Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Hand

In these strange times, books can offer some more than usual solace. A good friend of mine and I are the only members of what I might call a Book Pair. It’s not a club, it’s just us two. But it operates just like a book group. We choose a book, we read it and then we talk about it. In our case, the talk takes place on the phone because we live in different towns. And it’s a real delight, the pleasure of it for me increased because as a translator by profession and well renowned too  – Margaret Costa is her name and she translates from Spanish and Portuguese – my friend really cares about books. Instead of gliding over them as so many people do, she is delightfully observant about them.

The most recent book we decided upon to be read by us both was one by Thomas Hardy. We had already re-read and discussed several of the well-known books by him. Now we chose The Hand of Ethelberta. It’s not a book of Hardy’s that’s often mentioned and she’d not read it before. I had – and for one obvious reason. Ethelberta in the novel becomes a professional storyteller.

Ethelberta is bright and also ambitious. She comes from a lowly background and is determined to improve her position in order that, among other things, she can support her brothers and sisters. A woman of literary mind, she steps onto the ladder of literary success by publishing what quickly become well-regarded and much talked-about poems. Then she decides to exploit the fact of this literary success by putting on a show. She’s got a good voice and a highly attractive presence. So she takes what I imagine would be an unorthodox decision in any age. Yes, she will become a storyteller. Promptly she hires a hall, advertises her event and puts on an evening of storytelling from the stage. What kind of stories she tells is not described in any detail by Hardy.  But it seems they all start with ‘I’, describing events which are clearly from Ethelberta’s own life until she diverges, taking her listeners into the realms of what she imagines.

Questions in the wings:

But there’s a but. It’s one that will be all too easily recognisable to anyone who has taken the path of the professional storyteller in our own time. Ethelberta quickly realises that such a profession is going to be hard to maintain. So this is where – and it’s lucky she’s a woman – she makes the finding of an appropriate husband (-ie, very wealthy) what she has to do.  Here too she is successful. She finds and marries a Viscount. Job done.

For me, however, there’s a job not yet done. Of course it was the fact that Ethelberta became a storyteller that, years ago, had made me buy my paperback copy of The Hand of Ethelberta. Actually when my friend and I decided to read it next, I’d even forgotten I had a copy. So it was a surprise and a pleasure to find it on my bookshelves when I checked. Then I recalled that, all those years ago, I’d actually decided to do some research into the background to it. Did Thomas Hardy model his idea of Ethelberta on any real live storytellers of his time? Hardy first came to London in 1862 and over the years thereafter often visited. His grandmother had been a great family storyteller in his own early life. But did he actually come across a professional storyteller in London in his grown-up life?

Good questions. When the London Library re-opens after this devastating lockdown, perhaps I’ll go back to a bit of research.  Meantime, my friend Margaret and I have not yet had our talk on the phone about Ethelberta. There’s a great deal of interest to speak about. I’m looking forward to it.

PS: skipping through photos in my media file, I’ve been noticing a whole set of pictures of hands. I think I drew round my own hand to make the pictures, I no longer know why. Because it’s a hand, I’ve plucked out a couple for today’s blog.

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2 Responses to “Storytelling Starters ~ Hand”

  1. Jean Edmiston Says:

    I’ve never read the book but the story sounds intriguing–I look forward to hearing the results of your research — sometime — hope you and Paul are well –sending love Jean

  2. meg Says:

    Hello Mary
    Thank you for another post that makes me pause for thought. I did go thru a ‘Hardy phase’ but haven’t read that one either. Look forward to hearing what you find out.
    I just went back and read his poem ‘The Ruined Maid.’ Hmmm … very interesting.
    Best Regards to you both. Keep safe and well. M

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