After the great success of "Far From the Madding Crowd", its editor, Leslie Stephen, asked Thomas Hardy for another novel. "The Hand of Ethelberta", Hardy’s fifth published novel, first appeared in the Cornhill Magazine between July 1875 and May 1876.
In "The Hand of Ethelberta", 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.
Ethelberta was raised in humble circumstances but became a governess and consequently, at the age of 18, married well. However, her husband died two weeks after the wedding. Her father-in-law, Lord Petherwin, died shortly afterwards. Ethelberta (now 21) lives with her mother-in-law, Lady Petherwin. In the three years that have elapsed since her marriage, Ethelberta has been treated to foreign travel and further privileges by Lady Petherwin but restricted from seeing her own family. The story follows Ethelberta's career as a famous poetess and storyteller. Meanwhile, she struggles to support her family and conceal the fact that her father is a butler. Ethelberta easily attracts four very persistent suitors but is reluctant to give her much-coveted hand.