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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Hand of Ethelberta by Thomas Hardy

Nothing generates pageviews like a painting of English Novelist Thomas Hardy.  He is a real panty dropper.

The Hand of Etherberta
by Thomas Hardy
p. 1876

  This is just a grim, depressing slog through a literary hellscape.  I've still got like, three more Thomas Hardy novels to go, and I'm really not sure why this one made it.  Actually, that's not true... I get it.  Hardy's Ethelberta is a more interesting than usual Victorian heroine.  The details of her biography should be enough to raise eyebrows:


1.  Daughter of a butler, she eloped with the young son of the family who employed her as a governess   That son soon died, leaving her a widow as a child.
2.  Placed under the protection of her mother in law, she authors a book of light verse which becomes all the rage in London, giving her a literary career, but alienating the mother in law.
3.  In London, she schemes to marry a wealthy husband while purposefully obscuring her humble origins... with great success

  Hardy is of course most well known for his depiction of rural settings, but this book is almost full blown London, down to a fashionable Bloomsbury address.  Hardy's London in The Hand of Etherlberta is recognizable as Victorian London: descriptions of room interiors and fashion make this book very contemporary (for 1876.)  Again, this is a far cry from the usual when it comes to Hardy.

  The marriage centered plot with a healthy dose of inheritance and class distinctions is classic Victorian Novel.  It's hard to think of an English novel from this time period that doesn't implicate all THREE themes between the covers.   It's clear to me that this consistency is evidence and perhaps proof that the AUDIENCE for these novels was mostly young women who were looking to marry up: the literate daughters of the working and middle classes in England in the 1870s.   Hardy succeeds in The Hand of Ethelberta because he addresses the concerns of this Audience in a convincing and sympathetic manner.

  It's worth noting that Hardy is perhaps the first novelist to use the old "private marriage" move, where a gentleman "privately" marries a woman from a lower class and the marriage is either entirely a ruse with no legal merit, or unproveable as a matter of law.  This was a fairly common motif in the 18th century, and it got so bad that the British Government actually outlawed the traditional private marriage and required open publication of all marriages.  Thus, the culmination of The Hand of Ethelberta, with relatives of both bride and groom racing to forestall the marriage between Ethelberta and Lord Mountclere, involves actually getting to the Church in question and finding out they are too late because the marriage information has been published.

 So it's not really a private marriage per se, but a late 19th century reboot of an old theme. 

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