fter the great success of Far From the Madding Crowd, which the Cornhill had published as a serial in 1874, its editor, Leslie Stephen, asked Hardy for another novel. The Hand of Ethelberta, Hardy’s fifth published novel, first appeared in the Cornhill Magazine between July 1875 and May 1876, and in the New York Times between June 1875 and April 1876. In April 1876, The Hand of Ethelberta: A Comedy in Chapters was published by Smith, Elder & Co. in two volumes, with eleven illustrations by George Du Maurier. The first issue had a print run of 1000 copies.

Ethelberta Chickerel, a native of rural Wessex, is a butler’s daughter employed as a maid in the family of Sir Ralph and Lady Petherwin. Their only son falls in love with her, and they elope. However, Ethelberta's husband caught a chill on the honeymoon tour and died, leaving her as a widow at 21. Almost at the same time Lord Petherwin dies, and Lady Petherwin takes care of her daughter-in-law, sending her to Germany to finish her education in a boarding school, after which Ethelberta lives a life of luxury as Lady Petherwin’s daughter and companion. Lady Petherwin provides for her in her will, but they have a quarrel over a book of verse that Ethelberta published anonymously. Believing her to have dishonoured her son's memory, Lady Petherwin disinherits her. Left with only a house in London, Ethelberta assumes a double identity: She conceals her lower-class origins, appearing before London's West End upper-class society as a professional story-teller. (It should be remembered that public reading and storytelling was a popular entertainment in mid-Victorian England. One of the greatest performers was Charles Dickens, who offered lively and emotional public readings of his works in Britain and America.)

Well, What Did You Think of My Poems? It Was a Tender Time

Two of Du Maurier's illustrations: Left: "Well, What Did You Think of My Poems?". Right: It Was a Tender Time. Click on images to enlarge them.

Ethelberta, who flourishes in London as a charming and witty society lady, has four suitors seeking to win her hand: Christopher Julian, an impecunious musician; the arrogant Mr Neigh; Eustace Ladywell, an artist, who is painting an idealised portrait of Ethelberta; and the senile womanizer Lord Mountclere, who offers her a comfortable life and social respectability. Eventually, when Ethelberta sees that her popularity as a story-teller begins to wear off, in order to secure her future and maintain a high social position, she decides to break social barriers and marry the old viscount, who does not care about her low origins. Ethelberta might be thought an opportunist and adventuress, and as a matter of fact, she is coolly rational, yet utterly altruistic, loyally supporting her large family. Thanks to her husband's money, she houses her parents in a villa on the south coast, and provides for her sisters and brothers. She even helps her youngest brother Joey become a parson, which, given Hardy's dislike of the Church and clergy, can be read now as a subversive joke.

Can You Tell Us the Way, Sir, to the Hotel Bold Soldier? In the Writing of the Composer,' Observed Lord Mountclere with Interest

Left: Can You Tell Us the Way, Sir, to the Hotel Bold Soldier?. Right: In the Writing of the Composer," Observed Lord Mountclere with Interest. Click on images to enlarge them.

Few critics have liked the novel. Edmund Gosse, Hardy's long-time friend classified The Hand of Ethelberta and Two on a Tower as his two weakest novels (Cox 178). Harvey Webster also considered The Hand of Ethelberta “the poorest of Hardy's novels” (113). Henry Charles Duffin, an even harsher critic of the novel, wrote: “To read The Hand of Ethelberta immediately after Far From the Madding Crowd is to find the surroundings irritating and the story nauseatingly dull” (15). Robert Gittings described it as “ the most uneven and contradictory of all Hardy's novels” (289). Evelyn Hardy admitted that “there are some unusual, even startling, things in The Hand of Ethelberta” (147), but in her opinion it “is not a work of art” (153). Later critics have found the novel's allusions and multiple plots more puzzling and challenging. In contrast to most previous critics, Peter Widdowson believes it a “self-reflexive novel of the higher order” (157). Likewise, Geoffrey Harvey perceives the novel as “extremely self-conscious in its craft,” which “involves parody of the conventions it employs; romance, melodrama and farce, and a rejection of realism for absurdist and surrealistic effects” (100).

In fact, The Hand of Ethelberta is surprisingly subversive and self-reflexive. For that reason it may be an illuminating read for anyone interested in Thomas Hardy's life and literary achievement. Hardy contradicted and reversed the established values and principles of the Victorian era and criticised the class system “that continued to be supported in part by the literary establishment — even by those middle-class novelists who were ostensibly sympathetic to the so-called 'lower' classes, and whose fiction sought to tell their story and the story of class conflict” (Devine in Mallett 169). In The Hand of Ethelberta Hardy demonstrated that he could not be classified merely as a writer of rural England. For the first time he revealed his lifelong preoccupation with social class, offering a view of the upper class “from the point of view of the servants' hall” (Harvey 99).

The novel’s self-reflexivity is as important as its subversive tone. Self-reflexivity of course is an implicit feature of literature, and in prose fiction it can be traced back to Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quichote, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones and Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. “Novels,” Jonathan Culler contends, “ are at some level about novels, about problems and possibilities of representing and giving shape or meaning to experience” (44). Since the second half of the twentieth century, self-reflexivity has become a characteristic feature of postmodern literature. However, long before the emergence of postmodern narrative strategies, Hardy, it seems, thoroughly blurred the boundaries between reality and fiction in The Hand of Ethelberta. He anticipated the use of several postmodern narrative devices, such as self-reflexivity, parody, pastiche, and questioned realist conventions. Contemporary critics, as well as readers, failed to notice the fictionalised self-reflexive autobiography of the young Hardy under the disguise of his most undervalued novel. It was Robert Gittings who first noticed an affinity between Ethelberta and the young Hardy.

Almost the first thing we know of her is that, like Hardy, she has written a large number of sonnets putting woman's point of view, a natural echo of the mass of 'She to Him' sonnets written by the young Hardy. Unlike Hardy, but like him in intention, she has these published in a book; it will be remembered that Hardy had intended to print his own sonnets in The Poor Man and the Lady, and had even 'prosed' one of them in Desperate Remedies. [...] The whole novel, in fact, seems like an exercise in what Morley had called 'a clever lad's dream', full of such schoolboy and private asides. [290]

Gittings provides a number of clues which allow a multiple reading of the novel. For example, the word “Hand” in the title of the novel may also refer to the maiden name of Hardy's mother Jemima (née Hand), who grew up in poverty. In many respects Ethelberta's family resembles the Hand family of Puddletown. Other characters in the novel bear affinity with Hardy's family. Gittings demonstrates that “Ethelberta's socially unmentionable relatives ... turn out to be a fascinating amalgam of Hardy's own” (292).

Hardy employs several other anticipations of postmodern literary devices and techniques. For example, when the anonymous publication of Far From the Madding Crowd began to appear in the Cornhill Magazine, some critics attributed its authorship to a woman — George Eliot. That might explain why in The Hand of Ethelberta Hardy introduces mischievously the eponymous character, a poetess, storyteller and novelist, who is his alter ego, because Ethelberta's social background and her literary aspirations represent those of the author. Thus Hardy-into-Ethelberta gender change may have been intentional. After her marriage to Lord Mountclere, Ethelberta, as a leisured lady, works in her spare time on her most ambitious venture — an epic poem. Hardy's ambition was always to write serious poetry, which culminated, thirty years later, in an epic drama. As Geoffrey Harvey observed, "Hardy's idea for The Dynasts came to him while he was writing this novel" (99). The Hand of Ethelberta also satirises 'the world of Leslie Stephen', who underestimated Hardy's poems, and 'the world of his wife Emma', who tried to write herself an amateur novel, The Maid on the Shore, as well as it contains “a secret manifesto of Hardy's own poetry” (Gittings 296-97).

Pamela L. Jekel also contends that Ethelberta is Hardy's alter ego, a fictional projection of the author, allowing him to live both in the real world and in the world of his fictions:

There is much evidence in the book that Hardy used Ethelberta as a vehicle for his own thoughts, his own dilemmas (public and private), and even for his own unconscious anxieties. Ethelberta is Hardy's rebuke, for example, to those critics and would-be biographers who refused to separate the teller from the tale, who could not understand the difference between fiction and thinly-veiled confessions. Lady Petherwin's denouncement of Ethelberta's 'scandalous' verse is the first hint we have of Hardy's contempt for such intrusion into the artist's right to anonymity. Ethelberta has published her verse anonymously, and yet she is repeatedly the topic of fatuous conversation at every frivolous social gathering of the nobility. The implication is that the whisperers — not the whispered of — are those to be scorned. The public eye, as an entity which ignores art and thrives on gossip, is consistently condemned in the novel. [75-76]

Although Hardy was pleased by his growing popularity as a novelist, he did not want to be perceived as a one-genre writer and provocatively asserted that “he had not the slightest intention of writing for ever about sheepfarming, as the reading public was apparently expecting him to do, and as, in fact, they presently resented his not doing” (Florence Hardy 135). In fact, in The Hand of Ethelberta Hardy made an unexpected turn from rural Wessex to an urban setting. What is more, unlike his major novels, The Hand of Ethelberta does not contain any explicit references to fate, chance, and the immanent will (Short 49). Indeed, Hardy does not reveal his views about the tragic human predicament and the cruel indifference of nature to man's fate. Instead, he presents a character from a lower class, like him, who is not only intelligent, talented and educated, but also strives to become a recognised writer and a member of polite society.

On one level, The Hand of Ethelberta is a social satire, a comedy of manners inspired by the Restoration comedy of the eighteenth century that also criticizes the mercantile view of marriage. In preparing the novel for publication, Hardy tried to combine elements of domestic melodrama and drawing-room farce into a comic novel of manners in the tradition of William Makepeace Thackeray and Anthony Trollope, but in the eyes of his critics and readers he failed in his desire to create 'a somewhat frivolous narrative', as he called his novel in the Preface. The novel is neither 'frivolous' nor comic in the present sense of the word. It is a projection of Hardy's self-reflexive fantasy wherein the author hides himself behind his female protagonist.

On another level, The Hand of Ethelberta is a self-reflexive and autobiographical novel, because, as Pamela L. Jekel points out, “Hardy so obstinately injected his own views, his own anxieties, and his own personality into his character, Ethelberta” (75). The Hand of Ethelberta appears to be a product of Hardy's introspection while exploring various artistic and social problems. The major social concern in the novel is primarily the effect of cross-class marriage, but it also involves such themes as the exposure of class division and the difference between urban and rural life. The self-reflexive perspective of the novel includes the themes of the relation between appearance and reality, split or double personality and alienation. All these concerns, including self-reflexivity and subversive heroines, Hardy pursued throughout his life.

Nonetheless, all these anticipations of postmodernism and autobiographical elements, however interesting to lovers of Hardy, do not make The Hand of Ethelberta a good novel. Despite the way it offers an alternative to Hardy's pastoral novels, it does not work very well as narrative, in large part because its characters are (as Beat Riesen has put it) “uninteresting and unsympathetic” (91).

References and Further Reading

Cox, R. G., ed. Thomas Hardy: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1979.

Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory. A Brief Insight. New York: Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2009.

Devereux, Joanna. Patriarchy and Its Discontents: Sexual Politics in Selected Novels and Stories of Thomas Hardy. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

Duffin, Henry Charles. Thomas Hardy: A Study of the Wessex Novels, the Poems, and The Dynasts. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1962.

Dutta, Shanta. Ambivalence in Hardy: A Study of His Attitude to Women. Anthem Press, 2010.

Fisher, Joe. The Hidden Hardy. New York: St. Martin‘s Press, 1992.

Gittings, Robert. Thomas Hardy. London: Penguin Books, London: Penguin Books, 2001.

Guerard, Albert. Thomas Hardy: The Novels and Short Stories. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1949.

Hardy, Evelyn. Thomas Hardy: A Critical Biography. London: Hogarth Press, 1954.

Hardy, Florence Emily. The Early Life of Thomas Hardy, 1840-1891. New York: Macmillan, 1928.

Hardy, Thomas. The Hand of Ethelberta. Gutenberg Project.

Harvey, Geoffrey. The Complete Critical Guide to Thomas Hardy. London: Routledge, 2003.

Higonnet, Margaret, ed. The Sense of Sex: Feminist Perspectives on Hardy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Jekel, Pamela L. Thomas Hardy's Heroines: A Chorus of Priorities. Troy: Whitston Publishing Co., 1986.

Mallett, Phillip, ed. Thomas Hardy in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Morgan, Rosemarie, ed. Student Companion to Thomas Hardy. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007.

Morgan, Rosemarie. Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Page, Norman, ed. Oxford Reader’s Companion to Hardy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Riesen, Beat. Thomas Hardy’s Minor Novels. Bern, Frankfurt am Main, New York: Peter Lang, 1990.

Short, Clarie. “In Defense of Ethelberta,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction. Vol. 13(1) (1958) 48-57.

Stave, Shirley A. The Decline of the Goddess: Nature, Culture, and Women in Thomas Hardy's Fiction. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Taylor, Richard H. The Neglected Hardy. Thomas Hardy’s Lesser Novels. London: Macmillan, 1982.

Thomas, Jane. Thomas Hardy, Femininity and Dissent: Reassessing the 'Minor' Novels. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Weber, Carl J. Hardy of Wessex, His Life and Literary Career. New York: Columbia University Press.

Webster, Harvey Curtis. On a Darkling Plain. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1947.

Widdowson, Peter. Hardy in History. A Study in Literary Sociology. London, New York: Routledge, 1989.

Wilson, Keith, ed. A Companion to Thomas Hardy. John Wiley & Sons, 2009.

Wing, George. “ 'Forbear, Hostler, Forbear'!: Social Satire in The Hand of Ethelberta” Studies in the Novel. The Thomas Hardy Special Number, winter 1972, Vol. 4(4) 568-579.

Wright, T.R. Hardy and the Erotic. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.

Created 14 February 2015