Hardy began Tess of the d'Urbervilles in 1888-89 and considered such names as Love, Cis/Cissy, and Sue, for the title character. Eventually, he decided on Tess. Hardy had been working on this manuscript with the intention of submitting it for serial publication, in which only a few chapters would be released at a time; depending on the material's reception and the publisher's willingness, these chapters would then later be combined in book form. Hardy contracted with W. F. Tillotson & Son in 1887 for a serialized story to be delivered in four installments between 1887 and June 30, 1889. Hardy also negotiated with Harper's Bazaar in America for the story at about the same time.
Tillotson & Son realized that it had a racy novel on its hands when editors became aware of the serial's content. The publishers suggested revisions of certain scenes and complete deletions of others, but Hardy refused, and the two parted ways amicably, leaving the book unpublished. Fortunately, Hardy had an offer to publish the serial in the Graphic (London) Illustrated Weekly Newspaper. After much revision, the novel appeared as a serial on July 4, 1891, in England (in the Graphic and the Nottinghamshire Guardian and Midlands Counties Advertiser) and Australia (the Sydney Mail). It appeared on July 18 in America in Harper's Bazaar.
After a successful reception as a serial, Tess of the d'Urbervilles was published in book form and consisted of three volumes. In late 1892, the entire set was combined into one volume and sold well. By 1900, Hardy authorized a paperback version of the novel, which sold 300,000 editions in England in one year. Hardy continually tinkered with the subsequent editions, and he worked on revisions up until the time of his death in 1928.
Although the first reviews of the novel were generally good, later critics charged that the book had some serious defects. The Saturday Review called the novel "an unpleasant novel told in a very unpleasant way." Another critic, Mowbray Morris, published the letter sent to Hardy rejecting the serial when it was proposed to Macmillan's Magazine, a literary magazine whose contributors included — in addition to Hardy — Tennyson, Herbert Coleridge (grandson of S.T. Coleridge), Bret Harte, and Mowbray Morris. Harper's Weekly called Tess "artificial" and "not in the reality of any sane world we recognize." Novelist Henry James called Tess "chock-full of faults and falsities and yet [possessed of] a singular beauty and charm." Others thought the novel "not to their personal tastes in some respects, but justly appreciated its greatness in others." The Atlantic Monthly called Tess "Hardy's best novel yet."
It seems, however, that Hardy overlooked the positive reviews, and after reading Morris' review, Hardy wrote, "Well, if this sort of thing continues no more novel-writing for me." It was the hint of a vow that Hardy would fulfill, only a few years later. He would write only one more novel, Jude the Obscure.
Still, Tess continued to sell well in Hardy's time and has spawned a great wealth of literary criticism that continues even today. The negative critics have been silenced, and Tess continues to be read and reread as a classic of English literature.
The Victorian Era when Hardy lived was a time of great change. Queen Victoria ruled England from1837 until her death in 1901. During her 63-year reign, England became the most powerful and wealthiest country in the world through its colonial acquisition and by harnessing the power of the Industrial Revolution. The population in England doubled during Victoria's reign, and the economy of the country changed from agriculture-based to industry-based. More people were enfranchised (that is, given the right to vote) and, through this, gained influence in government. The Parliament passed labor laws that improved labor conditions, established universal schooling for all children, and reformed the civil service system. Britain ended restrictions on foreign trade, opening the way for the island to become a source for both raw materials and finished goods to an ever-increasing international market.
Victoria, interested in the welfare of her people, worked hard to pass meaningful reforms, and she earned the respect of her subjects. Her prime ministers were her greatest assets, and with them, Queen Victoria decreased the powers of the monarchy to empower the members of the prime minister's cabinet. As a result, the British monarchy has been able to endure, unlike the monarchies in most other countries.
The changes that occurred during the Victorian era affected the lives of every person living in England in both great and small ways. As England quickly moved from an agriculture-based society to one that would produce many of the world's goods, factories replaced individual workshops, and people moved from small towns to large cities in search of work. Mobility and the transport of goods were increased with the invention of steamships and the development of a railway system. The balance of traditional class distinctions shifted as more people prospered, amassing wealth and power that had been unthinkable in the years prior to this era. These tumultuous changes resulted in an examination of the traditional ways of thinking and acting, and the foundations of English society — family, religion, class divisions, and so on — came under increasing scrutiny.
One area that was particularly affected by the changes in England was religion. The Church of England was traditionally conservative and offered a literal interpretation of the Bible. During the Victorian period, however, as people began to see the church as an agent for social change as well as an agent for personal salvation, the question became how — and even whether — the church should best fulfill these missions. The result was a schism in the church that fostered three movements: the High Church movement, the Middle Church movement, and the Low Church movement.
The High Church movement was designed to align the Church of England with the "Catholic" side of Anglicanism. The thinking here was that traditional practices were the standard by which faith could be expressed and that supreme authority resided in the Church. The Middle Church movement cared less for tradition and believed that faith could be expressed in various ways, including through social action. The Low Church Movement believed that evangelicals were a force that could reform the church from within and without. Individual and biblical bases of faith were hallmarks of this movement. Evangelicals tackled serious issues of the day: housing and welfare of the poor, as well as social reform. They also believed in spreading the gospel around the world by any means necessary.
The growing reliance on science to explain the nature of man and his relationship with his world opened the doors for further examination of traditionally held beliefs. The publication of Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), which suggested that species evolved from common ancestors that could be found through scientific research, challenged the belief that God created each species individually and separately from every other species. The agnostic movement, which relied on scientific evidence and reason to find universal truths and which held that the existence of God could not be empirically proven, took hold and gained momentum.
From these ideological splits, religious liberals and conservatives battled over fundamental questions of faith and religious practice. In Hardy's work, we can see that this debate was one that he entered into. In Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Hardy's protagonist finds herself in a world where she questions religion, questions faith, looks for meaning in life, and searches for the truths that mankind has sought for centuries.
The body of Victorian literature is tremendous and would be difficult to categorize with only a few authors. Hardy's contemporaries included the likes of Charles Dickens, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold, E.M. Forester, and Joseph Conrad. Each contributed his or her work to the body of general human knowledge and, to one degree or another, considered the issues that had become a part of the English "discussion."
Dickens criticized the treatment of the poor and children, the courts, and the clergy in Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Bleak House. William Thackeray challenged Victorian society at all levels in Vanity Fair. The Brontë sisters — Emily, Charlotte, and Anne — wove romantic elements with tragic heroines and heroes in Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Agnes Grey. Matthew Arnold took the discussion of worldly happiness versus religious faith in his poems "The Scholar Gypsy" and "Dover Beach." Tennyson's In Memoriam, an epic poem on the loss of dear friends, discusses intellectual and religious issues of the day. Conrad wrote on the psychology of guilt, heroism, and honor in his novels Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness.
Tess of the d'Urbervilles is one of Hardy's Wessex novels, so called because the action in each story takes place in the Wessex region. Other of the Wessex novels include The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) and Jude the Obscure (1895). In each, the main characters are dealt a cruel fate that they must overcome or be crushed by. In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Michael Henchard, a respected man, faces a spiritual and physical deterioration that, in the end, destroys him. The main character in Jude, Jude Fawley, suffers from a desperate misery of body and mind and dies, like Tess in Tess of the d'Urbervilles, a victim of fate.