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Like the British Constitution, she owes her success in practice to her inconsistencies in principle.

June 30, 2015 20 comments

The Hand of Ethelberta by Thomas Hardy (1876) French title: S’il avait insisté. Translated by Jean Audiau in 1931 and now OOP.

Hardy_EthelbertaI’m still reading Thomas Hardy in chronological order and my journey brought me to The Hand of Ethelberta. Ethelberta is actually a young widow, Mrs Petherwin. She married the young man of the family where she stayed as a governess. He died soon after her marriage and her mother-in-law kept her with her on condition that Ethelberta gives up any relationship with her family. Indeed, her father is a butler, her brothers are carpenters. Ethelberta married in a higher social class and it wouldn’t be possible to acknowledge being the daughter of a butler.

Ethelberta had what we would call today a boyfriend in Mr Christopher Julian. He would have married her but he was too poor and without any prospect of doing better and she was not willing to settle without money. She chose young Petherwin.

Ethelberta has beauty, intelligence, guts and a huge family. Her parents have ten children and Ethelberta wants to take care of them, to ensure they get an education to have a chance at a better life. Or what she thinks is a better life. She had a little fame when she published a decent collection of poems. The door of higher circles opened to her and that’s where she met Mr Ladywell, Mr Neigh and Lord Mountclere. However, she has baggage with her maiden name and origins and her siblings’ future. The only one who knows everything is Mr Julian. He knows her family and Ethelberta’s sister Picotee is even in love with him.

When Mrs Petherwin senior dies, she leaves Ethelberta with a house in London but no income. Ethelberta starts writing romance and telling stories for money. She’s certain that she can make it, that she can earn enough money to provide for everyone. In the house she hires her siblings as butler, maid or cook. They pretend they don’t know each other in public and they try to support themselves. But it’s not so easy to earn money when you’re a woman in the 19thcentury. So Ethelberta ends up turning to the most common way of providing for yourself and even your family when you’re female: marriage!

Yet Ethelberta’s gradient had been regular: emotional poetry, light verse, romance as an object, romance as a means, thoughts of marriage as an aid to her pursuits, a vow to marry for the good of her family; in other words, from soft and playful Romanticism to distorted Benthamism. Was the moral incline upward or down?

Lucky her, even in this era of man famine, she has three prospects. Mr Neigh, Mr Ladywell and Lord Mountclere. Mr Julian had to forfeit because he lacked the required financial perspectives. Even if he’s the one she likes best. Ethelberta looks at these men only in terms of financial stability and prestige. She remains cold hearted and states:

Men who come courting are just like bad cooks: if you are kind to them, instead of ascribing it to an exceptional courtesy on your part, they instantly set it down to their own marvellous worth.

[I wonder what Hardy would write about men who are chefs. A man can’t be a cook, he’s a chef, that’s where the marvellous worth expresses itself. Are they marvellous² ? ]

Ethelberta is a strange mix of ambition and self-sacrifice. She wants badly to make money for herself but mostly to take care of her siblings. Her parents don’t ask her to do it but she’s convinced that without a good education, they have no chance. She’s conflicted and stubborn. Nothing and no one can make her change her path. She wants a better life, she’s ready to sacrifice happiness for social advancement for her and her siblings.

Which groom will she pick and how? That’s where you need to read the book to know more…

The Hand of Ethelberta means several things for me. The most obvious meaning is marriage. Her hand is at stake and the novel is about discovering when and whom she’ll marry. Will she listen to her heart or will she listen to her ambition?

One other meaning is the hand she has been dealt. She’s a butler’s daughter, she has nine siblings to provide for and she needs to play it well to win her financial stability. She has four men around her, one for each card suit. Let’s say King of Hearts is Mr Julian, King of Diamonds is Mr Ladywell, King of Spades is Mr Neigh and King of Clubs is Mountclere.

The third meaning is given by Ethelberta’s mother when she refers to her change of social status. She climbed to an upper class when she married Mr Petherwin, she must live with the idea that she cannot be associated with her parents and siblings in public. ‘Well, you chose your course, my dear; and you must abide by it.  Having put your hand to the plough, it will be foolish to turn back.’

I suppose Hardy played on the meaning of the title, otherwise he would have written Ethelberta’s hand, no?

Although I didn’t like this one as much as Far from the Madding Crowd, I was happy to be enveloped again in Hardy’s ironic prose. The novel is full of gems like these:

Supply the love for both sides?  Why, it’s worse than furnishing money for both.

If a needy man must be so foolish as to fall in love, it is best to do so where he cannot double his foolishness by marrying the woman.

I enjoyed the twists and turns, the help of bad weather, coincidences, bad luck and other tricks to move the plot forward. It’s part of Hardy’s game and I went along with it. Behind the twists and turns, there’s also the very serious question: what makes us truly happy? Is social success enough? Is money enough? Is social standing and money are worth leaving a worthy companion behind? Does it make you happy to change of social class or does it cost too much? Ethelberta has made up her mind, have you made yours? For Ethelberta, changing of social class also means being able to express her potential to the fullest. It gives her the opportunity to engage in things that are challenging her intelligence. She needs this. She’s intelligent, she doesn’t want her brain to go to waste. Who can blame her?

My next Hardy will be The Return of the Native.

PS: I can’t resist adding a last quote. What would be British literature of the 19th Century without clumsy and offensive marriage proposals? I wonder. It must have been a rite of passage for would-be writers at the time. That was before creative writing classes but perhaps it was required in feuilletons like television has requirement for series nowadys. I put XXX where the gentleman’s name was mentioned, to avoid spoilers.

‘I have been intending to write a line to you,’ said XXX; ‘but I felt that I could not be sure of writing my meaning in a way which might please you.  I am not bright at a letter—never was.  The question I mean is one that I hope you will be disposed to answer favourably, even though I may show the awkwardness of a fellow-person who has never put such a question before.  Will you give me a word of encouragement—just a hope that I may not be unacceptable as a husband to you?  Your talents are very great; and of course I know that I have nothing at all in that way.  Still people are happy together sometimes in spite of such things.  Will you say “Yes,” and settle it now?’ ‘I was not expecting you had come upon such an errand as this,’ said she, looking up a little, but mostly looking down.  ‘I cannot say what you wish, Mr. XXX. ‘Perhaps I have been too sudden and presumptuous.  Yes, I know I have been that.  However, directly I saw you I felt that nobody ever came so near my idea of what is desirable in a lady, and it occurred to me that only one obstacle should stand in the way of the natural results, which obstacle would be your refusal.  In common kindness consider. I daresay I am judged to be a man of inattentive habits—I know that’s what you think of me; but under your influence I should be very different; so pray do not let your dislike to little matters influence you.’ ‘I would not indeed.  But believe me there can be no discussion of marriage between us,’ said Ethelberta decisively. ‘If that’s the case I may as well say no more.  To burden you with my regrets would be out of place, I suppose,’ said XXX, looking calmly out of the window.

Who wants to say yes to such a proposal?

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