Censorship In The Age Of Hypocrisy: Thomas Hardy’s Tess Of The D’Ubervilles

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

According to Webster’s Dictionary, to “censor” means “to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable”. Censorship, in the traditional sense, is one of many ways the government can control its people, imposing censor in the name of religion, morality or decency. Official censorship is often thought to be the cause of prohibition of many literary works during the Victorian era, but in this essay, I’ll try to provide arguments to challenge this myth. In the 19th century, social and moral censorship was more powerful than the legal machinery of official censorship, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles being one of its causalities for questioning what was not supposed to be questioned. To better understand governmental censorship, one should first look at its three main sources.

Since 1857, a series of obscenity laws known as the Obscene Publications Acts (of 1857, 1959 and 1964) were put in place to control what could and what could not be published, sold or spread in England and Wales. The outbreak of censorship and anti-obscenity legislation in the Victorian age was a reaction to the increasing number of pornographic publications, which were explicitly advertised on the streets, but as far as “serious” literature was concerned, official censorship did not intervene on such a wide scale. And yet, Hardy’s book faced censorship at every turn. Finding a publisher for his novel was difficult, being refused by several different publication houses before seeking out Murray’s Magazine, whose editor rejected the still incomplete book because of its explicit sexuality[footnoteRef:5]. Before finally being able to publish a serialization of the novel in a different magazine, Hardy had to self-censor the story heavily, removing several important parts, including the seduction scene and the improvised baptism of Tess’s baby. As a matter of fact, Hardy’s novel did not undergo any legal censorship. There was no official ban imposed on it and it was not illegal to own or sell the book, but in 1891, the novel was banned by Mudie’s and Smith’s circulating libraries. What his novel had to face was the effect of pervading Puritanism and the so-called Victorian Double Standard of editors, critics, and even readers. In the 19th century, it was common for novels to be published serially in magazines, which were aimed at families, therefore at women and children. These groups were considered fragile and any “impure” literature works were therefore seen as unsuitable for their eyes. Editors ensured that their readers were protected from any sexually explicit, provocative or otherwise disturbing texts, guaranteeing that morality and sensibility of women and children were respected.

To comprehend why Hardy’s Tess was so shocking for 19th-century society, it is important to understand the typical mindset and values of an ordinary Victorian person. Today, the use of the word “Victorian” evokes many stereotypes, such as a prudish refusal to admit the existence of sex, while hypocritically always discussing it – and many are, in fact, true. Every respectable middle-class woman would shy away from any knowledge of her own body, sex, and childbirth. They were expected to be virgins before marriage and were generally thought of as morally superior, nearly saint in their purity and absence of sexual desire. Men, on the other hand, wanted and needed sex, were born to be less morally inclined and were expected to be experienced before marriage. This is called the Victorian Double Standard, which split the society into two radically different spheres based solely on the biological sex. While women had to stay faithful to their husbands and could not divorce them, men could cheat as long as they were discreet in their activities, and if needed, could also divorce their wives for adultery. Thomas Hardy stated in his “Candour in English Fiction” (1890) that: “Life being a physiological fact, its honest portrayal must be largely concerned with, for one thing, the relation of the sexes”.

Comparing his rather liberal views with the ones mentioned above, one can easily imagine why was his novel widely rejected in a society that was caged by rigid morality and excessive puritanism. His wish to represent sexuality and stay true to the “honest portrayal” made him a target of various forms of censorship. His first manuscript, “The Poor Man and the Lady”, was deemed socially dangerous and therefore rejected. His first published novel, Desperate Remedies, was accepted only after Hardy removed a rape scene, that was included in the original text. Not even one of his following works escaped greater or lesser changes forced by the publishing houses that were strictly following the “purity movement”, which ignored any existence of sex and sexuality. Tess of the D’Urbervilles was no exception to this and underwent some heavy changes to be published. The novel centers around a young girl working as a farmhand and a milkmaid, who is called, as the title suggests, Tess. She is either raped or seduced (Hardy leaves this part of his novel rather ambiguous and free for the reader to interpret) by Alec D’Uberville, whose family she works for. The rest of the story deals with the consequences of this act. Tess gets eventually married to another man, Angel Clare, but after she confides in him and tells him of her past, he leaves her. She then meets Alec again, whom she murders when Angel comes back to her. This leads to her final downfall and punishment of death by hanging. After it was finally published by the magazine Graphic in 1891, the critics mainly focused on the morality and provocativeness of the novel and only few chose to concentrate on Hardy’s style. Most of them would rather attack his liberal ideas and the novel’s description of the heroine as pure and innocent.

Hardy added the subtitle, A Pure Woman, at the last moment, causing confusion and offending many, for whom a woman, who had lost her virginity before marriage and had an illegitimate child, could be anything but. Hardy defended the title in an 1892 interview with Raymond Blathwayt: “I still maintain that her innate purity remained intact to the very last; though I frankly own that a certain outward purity left her on her last fall. I regarded her then as being in the hands of circumstances, not morally responsible, a mere corpse drifting with the current. ” In addition to objections to the unfitting title, the critics attacked Hardy’s description of women, going as far as to say that it was “degrading” to see Tess portrayed like such as in this extract: “She had stretched one arm so high above her coiled-up cable of hair that he could see its delicacy above the sunburn; her face was flushed with sleep and her eyelids hung heavy over their pupils. The brimfulness of her nature breathed from her. It was a moment when a woman’s soul is more incarnate than at any other time; when the most spiritual beauty inclines to the corporeal; and sex takes the outside place in her presence. ” Furthermore, besides including sensuous descriptions of Tess and a suggested rape, Hardy also gave Tess the ability to continue with her life and still called her “A Pure Woman”. Tess even realizes that she is not the one to be blamed for her downfall. The Victorian Christian society might have been able to accept her more easily were she to spend the rest of her life accounting for her “sins”, but Tess recognizes herself as the victim. In the novel, she states that: “Never in her life – she could swear it from the bottom of her soul – had she ever intended to do wrong; yet these hard judgments had come. Whatever her sins, they were not sins of intention, but of inadvertence, and why should she have been punished so persistently?”. Hardy sides with Tess on the matter of her innocence and criticizes the double standards upheld in the Victorian era. He makes it clear who takes the blame in the eyes of others from the name of Phase Five, “The Woman Pays”. It is Tess who must face the consequences after her encounter with Alec. Even Angel, who is in love with Tess and is one of the few who dare to doubt religious standards, doesn’t take into consideration Tess’s side of the story. Alec, on the other hand, can continue his life without any difficulties.

Other authors and their books suffered a similar fate, such as D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1921) or James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), either because of exploring topics that were considered taboo or because of criticizing the society itself. Nor Lawrence’s Women in Love, nor Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles would have been showered with critique and disdain, were they published only a few decades later when people started to accept the concept of sexuality and the role of women in society started to change. In his novel, Hardy sheds light on the social issues that were current in the Victorian era, the age of hypocrisy, which made people even more unwilling to accept the message he was trying to send. Maybe if Tess acknowledged the forced victim blame and atoned for her implied sins, Victorians would have been more open to her and her tragedy and the book would not be considered too scandalizing to be published in its uncensored version.


  1. Academic Brooklyn CUNY. “Phase the Sixth: The Convert. ” Accessed November 24, 2019. http://academic. brooklyn. cuny. edu/english/melani/novel_19c/hardy/purity. html. Britannica.
  2. “Victorian Era. ” Accessed November 23, 2019. https://www. britannica. com/event/Victorian-era.
  3. Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Ubervilles. London: Penguin Classics, 2003. Hardy, Thomas, Orel, Harold (eds. ).
  4. Thomas Hardy’s personal writings: prefaces, literary opinions, reminiscences. London: Macmillan, 1967.
  5. Heins, Marjorie. Sex, sin and blasphemy: a guide to America’s censorship wars. New York: New Press, 1998.
  6. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. “Censor. ” Accessed November 23, 2019. https://www. merriam-webster. com/dictionary/censor.
  7. Saunders, David. “Victorian Obscenity Law: Negative Censorship or Positive Administration,” Writing & Censorship in Britain (1992): 154-70
  8. Sova, D. B. Banned Books: Literature suppressed on sexual grounds. New York: Facts on File, 2006.
  9. Surhone, Lambert M. Obscene Publications Acts. Riga: VDM Publishing, 2013.


Read more