Thomas Hardy was an English novelist and poet writing at the end of the 19th century, but for today's readers, his novels often seem more modern than Victorian in nature. People usually associate the Victorian period (i.e., the period during the reign of Queen Victoria, or 1837-1901) with sexual repression and general prudishness. Thomas Hardy's willingness to challenge contemporary views of sexual morality and marriage made many of his novels very controversial when they first appeared. In fact, the last novel he published, Jude the Obscure, was criticized so scathingly that Hardy resolved not to write any more novels. He switched entirely to writing poetry.
Tess of the D'Urbervilles appeared five years earlier, in 1890, and was just as controversial. The novel is about a young country girl, Tess, whose father discovers that their family is descended from one of the oldest, most aristocratic families in England. But the discovery has tragic consequences for Tess. She is sent off to the wealthy branch of the family to "claim kin" (i.e., to borrow money), and ends up being raped by the son of that branch of the family. Hardy's willingness to describe the rape, and his defiant insistence that Tess herself remains pure in spite of it, made the novel controversial.
Tess was published in 1891, but Hardy had been working on it in some form or other since about 1887. The manuscript went through a lot of different versions, and the controversial bits made it difficult for him to find a publisher. The publishers who rejected the novel put it more or less bluntly, but the consensus was basically that Tess (both the character and the novel) was too sexy to be put in print. The sexiness made it immoral in their eyes. (See the "What's Up with the Title?" for more on the objections of the publishers).
In 1890, Hardy finally found a magazine willing to publish Tess of the D'Urbervilles, but only on condition that he censor some of the more controversial scenes. Basically, it's like when NBC started showing reruns of Sex and the City – because it's a network station, they had to censor some entire scenes, as well as all the swearing. But Tess of the D'Urbervilles was produced in the reverse order – first in a censored version, and only later in its original form.
Later in 1891, Hardy was given the opportunity to publish Tess in book form, which meant that he'd be able to include the scenes that were censored out of the Graphic magazine. He jumped at the chance – he wanted to "[piece] the trunk and limbs of the novel together" after the Graphic magazine had forced him to "dismember" it (quoted in the Penguin edition's "History of the Text", p. liv). In the 1891 version, he added the subtitle ("A Pure Woman"), defiantly defending the purity of the heroine in spite of her rape.
Hardy also revised later editions of Tess of the D'Urbervilles himself, but pressure from contemporary critics forced him to change or even delete some of the controversial scenes. Most modern critics agree that the 1891 version is the closest to his original vision of the novel, so that's the version that we use in this module.
You know what generally happened in Victorian stories about “fallen women" (who were technically prostitutes, but the term also applied more broadly to women who somehow ended up having sex outside of marriage)? Nothing good. Honestly, a lot of these women, in the stories at least, meet horrible and dehumanizing deaths, even after they spend their narrative lives trying to make up for this apparently unforgiveable sin (check out Esther in Gaskell’s Mary Barton or Lady Isabel in East Lynne).
Now, we know what you’re saying to yourself: yikes, Victorian prudes, just lighten up already and be all cool like we moderns are with the idea that women have sexual desires! And you’re right, attitudes toward sexuality in general and female sexuality in particular certainly have come a long way since ye olde repressive days of yore. But how do you think that progress happened? Well, in part because people like our friend Thomas Hardy started raising questions about the wholesale condemnation of women who had sexual experiences and the huge honking double standard applied to men who did the same thing.
Nothing makes you say, dude, that’s way unfair, like that fact that Angel fesses up to sleeping with some lady and that’s supposed to be totally cool, while Tess’s coerced near-rape is somehow supposed to mark her as damaged goods forever. And that’s exactly the point. By really amplifying the beats of the traditional “fallen woman” story—complete with totally over-the-top drawn out death—Hardy sticks his finger in the faces of his contemporaries to be all, can we move along the path of progress already?
So whom can you thank for all the totally normal and non-hysterical depictions of women having sex lives that don’t doom them to misery and death in our time? Well, lots of people, sure, but among them—totally Thomas Hardy.