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This report is taken from PN Review 189, Volume 36 Number 1, September - October 2009.

Archive Corner 14: 'The monument maker' Stella Halkyard

The Fate of Thomas Hardy’s Literary Remains

As the spectre-grey eye of day weakened on 11 January 1928, Thomas Hardy, then regarded by many as the greatest living English writer, gave up his ghost aged 88. Convinced that Hardy ‘belonged to the nation’, his advisor and literary executor Sydney Cockerell, the ‘forceful’ Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, set about making funeral arrangements on a scale of pomp and circumstance previously reserved for medieval monarchs and prelates.

Though Hardy had left explicit instructions for his body to be buried close to home in the churchyard at Stinsford, Cockerell mobilised the support of the higher echelons of the literati and the political establishment to ensure that his remains would instead be interred in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey. To moderate the misgivings Hardy’s family had about the Cockerell plan, it was decided to remove Hardy’s heart and bury that at Stinsford, leaving Cockerell to proceed with his designs for catafalques and purple festoons1 in London.

Bearing the hallmark of a Hardy-inspired plot, the rather desperate remedy of evisceration smacks of what Edmund Gosse described as a form of ‘medieval butchery’ whose ‘perceived grotesquerie’, by modern and contemporary standards, is abhorrent. However, the scrabble for the possession of a corpse and the solution that was found for its dispersal in Hardy’s case might unexpectedly shed light on some of the forces at work in the formation of literary canons. The term ‘medieval’ here has a ...

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