Hardy's novel tells the story of how John and Joan Durbeyfield became convinced that they are descended from the ancient family of d'Ubervilles. They encourage their daughter Tess to cement a connection with the Stoke-d'Uberville family of local gentry (who it turns out are themselves not entitled to the illustrious name) and she is raped by their son, the unprincipled Alec. It is a connection that returns to haunt her after she has married the pure parson's son Angel Clare.
Tess first appeared in a serialized—and bowdlerized—form in The Graphic in 1891. A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented, as Hardy subtitled the work, represented a direct challenge to conventional notions of sexuality and femininity—and, though conventions have radically changed in the past century, the character of Tess has remained a challenging one. In her introduction Maier argues that we should not see Tess merely as a passive victim; she suggests that a combination of sexual vigour and moral rigour makes Tess not just one of the greatest but also one of the strongest women in the canon of English literature.