The Hand of Ethelberta (Thomas Hardy)

Posted: December 9, 2014 in fiction
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According to Hardy’s own preface, this was meant to be a bit of a joke, a funny story between the more dramatic Far From the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native. Don’t let that make you think it’s any shorter than the others; it’s quite as long as any late Victorian novel can expect to be. And personally, I didn’t think the joke was very funny. I’ve spent too much time on the edges of society to be amused by the struggles inherent in the position.

In some ways, this book feels a little like a sequel; the exposition is pretty serious, as in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Four years ago, Christopher Julian was in love with Ethelberta Chickerel. He was rich and she was a butler’s daughter, so nothing came of it. Instead, she married even further above herself; her husband died a few weeks later, still a minor, so she was sort of adopted into the in-laws’ family. Now he’s fallen in the world; she’s the young, wealthy, beautiful widow Mrs Petherwin, and he’s just Kit Julian, the local music teacher and church organist. It seems like they’d be a good fit for each other, but one of Hardy’s jokes is the way that things build up and then come to nothing.

‘I thought at one time that our futures might have been different from what they are apparently becoming,’ he said then, regarding her as a stall-reader regards the brilliant book he cannot afford to buy. ‘But one gets weary of repining about that.

In the end, he gets a happy finish, a happier one than Ethelberta gets, I believe.

Ethelberta is not a woman to be envied.

A talent for demureness under difficulties without the cold-bloodedness which renders such a bearing natural and easy, a face and hand reigning unmoved outside a heart by nature turbulent as a wave, is a constitutional arrangement much to be desired by people in general; yet, had Ethelberta been framed with less of that gift in her, her life might have been more comfortable as an experience, and brighter as an example, though perhaps duller as a story.

She’s precisely the type that people enjoy reading about, but very few would actually want to be. She was always intelligent and sensitive, so her family gave her a better education than her brothers and sisters received. She became a teacher, then a governess, then married the boss’s son and became a lady. She’s acutely aware of how precarious her social position is and is determined to keep that position no matter the cost. During the first third of the story, she lives with her mother-in-law with a cover story to explain where she came from, so she’s fairly secure and has time to say things like:

Well, no; for what between continually wanting to love, to escape the blank lives of those who do not, and wanting not to love, to keep out of the miseries of those who do, I get foolishly warm and foolishly cold by turns.

But when the mother-in-law dies, she has to shift for herself. How does a single woman work without losing her social position? This is the 1870s, not the 2010s, so this is a serious question for her. The dilemma is easier to understand if we see the social position not only as a circle of friends, but as an identity. Ethelberta is struggling to maintain the vision she has of herself, to continue being the person she truly believes herself to be. It’s more serious than most modern readers would consider.

Persons waging a harassing social fight are apt in the interest of the combat to forget the smallness of the end in view; and the hints that perishing historical remnants afforded her of the attenuating effects of time even upon great struggles corrected the apparent scale of her own. She was reminded that in a strife for such a ludicrously small object as the entry of drawing-rooms, winning, equally with losing, is below the zero of the true philosopher’s concern.

She’s apparently not a true philosopher, because this is only a brief flash on her consciousness. She sets herself up running a rooming house for wealthy, respectable foreigners; since she can’t advertise too extensively (she can’t seem to need money), it never pays well. She supplements her income by becoming a public storyteller, one step removed from an actress. That one step preserves her respectability and position. Unfortunately, she doesn’t go about it sensibly; one show a week, or a fortnight, would keep her audience coming back and preserve the novelty of the entertainment. Going out every night, people get used to it. She loses her popularity and her position declines.

She stood there, as all women stand who have made themselves remarkable by their originality, or devotion to any singular cause, as a person freed of her hampering and inconvenient sex, and, by virtue of her popularity, unfettered from the conventionalities of manner prescribed by custom for household womankind. The charter to move abroad unchaperoned, which society for good reasons grants only to women of three sorts – the famous, the ministering, and the improper – Ethelberta was in a fair way to make splendid use of: instead of walking in protected lanes she experienced that luxury of isolation which normally is enjoyed by men alone, in conjunction with the attention naturally bestowed on a woman young and fair.

And thank God for the improper. They introduce the world to new possibilities. They may be shunned for their audacity, but they are eventually copied and end up setting the ton of the next age. There is no question for Hardy that the fact of her being a woman is the defining feature of her life. As a man, Ethelberta would have been able to fight up the social ladder through education and success in some public enterprise; as a woman, the education is indispensable, but success in public enterprise would prevent her attaining the position she’s after. For a woman to be a public personality is too vulgar. Her only avenue to success is marriage.

Which is why poor Kit doesn’t stand a chance. It doesn’t matter how she feels about him – he’s not moving in the right circles any more. There are several other suitors to her hand, but she doesn’t love any of them and she’s afraid that they wouldn’t love her if they knew about her family. The poor old woman who ‘owns’ the rooming house where she lives is really her mother; the cook and the housemaid are her older sisters; the footman is her fourteen-year-old brother. And her father, of course, is still butler to one of the gentry’s best families.

I could really feel where Ethelberta is coming from, for most of the book. My parents were not well suited to one another – my father started working on a farm when he was fourteen, and the highest he ever rose was to an HVAC technician, the kind of maintenance worker who fixes your heating and air conditioning. My mother studied French and Latin at school and became a teacher, one of the most respectable positions for middle-class American women in the late 1960s. But pregnant women couldn’t teach in elementary schools in the early 1970s, so she had to leave work before my oldest brother was born. Then followed more than a decade of poor financial decisions, six more children, and a divorce. I grew up with a sense of decayed grandeur, surrounded by the feeling that we’re somehow better than the other people in our economic position and the only way to get what I truly deserve is to get a scholarship to a good university, work hard, get a good job, and never come back to rural North Carolina again. I wanted my mother to be proud of me, so I did get the scholarship and work hard, though the rest of that hasn’t quite played out. Some of my siblings got out like I did, but others accepted the reduced circumstances and found work as electricians and auto mechanics. Ethelberta’s family accepts her snobbery and the inequality of their positions, but my family hasn’t been quite as successful. We’re all pretty sensitive, so the fact that our ambitions have led in different directions has created some possibly irreparable conflicts. I try to keep peaceful relations with everyone. It’s not always easy to mix with the more country siblings because I still talk like I’m from Massachusetts, but I find that the rewards are worth the effort. My oldest brother’s wife has invited me to stay with them when I come Down East for Christmas, and this weekend my youngest brother drove twelve hours in one day so that he could see me for about ninety minutes. He’s been listening to the news, so he’s been worried about IS detaining or killing me. He held me so tight – I have a hard time believing in my ability to produce such intensity of feeling, but I can’t doubt that it’s there. The friends I’m staying with were impressed with our similarities: they knew one of my more ambitious brothers ten years ago, and apparently #3 and I have enough resemblance that you can see it, but #7 and I look like we’ve spent years studying each other to get our mannerisms exactly identical. Yet he loves big trucks, Mustangs, and wearing baseball caps, and I read Thomas Hardy novels when I’m vacationing in Paris or São Paulo. Cultural differences that arise from economic disparity may determine whom we feel comfortable living with, but with a little forbearance and good manners, those differences don’t have to limit whom we love.

Hardy’s characters don’t necessarily practice the forbearance unless it’s within their own family circle. Ethelberta’s brother and future brother-in-law end up traveling together one night, and the carpenter and the peer don’t really see eye to eye.

If every man of title was as useful as you are to-night, sir, I’d never call them lumber again as long as I live.’

‘How singular!’

‘There’s never a bit of rubbish that won’t come in use if you keep it seven years.’

In the final third of the novel, Ethelberta’s secret is in danger of getting out, so she determines that a hasty marriage is the only solution.

Life is a battle, they say; but it is only so in the sense that a game of chess is a battle – there is no seriousness in it; it may be put an end to at any inconvenient moment by owning yourself beaten, with a careless “Ha-ha!” and sweeping your pieces into the box.

Hardy says this, but Ethelberta can’t own herself beaten. She can’t see her quest for social position as unimportant or a game. She’s serious; she plays for keeps. She angles for the guy with the highest title, even though he’s older than her dad and has a very low character. Toward the end the novel gets a little Radcliffean, with the vicious viscount in the castle with the beautiful young heroine married in ignorance and partially against her will, but it turns out all right. This book is supposed to be funny, after all.

There are some jokes I appreciated, but they’re generally one-liners.

Ethelberta breathed a sort of exclamation, not right out, but stealthily, like a parson’s damn.

Or

‘O Joey, you wicked boy! If mother only knew that you smoked!’

‘I don’t mind the wickedness so much as the smell.

Or

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

There’s one little piece that I enjoyed because it seems so realistic, and I think must have happened rather frequently, despite its absence from most novels. Two maids and a footman have just prepared the upper dining room for the dinner in the middle of a ball, and while the quality are dancing on the lower floor,

Away then ran the housemaid and Menlove, and the young footman started at their heels. Round the room, over the furniture, under the furniture, out of one window, along the balcony, in at another window, again round the room – so they glided with the swiftness of swallows and the noiselessness of ghosts. Then the housemaid drew a jew’s harp from her pocket, and struck up a lively waltz sotto voce. The footman seized Menlove, who appeared nothing loth, and began spinning gently round the room with her, to the time of the fascinating measure

‘Which fashion hails, from countesses to queens,
And maids and valets dance behind the scenes.’

One of the most important messages of the novel is the reminder that servants are real people too. They may be treated like furniture, but the only difference between them and their supposed masters is the accident of birth. Their emotional lives are as rich, their pleasures both as simple and as complex. A good servant can still be a man of feeling who takes a bit of fun when no one’s looking.

Hardy introduces some new vocabulary that I like, such as ‘man-famine.’ In the 1870s, young men were being sent out to the colonies to build the empire, so there weren’t many at home. Another example of the hidden effect of imperialism that Said talks about. He also gives us the word ‘indifferentist,’ which I rather like. It seems to imply not only that someone doesn’t care about a given situation, but that he’s studied his indifference and employs it as a tool.

There are also some passages that strike me as beautiful, even in a book that treats serious questions of gender and class as jokes. When Christopher Julian meets Mr Chickerel for the first time, he responds to the family resemblance without knowing that this is Ethelberta’s father.

Ethelberta’s face was there, as the landscape is in the map, the romance in the history, the aim in the deed: denuded, rayless, and sorry, but discernible.

I’m kind of surprised that this novel isn’t more popular with the critics. Hardy is more explicit in his criticism of social structures and gender strictures than in his other books, so it would seem that the Marxists and feminists would have been all over it. But I guess not; some people can’t understand the concept of serious comedy.

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