Exeter University joins campaign to keep Thomas Hardy in the South West

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The drive to keep an important collection of original papers, adaptations and staging of Thomas Hardy’s works by the Hardy Players in the UK and in the West Country is underway.

Exeter University is working with Dorset County Museum, Dorset History Centre, The New Hardy Players and the Thomas Hardy Society to raise funds to purchase the collection to keep it in Dorset for the benefit of the community, education and research.

The Hardy Players (formerly the Dorchester Dramatic and Debating Society), adapted and staged the works, with input from Hardy himself, between 1908 and 1924. The collection contains working papers relating to all the Hardy Players’ productions and includes revised and annotated scripts (often the prompt copies), actors’ parts, programmes, posters and miniature mock-up scenery. It also includes Wessex Scenes from the Dynasts (1916), an adaptation of his verse drama, originally staged in aid of the British and Russian Red Cross, The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall (1923) which Hardy wrote to be performed by the Hardy Players, and Hardy’s own 1924 adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

The export of the collection was temporarily barred by Minister of Culture, Margaret Hodge last year following a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, administered by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), on the grounds that ‘the collection was so closely associated with the life of a particular region, one given an enduring literary identity as Hardy’s Wessex, that its departure would be a misfortune’. It was also judged by the committee to be ‘the most important and coherent body of evidence surviving in this country for study of the dramatic adaptation and staging of the works of Thomas Hardy and their reception by the local community that inspired them’.

Dr Angelique Richardson, senior lecturer in English at Exeter University said: “The collection is of great significance to the South West. It is also valuable for our understanding of the cultural life of the early 20th century. Through research at the university’s Centre for South West Writing and Centre for Victorian Studies we recognise that the material will shed light on Hardy’s relationship with the Dorchester community.”

She said: “It will also tell us more about the response to his work in the period after he had ceased writing fiction; and in particular on the value ascribed to his efforts (in his own words) to ‘preserve … a fairly true record of a vanishing life’.”

A 104-year old actress from Dorset, who knew Thomas Hardy and is the last surviving original Hardy Player will be performing at a benefit this evening (Friday, March 12) in aid of the Hardy Players Manuscript Fund.  Norrie Woodhall hails from Dorset and had performed with the Hardy Players when she was 16 years old. In 2005 Norrie celebrated her 100th birthday and to mark the occasion and the works of Thomas Hardy, she reformed (the original Hardy Players disbanded in 1924) The New Hardy Players and became its president. Norrie is encouraging others to value the importance of keeping the Hardy Players Manuscripts in the South West and will perform alongside other actors in Hardy’s Night – Chapter and Verse: Words and Humour from Hardy’s Pen’ at Dorset County Museum. Another famous son of Dorset is the actor, Julian Fellowes who is also backing the campaign to keep Thomas Hardy in the South West.

Jon Finch, director of engagement at The Museums Libraries and Archives Council, said: “The Hardy papers are of great cultural and local significance for us here in Exeter and the export bar imposed by Culture Minister, Margaret Hodge on these papers, provides the opportunity to ensure that they remain part of the local community for everyone to enjoy.”

The Museums Libraries and Archives Council/Victoria &Albert Purchase Grant Fund have recently offered £12,000 towards the purchase of the manuscripts.  Anyone wishing to donate to the Hardy Players Manuscript Fund should contact the Secretary at Dorset County Museum at secretary@dorsetcountymuseum.org or on 01305 262735.

The outcome for the Hardy Players original manuscripts is likely to be confirmed within the next few weeks.

(from a press release)