Though not one of Hardy's best-known novels, The Return of the Native remains firmly of his canon, and is a dense summation of the preoccupations that run through all of his work.
The Return of the Native was first printed as serial fiction in Belgravia magazine, from January to December 1878. Each installment featured a one page illustration by Arthur Hopkins, brother of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. The two men corresponded extensively over the detail of the illustrations, to ensure that they properly complemented Hardy’s intentions. The novel was also serialised in the U.S. in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, from February 1878 to January 1879.
The novel was first published as one volume in a print run of one thousand copies, in November of 1878. It was not a big seller - over 100 copies of this original print run remained unsold five years later. By the time it was published in this form, the story had gone through dramatic revisions, and Hardy again revised the novels in 1895 and 1912. The Return of the Native was not as well received as Hardy’s earlier works, but has remained a part of the literary canon.
Hardy initially encountered some controversy when he tried to get the novel published in the magazine Cornhill. Its editor, Leslie Stephen, could obviously not pre-read the later segments before agreeing to publish it, and was concerned from the early segments about the inappropriateness of the suggestion of premarital sex between Eustacia and others. This is why Hardy turned to Belgravia.
It is believed that Stephen was given an early draft of the novel, with several character and plot ideas that Hardy later amended for the final serialisation and print run. Many of the characters had different names in the early draft: Clym was called Hugh, and his surname varied between Britton and Bretton. Wildeve had the name Toogood, and Eustacia was named Avice. Further, Hardy significantly revised the relationships between the characters. Diggory Venn originally existed as the grandchild of Grandfer Cantle and the nephew of Christian Cantle. Johnny Nunsuch was called Johnny Orchard, and as a result was not directly related to Susan Nunsuch. Captain Vye was Lieutenant Vye, Eustacia’s father rather than grandfather. Most controversial was the original idea that Thomasin and Clym would be siblings.
Eustacia’s character was also more heavily linked to the supernatural in the early drafts. References to lines spoken by the witches in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth were cut upon revision, and Eustacia’s soul went from being described as "lurid red" to "flame like." There still remained, however, supernatural elements which some readers may have found troubling; Susan Nunsuch’s construction of Eustacia's effigy is an example. This episode is not directly linked to Eustacia’s death, nor is it mentioned again, but it does happen immediately before she dies. This implies that Hardy’s revisions involved tempering the original implication of links with a mystical, even devilish, underworld.
Some of the revisions certainly affected the sincerity and motivations of various characters. Clym Yeobright was originally envisioned as a country parson, and his travels took him to Budmouth rather than to Paris. This idea is frankly more believable than the decision Hardy ultimately made, that Clym had been a diamond salesman. This latter vocation is at odds with his scant understanding of human wants and desires after returning to Egdon, but was likely given as added explanation for Eustacia's fascination with him.
Similarly, Wildeve was made more respectable in the final draft. In earlier drafts, more attention was paid to Wildeve's "lady-killing career," and Wildeve’s treatment of Thomasin at the beginning was only one of several times he had toyed with her affections (33). Further, his manipulation of Christian in the gambling scene was also revised to seem more serendipitous than originally planned.
The novel's original structure alluded to Greek tragedy by using a five act format and elevated central characters, but revisions diminished the scale of this. Hardy reworked the five book structure, and limited the extent to which the Vyes and Yeobrights were socially superior. The final text is six books long, and these more affluent families are more integrated into the community: Captain Vye drinks at the Quiet Woman Inn, and Mrs Yeobright throws a Christmas celebration for the whole of Egdon.
Whatever challenges Hardy faced in revising to ensure publication while still retaining the integrity of his original vision, The Return of the Native remains a compelling description of love and passion, and presents the noble and unchanging Wessex landsape as a backdrop to these perennial human dilemmas.