Letters purchased at auction by Dorset History Centre, throw fresh light on a little known controversy surrounding the death of Dorset writer Thomas Hardy.
The author – who lived in Swanage from 1875 to 76 – had his ashes buried in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey – a huge honour – but the letters purchased for £2,400, reveal the proposal caused ‘a great deal of controversy’.
Hoping to settle the matter, the Dean of Westminster wrote to Hardy’s local vicar at Fordington in Dorchester for reassurance about the authenticity of the deceased writer’s Christian faith, but their correspondence reveals a less than ringing endorsement.
The original letters
“Did he have the right credentials”
Sam Johnston, service manager for archives and records, said:
“It was all about what Thomas Hardy believed – was he a real Christian or was he some sort of imposter and did he have the right credentials to be buried in the Abbey?
“It’s not the sort of thing you hear about these days but in his time it was very central to how people viewed themselves.”
The Dean’s letter outlines the outrage in some quarters surrounding Hardy’s interment
In his letter, the Dean of Westminster states that he is ‘receiving every day furious protests’ on the grounds that Hardy’s teaching was ‘anti-Christian and that he himself was not a Christian, that his moral standard was very low, etc.’
He goes on to say that, having previously ignored the criticism, he had now received a letter from the ‘head of a great religious body’, so felt compelled to properly respond to Hardy’s detractors.
The letter states Hardy ‘shielded himself from the outside world’
“At heart a Christian”
But in response, the Reverend Richard Bartelot writes that the author had ‘never received The Sacrament or attended any service in his parish church’.
He adds that he had not been able to ‘penetrate the armour’ and that Hardy ‘absolutely refused to be “drawn” on religious matters’.
However, he goes on to say that he believes him to have been ‘at heart a Christian and a Churchman’.
The vicar’s letter states his belief that Hardy was ‘at heart a Christian’
Strong Dorset associations
Nevertheless, the letter was clearly enough to satisfy the Dean because Hardy’s ashes were indeed interred in Westminster Abbey on 16th January 1928.
Underscoring Hardy’s undying associations with Dorset, a spadesful of soil, supplied by a local farm labourer Christopher Corbin was sprinkled on the casket.
The simple memorial plaque in Westminster Abbey for Thomas Hardy, awarded the Order of Merit for his achievements in literature
Thomas Hardy’s final days
A third typewritten letter from September 1927 composed by Florence Hardy, Thomas Hardy’s second wife, to a Mr Lea of Bockhampton gives a tender insight into Hardy’s final days.
It documents the deteriorating health of her husband as she tells of a ‘very able London Doctor’ Sir Henry Head who had retired to Dorset and who was being particularly attentive to Hardy.
Sir Henry had advised that Hardy ‘ought not to see friends or any callers, two days in succession…[as]…the strain of a long conversation is very bad for his heart’.
Poignant letter from Hardy’s wife details his failing health
Saved for the public
The letter is particularly poignant in that it was written a little over four months before Hardy’s death on 14th January 1928 of a cardiac-related condition.
The Dorset History Centre in Dorchester
“Add detail to the bigger picture”
Sam Johnston added:
“It’s a really interesting collection, throwing light on his final days. These items, put together with other parts of the collection, add detail to the bigger picture.”
The £2,400 auction acquisition means the letters are saved for the public at the Dorset History Centre in Dorchester and join the extensive Thomas Hardy archive which is accessible to researchers.
The purchases were funded jointly by Friends of the National Library and Dorset Archives Trust.
The Dorset History Centre’s archive