Thomas Hardy was a prolific writer of letters. By the 1920s the Royal Mail had installed a post box in the outside wall of his Dorchester home, Max Gate, which he was particularly glad to use during bad weather. (Though it was bricked up after his death, the outline is still visible.) When the telephone came to Max Gate (43 Dorchester), also in the 1920s, it had little effect on the volume of letters Hardy wrote and received, and not only because, as he pointed out in a letter to Edmund Gosse, he couldn’t hear anyone who rang. The letter was the form of communication that best served this quiet, extraordinarily sympathetic, and most intently observant of Victorians, who was born in 1840, the year the Uniform Penny Post was introduced, and lived almost three decades into the twentieth century.
In Hardy’s fiction and poetry, letters are ready sources of excitement and suspense, harbingers of loss and disappointment. They go missing, fall into the wrong hands, or arrive too late, bringing home the hopes and love of a soldier already killed in action. In The Mayor of Casterbridge love letters from Lucetta to the wife-selling Henchard prove volatile catalysts of social disruption, ending up in Mixen Lane (where they inspire the murderous skimmity ride); most famously, Tess’s letter of confession, hastily pushed not just under the door but under the carpet too, remains unread by the priggish Angel Clare, as Hardy delivers his most powerful attack on the Victorian sexual double standard. Hardy’s own letters were places for quiet reflection and deepening emotional ties, for occasional advice, details to visitors of the times of the Waterloo trains, and for public protests on the iniquity (and absurdity) of war and against cruelty to animals (“helplessness breeds tyranny”). They ensured regular contact with his friends and the publishing world, contained correctives to readings of his work and, as he became increasingly famous, they came to include his polite regulation refusal to an ever more voracious army of autograph-hunters (who were likely to sell his signature).
More than any other form, letters provide insight into Hardy’s many-sidedness. Writing in 1907 to the poet Elspeth Grahame (whose husband was then composing The Wind in the Willows in letters to their seven-year-old son), he expressed admiration, and not a little surprise, that she had written verses on the top of an omnibus “where my attention is always too distracted by the young women around me in fluffy blouses to be able to concentrate on inner things”. Commiserating with one of his American admirers, Rebekah Owen, for having to get in a plumber, he suggested that she take up plumbing herself: “A London physician told me he learnt, & saves pounds annually now – plumbers being the most expensive workmen of any”. (Hardy’s female characters often do the work of men; we might recall Bathsheba as a farmer; or Marty South as an accomplished spar-maker.) Such solid practical advice exists alongside Hardy the natural modernist, writing to tell Arthur Symons that he liked his poem “Haschisch” (the world is “the phantom of a haschisch dream”), discussing timeless reality and the nature of matter at the drop of a hat; and Hardy the critic (in his own words “a most unsafe” one).