Exploring Literary Censorship through the Banning of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love

The spread of literary censorship and anti-obscenity legislations in the Victorian age, such as the British Obscenity Publication Act of 1857, reflect a reaction against the rapid changes in the society. These changes resulted from industrialization, urbanization, colonization, and immigration.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, England became the center of Western civilization. This followed a shift in England’s lifestyle which changed from a society which depended on the ownership of land to a society that depended on trade and manufacturing (Abrams 891).

England was the first industrialized country, and this industrialization resulted in many social and economic changes. Soon, England became the world’s dominant imperial power, establishing many colonies around the world. As a result, many Victorians suffered from anxiety and a sense of loss, “a sense too of being displaced persons in a world made alien by technological changes that had been exploited too quickly for the adaptive powers of the human psyche”(Abrams 892). Being part of the changing society, writers were also affected by these changes, and felt this sense of loss. This led to the emergence of critical publications, which were faced by strict censorship rules.      

            Literary censorship is defined as “the official prohibition or restriction of any type of expression believed to threaten the political, social, or moral order imposed by governmental, religious, or local powers”(Censorship in Twentieth-Century Literature: Introduction 1). There are two types of censorship; “preventive- exercised prior to publication- and punitive- applied after the work has been published” (Censorship in Twentieth-Century Literature: Introduction 1).

            Although it was strictly applied in the Victorian age, literary censorship laws were not the nascent of the period. In the middle ages, the Catholic Church issued the Catholic Church’s Index containing a list of publications which Catholics were forbidden to read. In 1857, the British Obscenity Publication Act was issued. This act, although Victorian in origin, laid the rules for censorship in both Britain and America. Later on, a number of groups, calling for strict literary censorship emerged. Among these groups was the Anthony Comstock’s New York Society for Suppression of Voice, formed in 1868.

During the Victorian age, and with the increasing number of books violating anti-obscenity laws, the British government imposed strict regulations on publication houses. Therefore, British writers resorted to French and Italian publication houses and “smuggled” the books into Britain (Censorship in Twentieth-Century Literature: Introduction).

Many books were banned in Britain under the Obscenity Publication Act of 1857. Banned books include: James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Radcliff Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow (1915) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), Henry Miller’s Tropic of the Cancer (1936), Emily Bronte’s Weathering Heights (1847), Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), in addition to many other novels, short stories, and poems. All these novels were banned on the grounds of obscenity, except for Radcliff’s novel, which was banned for containing a lesbian theme.             

Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence are two of the major literary figures of the Victorian age. Both writers can be considered as revolutionary writers, and many of their writings were censored and banned. Among these writings are Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Lawrence’s Women in Love. However, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love should not have been banned, as they were misread due to the narrow mindedness of the critics and the readers of the Victorian age, and their inability to understand the underlying meaning of the novels.

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was the first Victorian writer to excel as a novelist and as a poet. Thomas Hardy started his career as a novelist. However, during his novel writing career, he faced a lot of criticism and objection. Therefore, after completing his most controversial novels Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1896), he decided to give up novel writing and turn to poetry writing.

Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles was first published in 1891. The novel tells the tragedy of a young country girl, Tess, who is raped –or seduced- by a wealthy man, and the consequences that she has to face due to this act. She gets married to another man, Angel Clare, but he leaves her after he discovers her past, which leads to her final downfall and death. The publication of Tess of the D’Urbervilles raised a lot of controversy. Before appearing in its final form, Thomas Hardy had to change and omit many scenes which were said to violate the moral code. Despite the changes that Thomas Hardy made in his novel, it still aroused controversy and was described as an immoral novel. The main reason behind the censorship and banning of Tess of the D’Urbervilles was Hardy’s view of Tess as a pure woman, which appears in the novel’s subtitle “A Pure Woman”.

Before discussing the subtitle “A Pure Woman” and the controversy that it aroused, one should look at the main title of the novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles. This title sets Tess, by mentioning her first name, as a separate individual who has her own characteristics. The title is also ironic. Tess is given the last name of the D’Urbervilles, and her search for her origin as a D’Urberville is what started her tragedy.

The subtitle, “A Pure Woman” aroused a lot of controversy as it came to conflict with Victorian morality. Not only did Hardy include the act of rape –or seduction- in his novel, which in it self was refused in the Victorian age, but he also gave Tess the ability to continue her life after this act, and Hardy still called her “A Pure Woman”. However, the subtitle can be read in many ways. “A Pùre Woman” indicates that Tess has the characteristic of purity. “A Pure Womàn” indicates that Tess is a woman, and like all women Tess is placed within a natural and aesthetic class (Blake 690). Early critics of the novel considered only the first interpretation of the title, the one that describes Tess as pure. This misunderstanding of the subtitle resulted in the misunderstanding of the whole novel, and the underlying meaning of Tess’s Tragedy.

In using this subtitle, Hardy suggests the “connotation of a natural and aesthetic purity”, and by that, he “moves the meaning towards a new realm, that of the archetypical, essential, ideal, generic” (Blake 690/91). In his defense of the subtitle Hardy said:

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 as being in the hands of circumstances, not morally responsible, a mere corpse drifting with the current to her end (Blake 691).


Thus, Hardy distinguishes between the act and the intention. In his preface to the fifth edition, Hardy also defends the subtitle of the novel, and convicts readers of misunderstanding the accurate meaning of the word “pure”, he said:

[They: reviewers] reveal an inability to associate the idea of the subtitle adjective with any but the artificial and derivative meaning which has resulted to it from the ordinance of civilization. They ignore the meaning of the word in Nature, together with all aesthetic claims upon it, not to mention the spiritual interpretation afforded by the finest side of their own Christianity (Hardy, Preface viii).


Hardy emphasizes this idea further in the scene where Angel’s father reads a quote from the Bible which mentions the characteristics of a virtuous woman. She is the wife who “used her hands and her head and her heart for the good of others” (Hardy 336). In his defense of Tess, Hardy refers to this Biblical definition to confront those who interpret purity and chastity in terms of acts rather than intentions.      

            As a result, the early critics’ focus on the view of Tess as a pure woman does not take into consideration Tess’s side of the story. This is because of the double standards of sexual morality in the Victorian society. Alec D’Urberville, who was the one who raped –or seduced- Tess, was able to continue his life in the society without any difficulties, unlike Tess who suffered from alienation after this act: “It is Tess Durbeyfield, otherwise d’Urberville, somewhat changed-the same, but not the same; at the present stage of her existence living as a stranger and an alien here, though it was not a strange land that she was in” (Hardy 112). On another event in her life, Angel confesses to Tess about his Forty-eight-hour relationship with a stranger woman in London and expects Tess to forgive him, because it is now in his past and he will never repeat it.

            … He plunged into eight-and-forty hours’ dissipation with a stranger.

‘Happily I woke almost immediately to a sense of my folly,’ he continued. ‘I would have no more to say to her, and I came home. I have never repeated the offence. But I felt I should treat you with perfect frankness and honor, and I could not do so without doing this. Do you forgive me?’(Hardy 286).


Tess expected the same forgiveness from her husband; however, her confession to Angel was the cause of her final tragedy. This scene is a reflection of the Victorian society’s double standards where a woman was the one blamed for the deeds of men.

            Women in the Victorian age were supposed to fit certain social standards. This idea is reflected in Angel’s perception of Tess. He saw her as a pure virgin: “‘What a fresh and virginal daughter of nature she was,’ he said to himself” (Hardy 155). Angel typecasts Tess and places her in a certain social and sexual class (Blake 697), and he also associates purity with virginity. So, Hardy here is criticizing Angel’s typecasting of Tess, and tries to show how this typecast is superficial. Although Angel refuses his father’s Christian rules, he is still affected by their concept of purity. And “because this unhappy incident in her past, she had been subtly transformed in his eyes” (Glicksberg 23).  

            Sexual generalization is a recurring theme in Hardy’s novels. “Tess is the greatest among a number of Hardy’s works concerned with the loose fit between type and individual” (Blake 698). This indicates that Hardy is criticizing a common issue in the Victorian age. He also criticizes the double standards in the Victorian age: Tess is the one who face the consequence of her encounter with Alec, which is evident from the phase’s title “The Woman Pays”, and the consequence of Angel’s inability to forgive her. Therefore, Hardy’s use of the subtitle “A Pure Woman” can be considered as criticism of women’s status in the Victorian age. A woman was not considered an individual; all women were generalized in a certain sexual, social, and moral class. Even Angel, in the novel, who claims to be free from the social interpretation of religion, applies his generalization on Tess. This indicates that this was a characteristic of the whole society.

            Hence, it can be concluded that the banning of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles was the result of the misunderstanding of the connotations of Hardy’s view of Tess as “a pure woman”. However, this misunderstanding did not apply to one novel only. D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love is another example of a misunderstood novel.        

D.H. Lawrence, like Thomas Hardy, is one of the few writers to be well known and studied as a poet and as a novelist. In addition, Lawrence is similar to Hardy in his direct criticism of the society in which he lived. Lawrence caught the attention of observers as soon as he published his first novel The White Peacock, in 1911.

            D. H. Lawrence’s writings were criticism of the social status, the religious status, the political status, and the moral status in the Victorian age. He used his writings to shed light on the life of the oppressed working class, from which he came. “What set him [Lawrence] apart from his contemporaries was, as the critic Raymond Williams has noted, that he wrote from within these communities”(Wallace VIII). His writings also focused on the changes that the society needed, and the importance of these changes in creating the history of Britain.

Lawrence understood that history is not simply a matter of abstract movements, wars, revolutions, monarchies and governments, but that it is made and registered in the practices of everyday personal life. Even in sexual relationships, in the most private and intimate domain of the personal, historical changes make their mark (Wallace VI). 


Women in Love is considered Lawrence’s most mature novel. It is the sequent of Lawrence’s controversial novel The Rainbow, “which was banned on the grounds of obscenity after its publication in 1915” (Wallace VI). As a result, Lawrence faced difficulty in finding a publisher for Women in Love, which was finally published in 1921.

            Women in Love was banned for a brief period only. However, its censorship made it a target for critics, and due to the narrow mindedness of the Victorian critics, and the superficial standards for an accepted novel, Women in Love faced a lot of objection. These objections were focused on the description of sexual scenes, the pessimistic view of life, and the views of religion in this novel.

            In fact, the focus of the early critics was on the mere, superficial actions that take place between the four central characters in the novel. J. Middleton Murry is one of these critics. In his comments on Women in Love he said:

            Women in Love is five hundred pages of passionate vehemence, wave after wave of turgid, exasperated writing impelled towards some distant and invisible end;

the persistent underground beating of some dark and inaccessible sea in an underworld whose inhabitants are known by this alone, that they writhe continually, like the damned, in a frenzy of sexual awareness of one another.

… At the end we know one thing and one thing alone: that Mr. Lawrence believes, with all his heart and soul, that he is revealing to us the profound and naked reality of life, and it is a matter of life and death to him that he should persuade us that it is a matter of life and death to ourselves to know that these things are so (Andrews 21).      


However, for an accurate understanding of Women in Love, within its context, one has to read the underlying meanings of the interactions between these central characters, rather than simply following the novel’s plot.

            The narrative plot of Women in Love is very simple. It follows the love stories of two sisters, Ursula Brangwin’s relationship with Rupert Birkin and Gudren Brangwin’s relationship with Gerald Crich. However, in order to understand the story within its context, we have to examine the devices and paradoxes used in the novel, and connect them to the conditions of the period in which the novel was written. These devices include elaborate plots and structures, omniscient narrative voice, and detailed characterization. Only by understanding the function of these devices could the reader understand the relations between separate individuals and the social order in which they live (Wallace VII).  

Women in Love was being written when Europe was going through many advancements and developments in the areas of industry, science, and technology. At the same time these forces of “light” and “enlightenment” were in the hands of the upper class and were used in wars. This grew in the Europeans a sense of chaos and shock. “Enlightenment, then, had produced darkness, civilization had produced barbarism” (Wallace VI). The effect of the paradoxes and contrasts on Lawrence was reflected in the novel. In his analysis of Women in Love, F.H. Langman mentioned that “the novel is constructed on a simple pattern of contrast –a symmetry of negative and positive- between the complete failure of one love affair and the assured success of the other”(Andrews 81). Another example of the paradoxes in the novel are Gerald’s words to Gudren telling her to “put out the lights, we shall see better” (Lawrence 156).

Other important techniques used by Lawrence in Women in Love, which help the readers to understand the deep context of the novel, are the use of open-ended questions and statements, the long description of the characters’ thoughts, and the long speeches given by these characters. The use of such techniques stimulates the readers’ thinking, urging them to think of the underlying meanings that exist beyond the literal meaning of the words and images. For example, Ursula and Birkin’s conversation discussing life and people, in chapter XI “An Island”, expresses the sense of alienation that Birkin feels:

“… What people want is hate – hate and nothing but hate…But I abhor humanity, I wish it was swept away…”

“So you’d like everybody in the world destroyed?” said Ursula.

“I should indeed”

“And the world empty of people?”

“Yes truly. You yourself, don’t you find it a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people…?”(Lawrence 108).


This conversation is one of many similar conversations reflecting alienation. This sense of alienation within the novel’s characters is an expression of the alienation that the individuals in the Victorian age felt due to the confusing fast-paced changes that took place in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century.

            Although Lawrence’s use of paradoxes and contrasting words in Women in Love was not the reason behind the banning of the novel, the clear understanding of his use of such techniques allows readers to understand the underlying meaning of the novel. The banning of Women in Love was the result of the misunderstanding of the uses of language and images in the novel, mainly the images used to describe sensitive topics such as love, sex, and religion.  

            The images of love, sex and religion in Women in Love are interrelated. It is important to connect this relationship between the individuals’ image of love, sex, and religion with the conditions of Modern England. One of the most recurring themes in Modern English literature is “the search for the vanished God or for surrogates of divinity” (Andrews 83). Although this theme is mainly expressed by Birkin, who is the Lawrence figure in the novel, other characters add to this theme. Gerald, for example, seeks to find this lost belief in “distraction”. He tries to escape to art, sex, work, and power. However, the failure of these distractions is what brings about his death (Andrews 83).

            Birkin, who has the same skeptic thoughts about the belief in God and who is searching for new forms of belief, has a different experience. Birkin refuses to give in, despite his realization of the corrupt social and religious system. He goes on in his search for the true and eternal source of bond. This idea, like many ideas in the novel, is offered by Birkin’s contrast between marriage in its traditional, social context and the “mystic conjunction” or the “irrevocable pure unison”:

‘I do think,’ he said, ‘that the world is only held together by the mystic conjunction, the ultimate unison between people – a bond. And the immediate bond is between man and woman.’

‘But it’s such old hat,’ said Ursula. ‘Why should love be a bond? No, I’m not having any.’

‘If you are walking westward,’ he said, ‘you forfeit the northern and eastward and southern direction. If you admit a unison, you forfeit all the possibilities of chaos.’

 … ‘One must commit oneself to conjunction with the other – for ever. But it is not selfless – it is a maintaining of the self in mystic balance and integrity – like a star balanced with another star’ (Lawrence 129/30).


In these lines, Birkin is not revolting against marriage or love. He is criticizing the society’s wrong understanding of the union between a man and a woman. It must not be destructive for anyone of them. It is supposed to maintain each one’s identity as an individual.

            Since Birkin is Lawrence’s figure in the novel, the ideas that Birkin expresses are Lawrence’s messages to his readers. Lawrence, through Birkin, was criticizing the wrong “ideals” of the modern society. His intention was not destructive, but he criticized these ideals for the sake of reform. “The open story [the Birkin-Ursula story] is more inclusive of the two [the second is the closed Gerald-Gudren story], and to recognize this is to see the vital role in the novel of speculation, choice, quest, and incompletion” (Andrews 82). Thus, Lawrence’s contrast between the story of Gerald and Gudren on one hand and the story of Birkin and Ursula on the other, is an emphasis on the role of an individual’s choice, thought, and self-commitment in making a change in the society.

            The main concern of Lawrence’s Women in Love was the society and social reform. However, his use of a more “exploratory” approach rather than a “prescriptive” approach (Andrews 82), was the reason behind the misunderstanding of the novel. The “exploratory” approach is embodied in Lawrence’s use of paradoxes, elaborate plots, open-ended questions and statements, long description of characters’ thoughts, and the long speeches given by these characters. 

In conclusion, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love should not have been banned, as they were misread due to the narrow mindedness of the critics and the readers of the Victorian age, and their inability to understand the underlying meaning of the novels. The aim of the two novels was to criticize the social and moral status in the Victorian age. The purpose of this criticism is to find solutions for the problems of the age. This is evident in Hardy’s reference to St. Jerome’s well-known sentence: “If an offence come out of the truth, better it is that the offence come than that the truth be concealed” (Hardy, Explanatory Note v).

In addition, the two novels reflect the sense of shock and alienation which were dominant at the time due to the fast paced changes in the areas of industry, sciences, technology, and colonization. The conflict caused by these changes affected the whole society. However, the ones who were affected the most were the people of working class.

The conflict which resulted from the contrast between lightness and darkness, and civilization and barbarism, was heavily reflected in the literature of the Victorian age. Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Women in Love are two from many examples of novels which reflect this contrast. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and George Orwell’s 1984 are two other novels whose themes are based on this conflict.

The reveal of the truth, in my opinion, is the first step towards mending the society’s weaknesses. And because D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy lived the life of the working class in the Victorian age, they are the ones who were supposed to reflect their life condition if they wanted them to improve.




Work Cited



Abrams, M.H. Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th Ed. W.W. Norton. New York, 1993.

Andrews, W.T. Critics on D.H. Lawrence. George Allen and Unwin LTD. London: 40 Museum Street, 1979. 

Blake, Kathleen. “Pure Tess: Hardy on Knowing a Woman.” JSTOR 22.4 (1982): 689-705.

“Censorship in Twentieth-Century Literature: Introduction.” Twentieth-Century Literary     Criticism. Ed. Linda Pavlovski. Vol. 154. Gale Group, Inc., 2005. eNotes.com. 2006. 10 Dec, 2007 <http://www.enotes.com/twentieth-century-criticism/

Glicksberg, Charles I. The Sexual Revolution in Modern English Literature. Martinus Nijhoff. The Hague, 1973.

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Penguin Books. London: 80 Strand, 1994.

—. Explanatory Note to the First Edition. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. By Hardy. Penguin Books. London: 80 Strand, 1994. v.

—. Preface. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. By Hardy. Penguin Books. London: 80 Strand, 1994. vii-xi.

Kermode, Frank. D.H. Lawrence. The Viking Press. New York: 625 Madison Avenue, 1973. 

Lawrence, D.H. Women in Love. Wordsworth Edition Limited. Chatham: Kent, 1999.

Wallace, Jeff. Introduction. Women in Love. By D.H. Lawrence. Wordsworth Edition   Limited. Chatham: Kent, 1999. V-XVII.



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