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!)