Before it was even published as a novel, The Return of the Native had already been rejected by Leslie Stephen, the editor of the prestigious Cornhill Magazine. Stephen objected to the hint of ex- tramarital sex and found it inappropriate for a family magazine. The serial ran in Belgravia, which, according to Desmond Hawkins, Hardy found to be an inferior publication.
The initial critical response to the novel was mixed. A review in Athenaeum deemed it “distinctly inferior to anything of his we have yet read.” The reviewer also took issue with the language used by the characters, which seemed “pitched throughout in too high a key to suit the talkers.” That same month critic W. E. Henley reviewed the book in The Academy. He found the work highly artificial but was reluctant to say so, because Hardy himself seemed sincere. On a positive note, he praised the opening descriptions of the heath and of Eustacia to be among the best things written in the English language—but that was not enough to make up for the weaknesses. Henley summarized all that was good and bad about Hardy’s work in one seemingly endless sentence:
. . . that he rarely makes you laugh and never makes you cry, and that his books are valuable and interesting rather as the outcome of a certain mind than as pictures of society or studies in human nature; that his tragedy is arbitrary and accidental rather than heroic and inevitable; and that, rare artist as he is, there is something wanting in his personality, and he is not quite a great man.
More than a decade later, Francis Adams pointed out the same strengths and weaknesses. Of Hardy’s characterization of the dialogue of country maids, he wrote, “Nothing more ridiculous than this has been done by any writer of anything approaching ability in our time, and it is as false in characterization as it is absurd in conception.” He went on to praise Hardy’s artistic gift for making characters’ environments reflect in their personalities, “a single harmonious growth of spiritual and natural circumstances.”
Negative critical responses did not seem to trouble Hardy as much as the artistic constraints of having to please Victorian sensibilities. In 1894, the first book-length analyses of Hardy’s fiction were published: Lionel Johnson’s The Art of Thomas Hardy and Annie Macdonell’s Thomas Hardy. Hardy mentioned them in a letter to a friend that year: “ . . . are too laudatory. They are not in bad taste as a whole, if one concedes that they had to be written, which I do not.” It is generally accepted that he wrote no novels after 1895 because of the changes that he had to make to every piece in order to tone down any suggestion of sexual passion.
In the decade after his death, Hardy’s reputation declined. His fiction was too outdated to hold much interest—it was half a century since Return of the Native, and in the meantime modernism had redefined literary tastes. T. S. Eliot asserted that Hardy was “indifferent even to the prescripts of good writing: he wrote sometimes overpoweringly well, but always very carelessly; at times his style touches sublimity without ever having passed through the stage of being good.”
His literary reputation soon revived, though, when critics started to take a new look at his work after the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of his birth in 1940. Since then, his six major novels— Far From the Madding Crowd, Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge,The Woodlanders, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure— have held significant places in the ranks of English-language literature.