Maybe its the name. Ethelberta might have been a common name and even considered a pretty name then, but it clanks off the 21st century ear and certainly makes it hard to warm up to the central character. Berta, as her family calls her, is the next in the cast of strong Hardy female characters: the strong-willed daughter of a butler marries upstairs for love, but ends up a young widow when her husband dies in the first month of marriage. Hardly a comic setup, Hardy turns the situation into a sharp commentary on gender,, upstairs/downstairs relationships, occupational prejudices, class, and class consciousness.
Having crossed the great class divide, Ethelberta finds herself caught in a bind: she can support her family through her new upper class connections, but she can't acknowledge them as family as it would jeopardize her position in the society that enabled her to support them. The still very young and attractive widow is reconnected to an old flame who is condemned to a life of genteel poverty by his career choice as a musician. Ethelberta rejects his overtures and decides to play on her beauty, wit and social position to assay a short career as a romantic storyteller in London to supplement her mother-in-law's bestowed income and support her mother and numerous siblings (albeit disguised as servants and laborers hired to maintain the household). Thus thrust in the public eye by her career choice, she attracts the glances and overtures of a higher class of suitors, and the pursuit of the hand of Ethelberta is on.
The setup reads like a lost Dickens novel, and indeed the reader familiar with both can't help making the comparison. And because Ethelberta is known for her wit as a public speaker and a published poet, Hardy is able to unleash frequent bon mots that also remind of Oscar Wilde. Writing just a few years after Dickens and nearly contemporary with Wilde the comparison is apt, and one wonders if Hardy took on the challenge intentionally to show his range as a writer and dispel his reputation as a tragic romantic.
The setup and the execution allow opportunities for comedy, tragedy, and romance to intertwine, but Hardy turns the setups to satiric comedy most often. The comedy is seldom ha-ha funny and mostly avoids Hardy's characteristic rustic Wessex humor, relying instead on sharp-edged interplay of word play and relationships between gender and class.
Despite its initial success, this is one of Hardy's least known books, but one that I found has stood up well and was well worth my time to read. Maybe its the name.
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