At the end of the 19th century when Thomas Hardy was writing novels (Tess of the D’Urbervilles was published in 1891), the Industrial Revolution was already beginning to change milleniums of settled routine, impacting society and culture in ways no one had predicted. Most people were, as usual, slow to catch on but the artists of the turn into the 20th century were struck by the changes as if by a bolt of unwelcome lightning.
In the 18th century, the Age of Reason had already demoted Christianity and other primitive religions to the status of crackpot cults and deified the Mind. Now, with the Industrial Revolution disconnecting humanity from the ancient rhythms of rural life, there came a fervent response to the emotionless rationalists, a worship of “the natural” as opposed to the man-made. Led by Rousseau’s rather silly elevation of the “savage” into a primordial, essential human value, the Naturalists praised the artlessness and honesty of Nature untampered by human hands or social conventions. In its purity, they said, it is a reflection of God Himself and cannot be improved upon.
In retrospect they, too, were silly and terribly naive but they had hold of a genuine and important truth nevertheless – that, contrary to the teachings of Christianity as they’d been dogmatically defined for centuries, the human body was neither sinful nor “dirty” and shouldn’t be suppressed and strenuously restricted but rather loosed from its ludicrous theocratic bonds to be the joyous nexus of life that God had always meant it to be.
Naturally (pun intended) this included sex.