Thomas Hardy’s The Hand of Ethelberta (1876) was not commercially successful.
Nonetheless, it is one of my favorite books.
If this fascinating, addictive novel had been adapted for the BBC, we’d all have read it. The power-hungry heroine, Ethelberta Petherwin, leads a double life: she is a butler’s daughter who has jumped up a class due to education and marriage. At 21, she is the widow of a wealthy man. When she publishes a popular book of poetry, her mother-in-law disinherits her. Ethelberta moves to London with her invalid mother, brothers, and sisters to establish herself as a professional storyteller who performs for the rich. But she pretends her relatives are her servants, so she can socialize with the rich without their learning of her class. And with her “squirrel-colored hair,” dignified demeanor, and wit, she attracts men of all ages.
The novel begins with a disguised meditation on class and a quick precis of Ethelberta’s background.
Young Mrs. Petherwin stepped from the door of an old and well-appointed inn in a Wessex town to take a country walk. By her look and carriage she appeared to belong to that gentle order of society which has no worldly sorrow except when its jewellery gets stolen; but, as a fact not generally known, her claim to distinction was rather one of brains than of blood. She was the daughter of a gentleman who lived in a large house not his own, and began life as a baby christened Ethelberta after an infant of title who does not come into the story at all, having merely furnished Ethelberta’s mother with a subject of contemplation. She became teacher in a school, was praised by examiners, admired by gentlemen, not admired by gentlewomen, was touched up with accomplishments by masters who were coaxed into painstaking by her many graces, and, entering a mansion as governess to the daughter thereof, was stealthily married by the son. He, a minor like herself, died from a chill caught during the wedding tour, and a few weeks later was followed into the grave by Sir Ralph Petherwin, his unforgiving father, who had bequeathed his wealth to his wife absolutely.
Elegantly written, the novel is both comical and suspenseful. (The subtitle is A Comedy in Chapters.) Ethelberta tries in vain to keep her family separate from her wealthy friends. There is a crisis when she attends a dinner at the house where her father is butler. He pretends not to know her, but her younger sister Picotee, a junior teacher turned Ethelberta’s maid, visits her father in order to peep at Ethelberta in the dining room in all her splendor; she has the misfortune to make acquaintance with a maid who used to work for Ethelberta’s mother-in-law.
Ethelberta’s suitors in London are rich but unworthy. Her former sweetheart, Mr. Julian, is her intellectual equal, but she will not marry him because she is poor. (Her sister, Picotee, falls in love with him.) She does not respect the painter Mr. Ladywell : When his painting of Ethelberta, his best work, is hung at the Academy, it is much admired. In fact, she overhears Mr. Neigh, a rich young man of littler personality, say he wants to marry her.
There is a trademark Hardy morbid scene. Ethelberta and Picotee take an evening journey by train to the site of Mr. Neigh’s estate to check it out. At first they find the park beautiful; then they see an enclosure where skeletal horses are collected to be killed for a kennel of dogs. This ends her plan to marry Mr. Neigh.
Then there is Lord Mountclere, age 65, who is filthy rich. Ethelberta even loves the staircase in his house. But is she so greedy?
Although this was not Hardy’s most successful book, I am not alone in my admiration of Ethleberta. It is beautifully-written and entertaining. According to my handy Oxford Reader’s Companion to Hardy,
R. H. Hutton, in a representative review in the Spectator, declared: ‘A more entertaining book than The Hand of Ethelberta has not been published for many a year’;he added that no one would read the novel ‘without being aware from the beginning to the end that a very original and a very skillful hand is wielding the pen.’
Hutton’s reference to “a very original and a very skillful hand” is clever: The hand of Ethelberta is skillful in everything she does.
A delightful book!