Hardy and Heritage: Digitising Letters to Thomas Hardy
Hardy's correspondence as literary reputation and legacy
Hearty congratulations to Dr Helen Angear upon receiving her Doctorate for a most important and worthy project!
Helen's thesis presents an archive-based socio-historical and literary-critical study of the poet and novelist Thomas Hardy who is encountered through epistolary conversations. It situates letter exchange within a broader framework of collaborative writing practices and offers a focus on correspondence as a key aspect of life-writing.
As a leading literary figure of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Hardy was a desirable correspondent for fellow writers, critics, artists and other cultural figures – as well as for his readers, who existed in their thousands across the globe. While there have been studies of Hardy as letter writer, as well as analysis of postal communication in his texts, this is the fullest exploration of letters he received.
The thesis takes a multi-faceted approach, engaging with a multiplicity of letters at Dorset County Museum as it seeks to open up the archive to a wider audience. Underpinned by the concepts of distance and proximity, the chapters respectively address homosocial bonds between male writers, intimacy in friendships between the sexes, and a repositioning in relation to the modernist movement, concluding by asking what the correspondence of a canonical writer can reveal about the wider concept of author as celebrity. Through the lens of epistolary dialogue, the thesis explores relationships between Hardy and the people who wrote to him, both familiar and unknown. It examines the intimacy of friendships, as well as the connections sought by readers who found they could write directly to a famous author – an indirect result of the postal reform of the 1840s – and challenges the idea that ‘meet-the-author’ practices were a relatively new phenomenon.
The study provides both a close analysis of Hardy’s networks and a conceptual study of the nature of literary reputations, legacies and archives. It is accompanied by a digitisation project which allows wider consideration of the implications of the digital future of archives, and the pedagogical investments of the research can be seen in the appendices on teaching practice.
The Digitisation Project
‘Hardy and Heritage’ is a collaborative PhD project between the University of Exeter and Dorset County Museum which aims to create a digital database of over 4,000 letters written to poet and novelist, Thomas Hardy (1840 -1928). These letters form part of Dorset County Museum’s Thomas Hardy Memorial Collection, the largest Hardy collection in the world, recently selected for the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Programme register.
Working with Exeter’s Digital Humanities Team, the digitisation project will make the letters remotely accessible to a wider audience, raising awareness of literary heritage in the South West. Further digital developments will include the use of new mobile technology to interpret, entertain and educate, enhancing access to the newly catalogued archive and informing Dorset County Museum’s existing multi-disciplinary software development.
The letter was an essential form of communication in the nineteenth century, with the introduction of the Uniform Penny Post, in 1840, leading to something of a communication revolution. This collection sheds light on the social practice of letter-writing and reveals Hardy’s involvement in a global network, engaged in social, intellectual and political debates from science and war to education and female emancipation, with correspondents from Australia, Canada, Chile, China, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Nigeria, the Philippines, South Africa, Syria, Tasmania and the USA.
Correspondents include prominent writers (e.g. Grant Allen, J.M. Barrie, Browning, Havelock Ellis, George Egerton, Gissing, Kipling, T.E. Lawrence, Levy, Meredith, Charlotte Mew, Ezra Pound, Siegfried Sassoon, Swinburne, Wells, Woolf), artists and illustrators (Augustus John, George Du Maurier, Helen Paterson), musicians (e.g. Elgar, Holst) and actors, as well as charitable and political organisations, family and fans.