The Hand of Ethelberta, Paperback Book
3 out of 5 (1 rating)


Adventuress and opportunist, Ethelberta reinvents herself to disguise her humble origins, launching a brilliant career as a society poet in London with her family acting incognito as her servants.

Turning the male-dominated literary world to her advantage, she happily exploits the attentions of four very different suitors.

Will she bestow her hand upon the richest of them, or on the man she loves?

Ethelberta Petherwin, alias Berta Chickerel, moves with easy grace between her multiple identities, cleverly managing a tissue of lies to aid her meteoric rise.

In The Hand of Ethelberta (1876), Hardy drew on conventions of popular romances, illustrated weeklies, plays, fashion plates and even his wife's diary in this comic story of a woman in control of her destiny.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Classic fiction (pre c 1945)
  • ISBN: 9780140435023

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It has to be said that this is not one of Hardy's best novels. But it's not awful, either, and is definitely worth reading if you have an interest in Hardy's work. First published in 1876, it appeared two years after 'Far From the Madding Crowd' and two years before 'The Return of the Native'.The daughter of a butler, Ethelberta rises in society thanks to an impetuous early marriage to the son of Sir Ralph Petherwin. As a widow she is allowed to remain living with her husband's mother, Lady Petherwin, but the death of Lady Petherwin leaves Ethelberta needing to make a good marriage in order to keep both herself and her many siblings who live with her under the guise of her servants.Although Ethelberta is desperate to keep secret her humble origins, this is more a question of self-preservation than snobbishness. She goes beyond the call of duty in her efforts to take care of her family, and feels awkward to have to attend a dinner at which her father acts as butler - not because she's ashamed of him, but because she's upset that she can't acknowledge him as her father without giving the game away.Ethelberta has four suitors, one of whom she loves. He, naturally, is poor. There is a rather farcical situation when three of her suitors call for her and must be seen individually. She tells all three that she'll give them her answer in not less than a month's time - by which time, she knows, her humble origins will be made public by lady's maid Mrs Menlove.I've read reviews criticising the book's "fairytale ending", but personally I didn't think it was particularly 'happy ever after'. Ethelberta marries well, but not to Christopher, the man she loves. Christopher marries Ethelberta's sister, who is also in love with him, but despite his avowal of love my feeling is that he remains in love with Ethelberta.Although it's not a great novel, and certainly stands no comparison with Hardy's finest novels, Ethelberta is a pleasing heroine and the story lightweight but enjoyable. [August 2006]