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This last of the seven-volume Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy contains communications, many of them perfunctory, written during the last two years of Hardy's life, as well as additional letters found too late to be put in their proper chronological place earlier; some undated letters and fragments written by Hardy but impossible otherwise to place; corrections and amplifications of material published in preceding volumes; and, at last, the general index, all 122 pages of it. For the Hardy scholar this is a crucial book, although to others its interest must be slight. "Old people do not correspond much," Hardy told a friend shortly after his eighty-seventh birthday.
These last two years show Hardy among other things presiding proudly over the brisk sale of his various volumes of verse, most of them reprinted; keeping an eye on European translations of his novels, as well as new editions of them in English; and, over and over again, refusing to give his autograph to those who ask for it—perhaps as an inducement to buy one of the expensive autograph editions of his work being published during these years with increasing fervor and profit by Macmillan. For Macmillan, Hardy would sign thousands of sheets, hundreds every day. He would also sign without complaint for highly placed contemporaries. But an ordinary reader who sent in something to be autographed could not get it back, even unsigned, unless return postage accompanied the package. No one ever accused Hardy of being either gracious or generous. The rest of these last months was spent composing a few new poems, lying to correspondents as usual about the facts of his past, and counting his money. He remained to the end a sharp and a hard businessman and died a rich man. He could have afforded to sign his name a few more times.
There remain some memorable moments in this last group of letters. To a woman who sent him a draft play whose heroine remained ignorant about sexual realities even after marriage, the elderly sage of Max Gate wrote: "The question arises, is an abnormality ever a fit subject for a work of art?" To a correspondent who complained about "the uncouth and grotesque style of so many of the poems" and of the "awkwardness" of his diction, Hardy replied: "The harshness you say you notice in some . . . poems is deliberate, as a reaction from the smoother alliteration of the Victorian poets." To J. B. Priestley, having received a copy of the latter's study of Meredith: "Meredith was . . . in the direct succession of Congreve & the artificial comedians of the Restoration, & in getting his brilliance we must put up with the fact that he . . . did not—when aiming to represent the 'Comic Spirit,' let himself discover the tragedy that always underlies comedy [End Page 262] if you only scratch it deeply enough." Hardy told a correspondent in October 1926: "I still feel that I have in many cases concentrated into a page or two of verse what in the novels filled scores of pages." And in reply to an inquiry by a woman writing a thesis on the influence of Maupassant's fiction on Hardy's, the old man chuffed (through the second Mrs. Hardy): "You appear to possess a very slight knowledge of literary chronology . . . many of Mr Hardy's novels & stories preceded . . . those of [Maupassant], & in any event he would not have been likely to imitate a writer ten years...