This somewhat frivolous narrative was produced as an interlude between stories of a more sober design, and it was given the sub-title of a comedy to indicate—though not quite accurately—the aim of the performance. A high degree of probability was not attempted in the arrangement of the incidents, and there was expected of the reader a certain lightness of mood, which should inform him with a good-natured willingness to accept the production in the spirit in which it was offered. The characters themselves, however, were meant to be consistent and human.
On its first appearance the novel suffered, perhaps deservedly, for what was involved in these intentions—for its quality of unexpectedness in particular—that unforgivable sin in the critic’s sight—the immediate precursor of ‘Ethelberta’ having been a purely rural tale. Moreover, in its choice of medium, and line of perspective, it undertook a delicate task: to excite interest in a drama—if such a dignified word may be used in the connection—wherein servants were as important as, or more important than, their masters; wherein the drawing-room was sketched in many cases from the point of view of the servants’ hall. Such a reversal of the social foreground has, perhaps, since grown more welcome, and readers even of the finer crusted kind may now be disposed to pardon a writer for presenting the sons and daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Chickerel as beings who come within the scope of a congenial regard.
T. H., December 1895.
Little read I think largely because it destabilises the notion of Hardy as a novelist of rural England, Ethelberta is an absolutely delicious city satire. Savagely ironic in places, quite post-modern in its instabilities, it tells the story of the rise and rise of a butler's daughter to the position of wife of a Lord. It was not written by the Hardy I had constructed for me by educators. For a start the book has what I would argue is a happy ending (the last of them according to D.H.Lawrence). It really is FUN, as nineteenth century novels go. Peter Widdowson used it to argue that our current construction of Hardy is just that - a construction. If I was game I'd teach it to my classes. Alas the novel may be an acquired taste - something to clear away the aftertaste of Jude, perhaps. No matter, I loved it when I read it (both times). And hey, you're welcome to my essay celebrating Ethelberta, too.
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