Image["Image of Claire Tomalin"]

Claire Tomalin

Claire Tomalin
Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man
London: Viking, 2006

22. A Friend from Cambridge [pp. 326-338 (pp. 326-329 reproduced here)]


The gaps left in his [Thomas Hardy’s] life – and in Florence’s [Mrs Florence Henniker, whom Hardy fell in love with in 1893 and whom he married in 1914] – were filled by a new friend, the ebullient Sydney Cockerell, director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Cockerell had a tigerish energy in pursuing men and women he admired, and was also an obsessive collector. He had started with shells as a boy and progressed to medieval manuscripts, books and paintings. He had to leave school and go into the family coal business, rather than to university, but kept up his intellectual interests. Bouncing his way into the affections of Octavia Hill, he helped her with her housing projects for the poor, then set his sights on John Ruskin, charmed him and was invited to travel with him to France. Then he took on William Morris, whose assistant he was for many years, acting as Secretary to the Kelmscott Press, becoming virtually part of the Morris family and after the death of Morris giving unstinted support to Mrs Morris and her daughters. He took friendship seriously. As a young man he was a socialist, and all his life an atheist. He was also an obsessive diarist, writing down in unvarying thin green notebooks the activities and encounters of each day, although he lacked any gift of characterization or self-presentation, so that the description of him as ‘a blameless Pepys’ is sadly astray. You long for him to expand his narrative but have to be grateful for what you get, and since he was Hardy’s friend for seventeen years and visited Max Gate [Hardy’s house in Dorset] many times, he does give an impression of its atmosphere and routines, and every now and then something unexpected and even precious is jotted down, between the precisely noted weather and train times.

Cockerell had been appointed director of the Fitzwilliam in 1908 at the age of forty. By his own account, ‘I found a pigstye; I turned it into a palace.’ He had to overcome opposition, especially as he was not a Cambridge man, but he quickly became one of the most active and influential figures in the university. He brought in Sunday opening, prevailed on the King and the Duke of Devonshire to lend prints from their collection on a regular basis, started the ‘Friends of the Fitzwilliam museum’ scheme (the first of its kind in Britain) and began to acquire modern literary manuscripts. It was in the hope of persuading Hardy to let him have a manuscript that he wrote to him in 1911. Amazingly, he confessed after Hardy’s death that he had read none of his novels at the time, ‘though I read them all later’. This makes him seem more like a bounder than a scholar, and there were always two sides to Cockerell, the red-hot enthusiast and the cool fixer.

In spite of his ignorance of Hardy’s work he made such a good impression on his first visit to Max Gate that Hardy got out almost all the manuscripts he could lay his hand on and agreed with him immediately on a plan to divide the spoils among the British Museum, Cambridge, Oxford, Aberdeen (which had given him a degree), Birmingham, Manchester, Dorchester, Windsor and Boston or New York. Cockerell felt that Hardy was shy about writing to curators and librarians, so volunteered to do so on his behalf. In gratitude, Hardy presented him with the manuscript of ‘The Three Strangers’, one of his best stories, a valuable gift. Cockerell made sure too that the manuscripts of Jude the Obscure, the most famous of his novels, went to the Fitzwilliam. It was an astounding transaction between a successful writer and a man he was meeting for the first time, but Cockerell knew how to charm and how to pitch his demands, and Hardy was unaware of the value of what he was giving away, and not apparently interested. It seems odd in a man who dealt sharply with publishers in his financial dealings with them, but he had already given Clement Shorter the manuscript of The Return of the Native as a way of thanking him for getting his manuscripts bound, and he never showed any sign of regretting what he had done – not even when he found he could sell the manuscript of The Woodlanders for £1,000 to an American collector in the early 1920s. He also told Gosse [Edmund Gosse, ... tbc ...] that, having no children and enough money for his wants, he did not regard the value of manuscripts.

Cockerell did not meet Emma [Hardy’s wife] on the first visit, and he had nothing to say about her on the second, in June 1912, when he brought his wife, Kate, with him, beyond that both Hardys were very nice, and he especially unassuming, and that Hardy expressed his admiration for Shaw’s plays, and for Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. At the end of the year he noted again in his diary that they had spent ‘a delightful afternoon with Thomas Hardy and his wife’ – adding with characteristic brevity, ‘(since dead)’.

Cockerell’s enthusiasm and air of authority, his knowledge of libraries and museums, and his years with Morris all went to win Hardy’s trust. There was also his position at Cambridge, which opened up the possibility of connections with the university Hardy had once thought of applying to. And indeed Cockerell soon repaid Hardy’s generosity by putting forward his name for an honorary degree at Cambridge. He seems to have tried and failed in 1912, but within months of Emma’s death, in February 1913, the offer came. The Vice-Chancellor who tended the invitation was the Revd Alexander Donaldson, an evangelical Christian who had taught at Eton for thirty years and was now Master of Magdalene, but there is no doubt that Cockerell was the man responsible. Hardy was asked to come to Cambridge to receive his doctorate in June. His sister Mary, remembering he had thought of applying to study at Cambridge in the 1860s, wrote to congratulate him: ‘Now you have accomplished it all with greater honour than if you had gone along the road you then saw before you.’

The Cockerells put him up, and Sydney, who loved to arrange such things, prepared a programme of pleasures. There was a dinner at Jesus, where he was a Fellow, and to which he had invited A. E. Housman [... tbc ...] at Hardy’s request. After dinner they went to see an undergraduate production of The Important of Being Earnest, with the all-male cast expected at Cambridge, although possibly not by Hardy, who spoke of ‘that man Oscar Wilde’ and delighted in pretty actresses. The next day there was a lunch at Magdalene. ‘Hardy chattered away very gaily ... and seemed in a chirpy mood,’ wrote Benson [Arthur Benson, ... tbc ...], who had contributed a pallid appreciation of his writing to the Cambridge Magazine without mentioning his poetry. At the degree ceremony Hardy received a great ovation, and in the evening they dined at Trinity, where the Master spoke fittingly of Hardy. There was a reception at Trinity Lodge lasting well into the evening, at the end of which Cockerell escorted his happy guest back to his house. The third day took in the Fitzwilliam and lunch at Peterhouse. Hardy’s simplicity and charm was generally admired in Cambridge and the whole visit judged a great success.


23. The Wizard [pp. 339-357 (p. 357 reproduced here)]


In the autumn of 1923 he [Thomas Hardy] sat for Augustus John. The portrait in oil and the preparatory sketch are both exceptionally fine, showing a man who has come to terms with old age, his face carved, seamed and furrowed by a long, reflective life. two comments are attributed to Hardy, the earlier a jocular, ‘Well, if I look like that the sooner I am under the ground the better.’ The second, made several years later, has him saying, ‘I don’t know whether that is how I look or not – but that is how I feel.’ Within weeks of it being finished, Cockerell noted in his diary, ‘Having heard from Augustus John that he would take £500 for his portrait of Hardy I went up to London by the 1pm and secured it, though I may have to raise the money.’ Cockerell never failed to raise the money when he was determined on a purchase, and the portrait was soon displayed among the treasures of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

[Reproduction with kind permission of Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books]

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The Fitzwilliam Museum : Introduction

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