged in editing her father’s Collected Works and writing Introductions to each the 24 volumes, published between 1910 and 1915.  In that for Vol. XVIII, she wanted to give an account of the buildings in Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire that particularly interested her father, and she recalled reading in Tess of the D’Urbervilles – ‘that delightful and tragic book’ –  Hardy’s memorable account of the ‘noble tithe-barn at Little Coxwell, near Faringdon’. Her request was that Hardy should allow her to quote the passage in her Introduction. Morris’s admiration for the barn is well known, though the barn is usually located at the nearby Great Coxwell.  It would seem that Hardy gave permission for the account to be included, as two pages of Hardy are quoted in the Introduction, together with a photograph of the barn taken by F.H. Evans; ironically, though, the fine descriptive passage is not from Tess but from Far from the Madding Crowd, the novel referred to favourably by Morris in his letter discussed above. May remarks, appreciatively, that ‘I know no writer who has understood and interpreted so keenly well the past and present spirit of these simple and majestic buildings.’ The great Shearing-barn is not given a location in the novel, but one can readily understand why May associated it with Coxwell.

The second letter from May is from Kelmscott Manor, where she was now living, on 27 November 1926, and addresses ‘Dear Mr. Hardy’: ‘I am getting out an appeal for subscriptions for the building of a Village Hall in memory of my Father, and in doing so am anxious to get the support of those who care for the things he cared for.’ A note dated 5 December thanks Hardy for allowing his name to be added to her committee: ‘I am indeed glad to have it.’ Funds were slow to come in, and it was not until 1934 that the Hall, designed by Ernest Gimson (who had died in 1919) was opened, with Bernard Shaw in flamboyant form and the Prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, who as a young man had known Morris, in the audience.

Having had such a good experience at the archive, I would encourage anyone whose research interests coincide in any way with Hardy to keep an eye on this project as it develops. 




Some of Peter’s publications can be found here:





Letters to Hardy about *Far from the Madding Crowd* – insights from an undergraduate researcher

Chrissi Lewes took the ‘Hardy and Women Who Did’ module in her third year at the University of Exeter (2016-2017). Here she shares her insights into using some of the letters from the Hardy archive for her dissertation.  


The Hardy and Heritage Project enriched my capacity to research throughout my final year, and access to original letters sent to Hardy gave me a far more intimate understanding of Far from the Madding Crowd – the subject of my dissertation.


The process of transcribing a letter was challenging (for Victorian writing is beautiful though on occasion illegible), yet akin to unravelling a mystery; with every word being a reminder of stepping back in time and reading the same letter which Hardy opened at Max Gate. These details, coupled with Hardy curiously ripping a page of a letter from Leslie Stephen (Stephen to Hardy 13th April 1894), delicate sign offs which are now obsolete today such as ‘I am yours very truly’ and ‘yours in haste’, as well as esteemed individuals such as Grant Allen expressing his gratitude to Hardy for sending him a copy of the novel, offer a picture of Victorian correspondence. The experience of reading the digitised letters online is equally fascinating, and the underlined hyperlinks helpfully provide additional context.


My experience with the Far from the Madding Crowd collection led me to directly confront the censorship that Hardy grappled with and much begrudged. Hardy’s editor, Leslie Stephen, urged that Troy’s seduction needs to be ‘treated in a gingerly fashion’ (Stephen to Hardy 2nd March 1896), and concedes that he would be ‘somewhat be glad to omit [Bathsheba’s] baby’ (Stephen to Hardy 13 April 1894). My dissertation analysed Crowd in relation to adaptation studies, therefore I was also interested to see that Stephen deemed the novel ‘rather long’, and described that the plot development was too slow for periodical form unless it underwent edits (Stephen to Hardy 17 February 1894).


Yet I learnt that it was not just Stephen that held strong opinions on Hardy’s most published and popularly read work. Katharine Macquoid, a novelist and travel-writer who was similarly concerned with the ‘women question’, wrote to Hardy in order to interrogate Bathsheba’s femininity. Macquoid’s letter reveals that Bathsheba disrupted her perception of a conventional heroine, and, moreover, that of a conventional woman. She wrote:

‘It was ungrateful to find fault with Bathsheba who must have took you infinite times and labours to create – she is almost always true to herself but then her nature is not that of a true woman – because she is centred on the self(Macquoid to Hardy 18 November 1874).


Though a handful of words were indecipherable, I felt I had struck gold as I read this passionate piece. It posed a wealth of questions regarding female literary archetypes, the novelist’s world being ‘something much greater than the ‘public’ idea of it’, and it was interesting to see how her ideas on the desired traits of a heroine gradually became conflated with that of women in the flesh. Fritted with dashes, her trains of thought remained incomplete for Hardy to rejoin – indeed, she penned that she could not reach ‘answers without getting into chapters’ (Macquoid to Hardy 18 November 1874).


Overall, the Hardy correspondence collection immediately allowed my research to become more meaningful, and fulfilled my broader interests as I could catch glimpses of Hardy’s character and private life. It is well known that Hardy’s writing created debate through his critique of the gendered and social conventions of his epoch. The collection of letters will visualise this for you, and help you to develop arguments on various aspects of the Victorian public’s engagement with both Hardy and his work.


Chrissi Lewes


A Woodlanders Study Day

Last month I was delighted to be involved in the Thomas Hardy Society’s ‘Woodlanders Study Day’ at Dorchester’s Corn Exchange, held in association with the University of Exeter’s Centre for Victorian Studies. It was a chance to talk about the digitisation project but it was also wonderful to immerse myself as a student and listen to the key note lectures and various papers about The Woodlanders. If you missed the event, a full programme can be found here and you will soon be able to view all of the talks on YouTube.

Ahead of the study day, Beth and I transcribed some of the letters in the collection that relate to The Woodlanders (which was originally published in serial form in 1886 and in book form in 1887). This correspondence includes: advisory letters from the serial editor at Macmillan’s Magazine Mowbray Morris; congratulatory letters from Hardy’s friend and critic, Edmund Gosse; a note of thanks from Gertrude Bugler, and other letters pursuing lines of inquiry in relation to the text as late as the 1920s. Below I have recorded a few notes on the letters from Morris, Gosse and Bugler as they might prove particularly useful to researchers and students. However, I’m sure that as we work through more of the archive there will be a far greater number of letters that offer insight into how Hardy’s contemporaries engaged with this novel over the course of time.

Mowbray Morris’ letters during the serialisation serve as a reminder of the bowdlerisation Hardy’s novels underwent. Morris wrote in September 1886 to advise Hardy not to “bring the fair Miss Suke into too open shame” not for “his own morals” but for those of the magazine’s readers. Significantly, the concluding line of Chapter Four, Volume Two – which states that ‘it was daybreak before Fitzpiers and Suke Damson re-entered Little Hintock’ – is absent in the serial version for fear of offending a morally-sensitive Victorian readership. As Morris was at pains to explain in the letter: “an editor must be commercial as well as literary; and the magazine has scarcely no abundant a sale that I can disregard any section of its readers.”

Edmund Gosse wrote in March 1887 to praise Hardy on his latest work, only mildly criticising the first volume for its stiff opening but asserting that the second volume was as ‘rich and full as a Titian’.


Titian, The Flight into Egypt, c. 1506-07. Courtesy of The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersberg and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

Gosse seems keen to position himself as Hardy’s ally in the letter, explaining how he has ‘gone in for an arrant piece of log-rolling’ in the Saturday Review and will persuade Coventry Patmore to do the same in another periodical, in order to sway the tide of more negative criticism previously encountered by Hardy. In transcribing this letter for the digital collection it was great to be able to include a link (thanks to GoogleBooks) to the reviews that Patmore and Gosse actually wrote, restoring something of the original context of this correspondence.


Gertrude Bugler as Marty South in the dramatization of The Woodlanders, 1913 (Image courtesy University of California, Riverside)

The amateur actress Gertrude Bugler wrote on her birthday in 1925 to thank Hardy for sending her a copy of the novel as a present. Bugler played Marty South in a 1913 dramatisation of The Woodlanders in Dorset, just after leaving school and Hardy acted in a paternal role during her amateur acting career. As Michael Millgate writes in Bugler’s obituary in The Independent, Hardy’s last words to Bugler were – ‘If anyone asks you if you knew Thomas Hardy, say, ‘Yes, he was my friend’, and this letter is one of several that gives us some sense of the tender friendship that developed between the writer and actress; Bugler writes: “it is useless for me to try to tell you how much I shall always value my three beautiful books.”

The TEI transcriptions of these letters are still draft documents at the moment but they will form part of the digital database of 100 letters which will be accessible by September 2018. (We’ll let you know when it’s ready!)

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

[1] https://archive.org/stream/lifelettersoflad00neviiala/lifelettersoflad00neviiala_djvu.txt


[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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