The subtitle is important to know about because it was part of a tremendous controversy that Hardy's book ignited surrounding what was called by his Victorian society "the Woman question." This question reflected Victorian society's attempt to define the place and role of womankind. The dominant theory at the time was that woman should remain in and govern the private sphere of the home being both, and contradictorily, the pure angel of the hearth and beyond the ability of being properly educated. Mankind, on the other hand, should be active in and govern the public sphere of business, finance, science, philosophy and teaching religion. The angelic services and unclouded purity of womankind was central to the "Woman" debate.
This leads us to Hardy's subtitle for Tess. One of Hardy's aims in his novel, which some critics characterized as subversive, was to expose the inner thoughts, psychology and capacity of womankind through his heroine, Tess. Among other things, he thus shows Tess to be pure of thought, motive, soul and spirit. With this characterization of Tess as pure, he attacks the opposition to womankind exemplified by the position on "the woman question" that women are fatally fallen from purity when taken advantage by men who feel no sting of remonstrance from either society or family for promiscuous acts. As a bolster to his theme of where a woman's true purity lies, he gave Tess the subtitle A Pure Woman. The entire title element reads: Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented by Thomas Hardy.
And as each and all of them were warmed without by the sun, so each had a private little sun for her soul to bask in; some dream, some affection, ... some remote and distant hope which .... They were all cheerful, and many of them merry. [Tess was so modest, so expressive, she ... looked so soft in her thin white gown...
Thomas Hardy, although a reputed and published writer had to rewrite sections of his original draft of Tess of the d'Urbervilles as it was considered unsuitable by Victorian publishers and- "quite scandalous"- due to the inappropriate contents to which young people may be exposed. Publishers
denounced his frank...depiction of sex, criticism of organized religion, and dark pessimism.
However, having secured himself a publisher, he did revert to his original draft.
The subtitle, A Pure Woman, was also a sticking point and Hardy was quite disheartened by all the criticism. The nature of the novel where a young milkmaid eventually murders her seducer seems not to lend itself to such a subtitle though Hardy's point was to contradict the social standard.
Hardy's attempt to expose the wrongs of the era apparently were too subtle to grasp and understand. The innocence of Tess was not a consideration - only her actions.