Thomas Hardy in Aberdeen

by Martin Ray

In April 1905, Aberdeen University conferred upon Thomas Hardy the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws, the first of five honorary degrees which he was to receive in the next twenty years. Indeed, Aberdeen was the earliest to honour Hardy by many years (the other universities were Cambridge, 1913; Oxford, 1920; St. Andrew’s, 1922, and Bristol, 1925). What made the Aberdeen degree so special to Hardy, however, was not simply that it was his first honorary degree but that it was the first degree of any kind which the author of Jude the Obscure had received. The notoriety of that novel (dubbed Jude the Obscene by one reviewer1), which had been published some ten years earlier, might explain why, according to contemporary rumour, the Senatus had not been quite unanimous in its decision to honour Hardy.2 The invitation must have come as a complete surprise to Hardy, for he had no connection with Aberdeen (indeed, this was to be his first and only visit to the city), and he confessed that ‘I don’t know a soul up that way’.3

Why did Aberdeen give Hardy an honorary degree? The circumstances are not at all clear, but there is an intriguing hint in an article which J. M. Bulloch wrote in 1928, shortly after Hardy’s death: ‘about the year 1903 Hardy, who formed one of Mr. Edward Clodd’s memorable Whitsun parties at Aldeburgh, “confessed that he would greatly like to receive an honorary degree from the University of London as he had attended evening classes at King’s College.” What is not generally known is that it was not unconnected with the same happy Whitsun meeting that Aberdeen thought of being first in the field’.4 My own surmise is that Bulloch himself was the prime mover behind the idea of nominating Hardy. John Malcolm Bulloch (1867-1938) was a native and graduate of Aberdeen, and author of A History of the University of Aberdeen, 1495-1895 (London, 1895) among many others books. He worked as a journalist in London for many years, and he had certainly met Hardy, as the latter’s first surviving letter to him shows. Bulloch had written to congratulate Hardy on his honorary degree, and Hardy began his reply by saying, ‘I quite remember meeting you with Mr Shorter’.5 It is not known whether Bulloch was present at the Aldeburgh party in Suffolk that Whitsun weekend in 1903 which he described, but Clement King Shorter (1857-1926) certainly was.6 Shorter at this time was editor of the Sphere and Bulloch was his assistant editor. If Bulloch did not himself hear Hardy make his comment at Aldeburgh, one can imagine his editor recounting the incident and Bulloch hatching a plan to honour Hardy in Aberdeen, perhaps prompted by the coincidence of Hardy’s reference to King’s College, London, which would have reminded him of his own alma mater, King’s College, Aberdeen.

The honorary degrees were announced on 1 March, and four days later Hardy wrote to J.M. Bulloch from his home in Dorchester that ‘as the time of the ceremony will be spring, I am hoping to be there, but of course I may not be able to go – not being quite a youth now, & the distance of 700 miles being an exceptional one’.7 Hardy’s original plan was to stay with Professor H.J.C. Grierson, who had been appointed as the University’s first Professor of English in 1894, at his home at 7 King’s Gate, but Grierson’s family caught influenza and Hardy accepted an invitation to stay at Chanonry Lodge with Principal Lang. Hardy continued to communicate with Grierson, however, about the hire of a robe, and the order form, which has survived, shows Hardy giving his height as ‘5ft. 6¼, in shoes’ and the size ’round head is 22½ inches’.8

On 14 March,9 Hardy was invited to be one of the guests at the opening of the Sculpture Gallery, an extension of Aberdeen Art Gallery now forming the major part of the Gallery, which was to take place the day after the Graduation Ceremony. A special train from London was arranged at his own expense by Mr (later Sir) James Murray, chairman of the Art Gallery Committee, and Hardy joined many of his fellow guests and graduands aboard the seven carriages which left Euston at 10.45 p.m. on Thursday, 6 April. As the Aberdeen Free Press reported, ‘seldom has a train crossed the border with so distinguished a company’. The sixty-two passengers included Professor J. B. Bury, editor of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, Lord Reay, the novelist Maarten Maartens, the poets Arthur Symons and William Watson, at least six Royal Academicians, an envoy of the Pope and representatives of every major national newspaper. It was the first wholly sleeper train between London and Aberdeen, and the journey seems to have been largely uneventful. As one newspaper reported:

‘In the splendid sleeping carriages we had a smooth run, but the early morning was cold, and we lost a little time in Cumberland and Westmoreland on account of the snowstorm. Two breakfast cars were added at Stirling, and nearly all the passengers enjoyed a good meal soon after passing Perth. Mr Thomas Hardy, with pensive face and simple manner, sat in a smoking room and chatted of many things’.10

Because of the delay caused by the snow, the train did not arrive in Aberdeen until 10.15 a.m. on the Friday morning, less than two hours before the Graduation Ceremony was to begin. The city was ‘sparkling with frosted snow like a Christmas card’.11

Hardy devoted a page of his autobiography to his visit to Aberdeen:

‘The first week in April Hardy left Dorchester for London en route for Aberdeen, the ancient University of which city had offered him the honorary degree of LL.D. and in accepting which he remarked:

I am impressed by its coming from Aberdeen, for though a stranger to that part of Scotland to a culpable extent I have always observed with admiration the exceptional characteristics of the Northern University, which in its fostering encouragement of mental effort seems to cast an eye over these islands that is unprejudiced, unbiassed and unsleeping.

It was a distance of nearly 700 miles by the route he would have to take – almost as far as to the Pyrenees – over the northern stage of which winter still lingered, but his journey there and back was an easy one, the section from Euston Square to the north being performed in a train of sleeping-cars which crunched through the snow as if it were January, the occasion coinciding with the opening of the new sculpture-gallery, a function that brought many visitors from London. Hardy was hospitably entertained at the Chanonry Lodge, Old Aberdeen, by Principal and Mrs Marshall Lang, which was the beginning of a friendship that lasted till the death of the former. Among others who received the like honour at the same time were Professor Bury and Lord Reay.

In the evening there was a reception in the Mitchell Hall, Marischal College, made lively by Scotch reels and bag-pipers; and the next day, after attending at the formal opening of the sculpture-gallery, he was a guest at the Corporation Dinner at the Town Hall, where friends were warm, but draughts were keen to one from a southern county, and speeches, though good, so long, that he and the Principal did not get back to Chanonry Lodge till one o’clock.

On Sunday morning Hardy visited spots in and about Aberdeen associated with Byron and others, and lunched at the Grand Hotel by the invitation of Mr (afterwards Sir) James Murray, dining at the same place with the same host, crossing hands in “Auld Lang Syne” with delightful people whom he had never seen before and, alas, never saw again. This was the “hearty way” (as it would be called in Wessex) in which they did things in the snowy north. To Hardy the whole episode of Aberdeen, he said, was of a most pleasant and unexpected kind, and it remained with him like a romantic dream’.12

The graduation ceremony for honorary degrees took place at noon in the Mitchell Hall, Marischal College. It was part of the normal M.A. matriculation service, with Principal Lang presiding, and Hardy was the third of nine men to receive the LL.D.13 He was presented for the degree by Professor Neil J. Kennedy, Professor of Law, in the following words:

‘Let me next introduce one who, wherever English literature is read, is known and honoured as a great novelist and poet – Thomas Hardy. Perhaps it is not the least of his successes to have done for Wessex what Scott did for the Border and the Highlands. He has described the scenery, the placid rustic folk, their instinctive wisdom racy of the soil, their ways, thoughts, and morals, the effects of collision with the modern struggle for life, and the traditions of the noble dames of Wessex, as only one could do who knew and loved what he described. I shall not be so rash as to attempt an estimate of his powers or of their sources. Whether one agrees or disagrees with his ideas, his strenuous sincerity, his desire to clear all cant out of his readers’ minds, his great imaginative faculty, his command of irony, humour, and pathos, his vivid presentation of incident and subtle development of character are undeniable. Some students of his works think that they detect an affinity with George Eliot. In his choice of obscure subjects for artistic treatment and in his study of the deeper elemental passions and forces of life, though perhaps not in the motives which determine his characters, he often reminds a reader of Balzac. It is permitted to hope that Mr Hardy, the maker of the human comedy, will not entirely forsake the novel for the drama. If I may express, not a criticism but a wish, by a figure borrowed from Mr Hardy, I would also hope that his genius may more often lead us by quiet waters in the Vale of Tempe, and refrain from driving us (except when the catastrophe requires it) through the gaunt wastes of Thule. I present Mr Hardy – (applause)’.14

A journalist captured the moment of Hardy receiving his first degree:

‘the novelist with the grey moustache, the thick grey eyebrows, and the clear, meditating eyes ascended the platform, and there was great gusto in the cheering by the students and in their thunderclap when the cap was placed on his head. Mr Hardy himself was outwardly unmoved. His face was placid rather than triumphant as he sat at the table signing the roll, and yet he must have been gratified by the welcome of so many eager young men’.15

When Grierson had first mentioned the evening reception to Hardy before he arrived, Hardy had replied that he would ‘accept with pleasure. […] It is rather amusing to think that such a hermit as I should find myself doing these things’.16 The evening reception was held in the Mitchell Hall, and all of the honorary and ordinary graduates were present, together with all of the guests who would be attending the following day’s opening of the Sculpture Gallery. Hardy, still in his LL.D gown, was ‘another guest who attracted considerable attention’.17 Four pipers paraded the hall, playing well-known tunes, and afterwards an eightsome reel was danced.

The next day’s opening of the Sculpture Gallery is described in the following newspaper report:

‘It was very interesting to stand near the platform at the opening ceremony. Famous men who would have attracted attention in any room in London were assembled here. Mr Thomas Hardy, who has been the guest of the Principal, took a seat at the reporters’ table near Mr Bryce. He is the simplest of men, and his face warmed with the honour done to him by all who had come in contact with him. […]

At Glenburnie Park, where we went to see the pictures, I had the honour of a few words with Mr Thomas Hardy. On being asked by some ladies as to his impressions of Aberdeen, he had chaffed them on its being a city of snows. He said to me that he was deeply struck by the energy and earnestness of the people. They are so unlike the apathetic people of the south, although, of course, he admitted that in his own Wessex also character is drawn very sharply. He spoke of the granite houses. Readers of Mr Hardy’s novels know how interested he is in architecture, and he was himself in early life an architect. Mr Hardy likes the red granite, and thinks the grey would be improved by a mixture of the warmer colour. But he does not dogmatise, nor does he undervalue the northern severity. “The atmosphere keeps you up,” he said. The chief recollection he carries from Aberdeen, as I have said, will be of the energy and earnestness of its people’.18

Another report gives an account of two conversations which its author had with Hardy, in the Mitchell Hall on Friday evening and at the opening of the Gallery on Saturday:

‘Observant and unassuming in appearance, Thomas Hardy gives one an impression of strength and sincerity. His head is carried slightly forward; his voice is clear; his enunciation firm, and without any accent of his native Dorset. Our first chat was concerning his “Real Conversation” recorded by William Archer, Mr Hardy explaining that he avoided interviews, but could not resist the appeal of Mr Archer, whom he has known for many years.

That conversation contains mention of cerebral transmission; and I ventured to remark that telepathy or “thought transmission” might sometimes have its explanation in the fact that the two people who thought alike were educated similarly or were much in sympathy, the same facts or stimuli producing effects precisely similar, almost, upon like people. Mr Hardy is keen upon “borderland” problems; he does not, however, strike one as likely to be a believer in Stead and his “Julia”.

Book-reviewing may be too conscientious: the critic who formed a high opinion of Hardy’s “Wessex Poems” when he read them after a champagne lunch need not have got up early next morning to re-read the poems, for the day happened to be dull and depressing – an atmosphere which affected the critic’s written opinions most deleteriously, observed Mr Hardy.

Mr Hardy was so lionised by ladies that conversation in the Mitchell Hall was constantly interrupted. At the opening of the Sculpture Gallery I met Mr Hardy, hat in hand, and asking about the ventilation. Here was evinced early architectural training. As Keats put red pepper on his tongue in order to enjoy drinking cool claret, so the gallery was just a trifle warmed by the crowd so that the iced liquor so liberally supplied might be appreciated.

The author of “Tess” has strong convictions as to the duties of the State towards children; agreed with the opinion that illegitimacy – so far from being the blackest blot in a community- may be regarded in one aspect as a form of virtue; and expressed deep regret that England does not have the privilege of legitimation by subsequent marriage. Several other topics of much interest were touched upon by Mr Hardy in our two conversations, but I need only add here that his opinion of the Granite City was very high – and Mr Hardy is not given to flattery’.19

During Sunday, Hardy took the opportunity to visit the grave of his old friend Professor William Minto (1845-1893), whom he had known since 1875. Minto, born in Alford, was an Aberdeen graduate (1865), and Hardy met him after he had written a favourable review of Far from the Madding Crowd in 1874. At that time Minto was editor of the Examiner and he became Professor of Logic and English at Aberdeen in 1880, where he stayed until his premature death at the age of forty-seven. His grave is in Allenvale Cemetery, on the banks of the River Dee.20 Hardy and his fellow guests left Aberdeen on Sunday evening on a sleeper train departing at 8.30 p.m, Hardy engaging in conversation at the station with the Lord Provost, to whom he remarked that ‘”It is the most hospitable city I have ever been in”‘.21

J. M. Bulloch recalled his impressions of Hardy during the visit:

‘Nobody would have dreamed from his conversation that he had anything like the philosophical grasp which distinguished him. He was intensely shy. But Aberdeen soon put him at home, for the first person he met at the Grand Hotel, where Sir James Murray put us all up, was the manager, a Dorchester man, several of whose assistants also came from Dorchester. Curiously enough, too, several of the officers at Castlehill, who appeared at various functions, were old friends of his, for the first battalion of the Gordons had been for a great many years to all intents and purposes a Dorset regiment’.22

In 1911, when Hardy was distributing some of his surviving manuscripts among various libraries, he presented the MS. of ‘An Imaginative Woman’ to Aberdeen University (MS 617). This is widely considered to be among his best short stories, although Hardy clearly would have liked to present an even more distinguished manuscript (he wrote to Sydney Cockerell, who organised the distribution of the MSS, that he was temporarily retaining ‘An Imaginative Woman’ ‘in the hope of finding something better, or a page or two of verse to accompany it’23). Though Hardy did not at that time find any poems to present, the University Library does now possess the holograph manuscript of his poem entitled ‘Aberdeen’ (MS 593), which he wrote shortly after his visit to the city. The poem appeared in the Quatercentenary Number of Alma Mater, which was published in September 1906. He sent it to Theodore Watt of the Editorial Committee with the typically modest covering letter, dated 30 July 1906: ‘I send herewith my very poor contribution to the special number of Alma Mater, & hope that it may reach you in time’.24 Mr Watt presented the poem and the letter to the University in 1928, after Hardy’s death. The manuscript of the poem, which contains several unique variant readings, is as follows: 


ABERDEEN – (April, 1905.) 

I looked; and thought, “She is too gray and cold 

To wake the warm enthusiasms of old!” 

Till a voice passed: “Behind that granite mien 

Lurks the imposing beauty of a Queen.” 

I looked anew; and saw the radiant form 

Of Her who stays in stress, who guides in storm; 

On the grave influence of whose eyes sublime 

Men count for the stability of the time.* 

*[footnote] “And wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times” 

Isaiah XXXIII. 6. 

Hardy also published a poem, ‘The Youth who carried a Light’, in the Aberdeen University Review.25 It was written in 1915 and first published in February 1916, and it contains some unique, though minor, variants. The poem describes how a man remembers observing a young boy passing by who exuded ‘the radiance of a purpose rare/ That might ripe to its accomplishing’. The final stanza asks, ‘What became of that light?’. If Hardy was himself that young boy, then his decision to submit the poem for publication in the Aberdeen University Review is, in a sense, the answer to the poem’s question about the boy’s fate: he ended by becoming, as he is described at the start of the poem in the Review, ‘Thomas Hardy, O.M., LL.D., Aberd., 1905’. There is, then, a definite appropriateness about Hardy deciding to publish this poem in the Review.

His visit to Aberdeen clearly impressed Hardy greatly and he always referred very warmly to the University which, for instance, he described in a letter of 1907 as ‘a University which can claim in my opinion to an exceptional degree that breadth of view & openness of mind that all Universities profess to cultivate, but many stifle’.26 Similarly, in a letter to J. M. Bulloch in 1917, he wrote that ‘Yes; the Aberdeen time has receded far into the distance! And yet I often think of the charm it had for me’.27 Thomas Hardy’s last known reference to Aberdeen is in another letter to Bulloch, dated 6 October 1918: ‘I am glad to hear about old Aberdeen. To me it bears, & always will, a curiously romantic aspect. I suppose I shall never see it again’.28 Hardy never did return to the city which awarded him his first degree.


An emended version of this article appeared as “Thomas Hardy in Aberdeen” in the Aberdeen University Review, LVI (1995), 58-69.

I am indebted to Mr C. A. McLaren, Head of Special Collections at Aberdeen University, and his colleagues for their generous assistance in the preparation of this article.

1. ‘Jude the Obscene’, unsigned review, Pall Mall Gazette, 12 November 1895.

2. See J.M. Bulloch, ‘Thomas Hardy and Aberdeen’, Aberdeen University Review, 15 (1927-28), 141-42 (p. 141). Hardy’s visit is also discussed in H. Neville Davies, ‘”To Northern Climes Abhorr’d”: Hardy and the Elgin Marbles’, Scottish Literary Journal, 7:2 (1980), 31-43 (p. 33).

3. The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, ed. Richard Little Purdy and Michael Millgate, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978-88), III, 160.

4. Bulloch, p. 141.

5. Collected Letters, III159. For details of Bulloch, see George Duncan, ‘John Malcolm Bulloch, LL.D.’, Aberdeen University Review, 25 (1938), 195-97.

6. See Michael Millgate, Thomas Hardy: A Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), p. 424.

7. Collected Letters, III, 159.

8. Collected Letters, III, 162.

9. As reported in the Aberdeen Daily Journal, 15 March 1905, p. 5.

10. Aberdeen Free Press, 8 April 1905, p. 6.

11. Source unidentified; p. 187 in the City of Aberdeen Art Gallery’s file of press clippings, assembled by J.M Bulloch, relating to the opening of the Sculpture Gallery.

12. The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy, ed. Michael Millgate (London: Macmillan, 1984), pp. 347-48. The paragraph which Hardy quotes apparently derives from a draft letter formally accepting the University’s offer of an honorary degree. John Marshall Lang (1834-1909), was Principal of the University from 1900-09 (sadly, Hardy’s letters to him do not appear to have survived). For details of Professor Bury and Lord Reay, see n. 13 below.

It is impossible to identify the specific places in Aberdeen with Byronic associations which Hardy visited. A detailed account of Aberdeen in Byron’s time is given by J. D. Symon, ‘Byron: The Aberdonian Epoch’, Aberdeen University Review, 11 (1923-24), 1-36.

13. The others were John B. Bury (1861-1927), Professor of Modern History, University of Cambridge; Commendatore Alberto Galli, Director-General of the Pontifical Museums and Galleries, Rome; Francis John Haverfield, archaeologist, of Christ Church, Oxford; the Rt. Hon. Donald James Mackay, Lord Reay (1839-1921), Liberal politician and first President of the British Academy; John Theodore Marz, Durham College of Science; Edward Robinson, Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Joost Marius Willem Van der Poorten Schwartz (Maarten Maartens; 1858-1915), the Dutch novelist whom Hardy had known since at least 1893; John Struthers, Secretary of the Scotch Education Department (dates are given only for those whom Hardy knew or mentioned). The source of these names and positions is described in the following note.

14. ‘Aberdeen University Graduation: A Distinguished Gathering: Eminent Authors “Capped”‘, Aberdeen Free Press, 8 April 1905, p. 5. The allusion is to Hardy’s comment that the nature of beauty seems to be changing: ‘the new Vale of Tempe may be a gaunt waste of Thule’, The Return of the Native, Book First, Chapter One.

15. ‘The Celebrations in Aberdeen: Impressions of a London Visitor’, Aberdeen Free Press, 8 April 1905, p. 6.

16. Collected Letters, III, 165.

17. ‘Reception in the Mitchell Hall’, Aberdeen Free Press, 8 April 1905, p. 5.

18. Alexander Mackintosh, ‘The Art and Hospitality of Aberdeen: Impressions of an English Visitor’, Aberdeen Free Press, 10 April 1905, p. 6. Glenburnie Park was the home of Mr James Murray.

19. ‘”Maartens”, Hardy, and Watson: A Thumb-Nail Sketch’, Aberdeen Weekly Journal, 19 April 1905; this is one of many clippings bound in with the Catalogue of Aberdeen Sculpture Gallery: Detailed Account of Opening Proceedings Collected by Robert Murdoch Lawrance (Aberdeen University Library Special Collections). William Archer’s interview with Hardy was published in ‘Real Conversations’, Pall Mall Magazine, April 1901, and had been reprinted in Real Conversations (London, 1904).

20. The visit to Minto’s grave is mentioned in ‘Special Correspondence [London – Monday]’, Aberdeen Free Press, 11 April 1905, p. 5:

‘Mr Thomas Hardy, who had shaken off a chill during his visit to the fine air of the north, left Aberdeen in cheerful spirits. With several other guests, ladies and gentlemen, he passed an hour in chat in the train, and he lingered later with another group. He recalled his old friendship with William Minto, whose grave in Aberdeen he visited yesterday, and he agreed that Minto was unhappy in leaving the London which he loved. The great novelist was up early enough this morning to join a group in a smoking-room before the train reached London. With a smile in his pensive, sad eyes, he listened to the vivacious talk of his friend Mr John Malcolm Bulloch, while Mr Arthur Symons, the poet and critic, sat beside him, and Mr Robinson of Boston stood at the door’.

Hardy describes an evening with Minto in 1878 in the Life, p. 125

21. ‘Departure of the Visitors’, Aberdeen Free Press, 10 April 1905, p. 11.

22. ‘Thomas Hardy and Aberdeen’, Aberdeen University Review, 15 (1927-28), 141-42.

23. Collected Letters, IV, 180.

24. Collected Letters, III, 220. The poem was first printed in Alma Mater, Aberdeen University Magazine, Quater-Centenary Number, September 1906, p. 11. A revised version of the poem as it had appeared in Time’s Laughingstocks (1909) was reprinted in the very first issue of Aberdeen University Review, 1 (1913-14), p. 22. In conversation with a friend, Hardy once defined the ‘Queen’ of the poem as ‘Knowledge’: see J. O. Bailey, The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook and Commentary (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1970), p. 257.

25. Aberdeen University Review, 3, no. 8 (February 1916), p. 97 (wrongly printed as p. 7).

26. Collected Letters, III, 278. Hardy’s admiration for Aberdeen University had been formed as early as 1860 (when he was an architect’s pupil, aged 20) through his friendship with three Aberdeen undergraduates, Frederick Perkins (MA 1860), William Henry Perkins (MA 1861) and Alfred More Perkins (who attended 1857-61 but did not graduate). They were the sons of the Dorchester Baptist minister and Hardy had some spirited discussions about Infant Baptism with Frederick and William, ‘hard-headed Scotch youths fresh from Aberdeen University, good classics, who could rattle off at a moment’s notice the Greek original of any passage in the New Testament’ (Life, p. 34). Alfred was ‘a great friend of Hardy’s till his death of consumption a year or two after. It was through these Scotch people that Thomas Hardy first became impressed with the necessity for “plain living and high thinking”, which stood him in such good stead in later years’ (Life, p. 35). Both Frederick (the eldest of the brothers) and William (the youngest, 1843-1928) became Baptist ministers in England. See the Life, p. 458, and Collected Letters, VI, 258.

27. Collected Letters, V, 233. In the previous year, Hardy had presented Professor Grierson with a copy of his Selected Poems, inscribed ‘in remembrance of 1905’ (see R.L. Purdy, Thomas Hardy: A Bibliographical Study (London, 1954), p. 187).

28. Collected Letters, V, 281.

Link to the Thomas Hardy Association