The Hand of Ethelberta

The Hand of Ethelberta

Ethelberta Petherwin, alias Berta Chickerel, moves with easy grace between her multiple identities, cleverly managing a tissue of lies to aid her meteoric rise.

In "The Hand of Ethelberta" (1876), Hardy drew on conventions of popular romances, illustrated weeklies, plays, fashion plates, and even his wife's diary in this comic story of a woman in control of her destiny.

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Every decision she makes in the course of the novel is governed by this ambition and whether she achieves happiness in the end is for the reader to decide. I am not sure whether Hardy wrote Ethelberta with the intention of parodying the sensation novels that were popular at the time. I do get the feeling however, that Hardy came up with the idea of a story, some elements he wanted to insert in it, (perhaps inspired by the genre) and then proceeded to have fun putting them all together. As a reader I didnt find that everything came together quite seamlessly, there were times when I thought that the story was being pulled this or that way a bit too much, once or twice I felt that the narrative sagged a tad (but only a very brief tad).

The Hand of Ethelberta (1876) resembles The Well-Beloved in the oddness of its premise, as well as its double location, between an awkwardly rendered London and a far more vivid rural Dorset. (One critic in the 1950s compared Hardys technical progress as a writer to the homing of a drunk.) An aspect of the novel that has occasioned criticism, in particular, is its inconsistency of tone, and its odd mixture of comedy and melodrama. I didnt hate this novel, however, despite all its problems; and I think that was in large part due to the character of Ethelberta.

I am very intrigued by him as a person and awed by the details of life from the mid 1800's that would be lost entirely to us were it not for there being recorded in his novels with such poetic detail. It definitely isn't as profound as his more melancholy yet important works, but it still has a life and beauty that is related in Hardy's lush attention to details that bring the characters and scenes alive.

Subtitled a comedy in chapters, Hardys fifth novel production is not a tremendous piece of sustained prose writing, nor a comedy, unless your sense of humour is Sahara-in-summer-dry.

Between these two, being a devoted daughter and sister and a social climber, Ethelberta seems to oscillate as the case maybe as she sometimes seems to appear as snob as the people she would like to belong with, complete with her diadem and scepter bearing even in trying to administer her own kin in the confines of their own household, displaying her somewhat repressed contempt with regards to the bucolic nature of their wild and rough ways that make her treat them lower than her own, whether by necessity or by choice is no longer important, which in the same manner, Hardy would attempt to salvage from superciliousness in between the narrative by concentrating on her unquestionable devotion by the sacrifices she made even to point of giving up her own happiness for the sake of family. This Hardy seems to stipulate with her sister's character, Picotee enhanced with the pronounced contrasting elements of their characters as the submissive modesty of her own even it appears subjugated to the dominant and devoted force of Ethelberta's amorphous and maneuvering character, is definable in its clarity of vision, a meek form of wisdom, which enable Picotee in her humble grasp to be rewarded in the end with the most perfect sense of happiness that even in its most simple form is seldom found, ending the story of their family's life with the claim to the promise of happily ever after.

I am astonished that this book is so relatively obscure, how it's not listed with Hardy's other famous novels, how there are hardly any commentaries on it. Apart from these negative merits, the book has a lot of what I might call standard merits, things you would expect in a Hardy novel: strong sense of setting, careful characterisation, neat plot development, subtle humour. But what makes this novel stand out is how much it does not follow established patterns, how is breaks with literary conventions in a way that I found fascinating and very, very satisfying. I loved the scene where Mr Chickerel's connection with his daughter is discovered by his employers, how the mistress of the house says she will of course dismiss him and how her husband replies that she will of course do no such thing, that Mr Chickerel is an excellent butler, a replacement would be hard to find and so what that Ethelberta is his daughter? It is wonderful that in the kind of situation where other novels of the time would have the heroine agonise and toss and turn all night, Ethelberta turns to a philosophical treatise on utilitarianism and decides to marry Lord Mountclere because that's the best option all round for everyone concerned. Yes, my lady Ethelberta, who has been so good at maths ever since she was little, has her own office and keeps the ledgers and cash books, all power to her! Instead of the typical choices for Victorian heroines (true love, death or endless moral chastisement), Ethelberta makes a successful career out of her marriage. Christopher, instead of endlessly pining for Ethelberta or alternatively turning his former love into hatred, remains a friend and well-wisher. He even goes as far as standing in for her brother when the latter deserts her, but then when Ethelberta doesn't turn up he doesn't go in for some desperate heroic rescue, he simply shrugs his shoulders, says he's done his bit to help and goes home without much fuss. Instead of Providence or Fate or the Hand of God or whatever, Ethelberta truly is the mistress of her own life by virtue of her determination, intelligence and firmness of character.

A bit more like Jane Austen I guess than what you might expect from Thomas Hardy, and maybe as enjoyable as the best of either of them.

This was a completely satisfying book, beginning to end. tells a great story, and leaves me thinking, thinking, thinking he raises so many great questions in this book, about what love really is, what one owes to ones family, what makes for a good relationship (Ethelberta geez! That name just sticks out like a pimple has the choice of several men, and I dont know that she wouldnt have been able to make a go of it with any one of them she seems the type to make her circumstances rather than be made by them.), and of course, the usual question of class distinction, which is taken to its most ironic twist at the dinner where both E. There was even a Wodehousian moment near the end, when the carriage and dogcart thundering toward Knollsea get locked together...but I dont want to spoil the story for you.

In the novel, Hardy chose to leave one of his protagonists, Knight, literally hanging off a cliff staring into the stony eyes of a trilobite embedded in the rock that has been dead for millions of years.

  • English

  • Classics

  • Rating: 3.64
  • Pages: 512
  • Publish Date: July 31st 1997 by Penguin Books
  • Isbn10: 0140435026
  • Isbn13: 9780140435023