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“Most Sacred Things”: the Correspondence of William Hayley (1745 - 1820)

William Hayley is one of the most influential and least studied figures in the culture of the long eighteenth century in Britain. His correspondence, never edited, offers a uniquely rich and largely untapped source through which to map an extensive network of influential writers, artists and their circles, enabling an unprecedented understanding of how they impacted on each other’s work and lives, and of the complex interrelationships between patronage and artistic and literary production. Moreover, this correspondence illuminates the processes and practices of collaborative literary work,and approaches to life-writing at a critical period in the development of the genre. Our ultimate aim is to produce a full, annotated digital edition of William Hayley’s collected correspondence, since only a digital edition has the capacity to embody the multiple connections and dynamism of the correspondence between Hayley and his network.

Our pilot project will research and annotate a selection of letters to test and refine our scholarly and digital approaches, taking the first step in unlocking this remarkable archive. As the repository of the largest collection of Hayley material in the world, the Fitzwilliam Museum is the natural home for this project. After centuries of neglect, Hayley’s importance is finally being recognised, making this the perfect time for his letters to be collected, researched and disseminated.

This project was supported by a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant and a Cambridge Humanities Research Grant.

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