The Hand of Ethelberta, Thomas Hardy, 1876
Did you know that if you stand before a mirror in a dark room and say Ethelberta Petherwin three times fast, a strong, ingeniously resourceful and kind literary heroine will appear?
I will let Thomas Hardy introduce dear Berta. He’s better at these things. An apparently refined and elegant young lady spots a hawk chasing a duck. “Ethelberta impulsively started off in a rapid run that would have made a little dog bark with delight and run after, her object being, if possible, to see the end of this desperate struggle for a life so small and unheard-of. Her stateliness went away, and it could be forgiven for not remaining: for her feet suddenly became as quick as fingers, and she raced along over the uneven ground with such force of tread that, being a woman slightly heavier than gossamer, her patent heels punched little D’s in the soil with unerring accuracy wherever it was bare, crippled the heather where it was not, and sucked the swampy places with a sound of quick kisses.”
Just look at all Hardy is able to do in one little paragraph. We love our girl already, because we understand her impulse to scurry after the birds. We relate to her, because we too want to know the duck’s fate. We are curious. How did such an elegant lady acquire this agility? He has already established a contrast between her fancy garb, genteel appearance and some lovable coarseness in her inner nature. That prose! The images of the delighted dog and the swampy kisses from her little heel. So good. Hardy is a champion and so is Ethelberta.
Our heroine is a country girl, whose father sends money from his London job as a butler. E begins her long career of trying to support her many siblings and invalid mother, by becoming a governess. Don’t worry, I will spoil nothing, this is all background info. Being lovely, she of course elopes with the young aristocratic son. Soon thereafter her husband and his parents die. The elder Lady Petherwin dies last and leaves young Lady Petherwin nothing but a two year lease on an upscale London apartment. Determined to use her new social position to improve her family’s status, Berta comes up with some very creative ways of saving and making money, including:
• Writing light verse
• Becoming a celebrated performer/ storyteller
• Bringing her whole family to live with her under the pretense that they are her servants
• Ultimately deciding that she must marry, because she will not be able to hide the secret of her birth forever
As you can imagine, pretending that your siblings are your servants is a situation ripe for comedy. You have to admire the audaciousness of Ethelberta’s scheme. Hardy tops his usual love square in this book. Four men try for The Hand of Ethelberta, two of whom are loved by other women. We have a love pentagon with two love triangles branching off. Add in the tension between E and her reforming brothers, who worry that she’ll be burned as a blueblood in the coming revolution. Add her own inner tension; she constantly wonders if she’d be happier discarding her deceitful lifestyle and the trappings of wealth to become a rural school mistress. Not to mention Hardy’s bitter commentary on the scornful way servants are regarded. His mother was a servant and he does an excellent job of inverting the popular Victorian and Gothic trope of the bumbling, ludicrous, idiotic, superstitious servants.
Ethelberta is a truly unique character, with an admirable capacity for sacrifice and creativity. I love her for consulting books of philosophy in a crisis. What other Victorian heroine does that? I love her for other reasons, but I’m leaving plenty of detail out, because I really think you should read this one. The prose has all the elements of Hardy’s greatness, including such wisdom as:
“A half knowledge of another’s life usually does injustice to the life half known.”
“between continually wanting to love, to escape the blank lives of those who do not, and wanting not to love, to keep out the miseries of those that do, I get foolishly warm and foolishly cold by turns.”
You might like The Hand of Ethelberta if:
- you enjoy a strong heroine with a surfeit of love interests
- you like unexpected endings
- you wish the women in Period Pieces had more gumption
You might not like The Hand of Ethelberta if:
- I dunno…you’re more into Cormac McCarthy than Jane Austen
Final thoughts: The critics didn’t love this one, but we are not Victorian literary critics. For me, this is one of Hardy’s better books and certainly worth your time. There is a very good recording on Librivox, if you’d prefer an audiobook.