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Love Letters from the Western Front

Engaging undergraduates in literary archives

Edward Thomas (1878-1917), poet and essayist.

At Special Collections and Archives (SCOLAR), Cardiff University, we have recently completed a project funded by the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust to conserve the correspondence of the First World War poet Edward Thomas. Literary letters have an obvious research value for the academics and postgraduates we principally cater for. They have also played an important role in introducing undergraduates to primary archival source material.

Selections of Edward Thomas’ letters have been transcribed and published. Undergraduates are familiar with printed sources and we might anticipate difficulty in persuading them of the benefits of viewing originals, which can be time-consuming and require palaeographical skill. However, when faced with, for example, the materiality of a blood-stained love letter, found on Edward Thomas’ body when he was killed in action in 1917, students undergo a learning experience which cannot be replicated through viewing transcripts in a book.

Archivists can become desensitised to rummaging through others’ personal effects, but we need to remind ourselves how powerful an experience this can be to the uninitiated. Letters are some of the most personal items belonging to a literary archive: they have been addressed, sealed and sent to a single intended recipient. Few people would dream of opening another’s post, and indeed, this act is illegal in the UK. It is important for archivists not to underestimate the intimate experience of accessing a writer’s private letters, as opposed to their public literary output.

I feel I am on first name terms with Edward and his wife Helen after handling their prolific correspondence, totalling over 5000 pages. The two wrote regularly, sometimes several times in one day, during their 23 years together. Edward continued to write during his service in France in the First World War, and the fabric of his hurriedly pencilled letters on fragile paper evoke the conditions of trench life in a way transcripts cannot.

Whether it is a blood-stained letter, or a shopping list scribbled on the back of an envelope, it is physical, human details that have the power to capture the imagination of non-specialists and develop an interest in archives which may lead to further study and the production of original research.

Alison Harvey,
Asst. Archivist, Cardiff University