'Netty Sargent's Copyhold' by Thomas Hardy

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She continued to live with her uncle, in the lonely house by the copse, a tall, spry young woman. Ah, how well one can remember her black hair and dancing eyes at that time, and her sly way of screwing up her mouth when she meant to tease ye! Well, she was hardly out of short frocks before the chaps were after her, and by long and by late she was courted by a young man whom perhaps you did not know – Jasper Cliff was his name – and, though she might have had many a better fellow, he so greatly took her fancy that 'twas Jasper or nobody for her. He was a selfish customer, always thinking less of what he was going to do than of what he was to gain by his doings. Jasper's eyes might have been fixed upon Netty, but his mind was upon her uncle's house; though he was fond of her in his way – I admit that.

This house, built by her great-great-grandfather, with its garden and little field, was copyhold-granted upon lives in the old way, and had been so granted for generations. Her uncle's was the last life upon the property, so that at his death, if there was no admittance of new lives, it would all fall into the hands of the lord of the manor. But 'twas easy to admit – slight "fine," as 'twas called, of a few pounds, was enough to entitle him to a new deed o' grant by the custom of the manor; and the lord could not hinder it.

Now there could be no better provision for his niece and only relative than a sure house over her head, and Netty's uncle should have seen to the renewal in time, owing to the peculiar custom of forfeiture by the dropping of the last life before the new fine was paid; for the squire was very anxious to get hold of the house and land; and every Sunday when the old man came into the church and passed the squire's pew, the squire would say, "A little weaker in his knees, a little crookeder in his back – and the readmittance not applied for, ha! ha! I shall be able to make a complete clearing of that corner of the manor some day!"

'Twas extraordinary, now we look back upon it, that old Sargent should have been so dilatory; yet some people are like it, and he put off calling at the squire's agent's office with the fine week after week, saying to himself, "I shall have more time next market-day than I have now." One unfortunate hinderance was that he didn't very well like Jasper Cliff, and as Jasper kept urging Netty, and Netty on that account kept urging her uncle, the old man was inclined to postpone the reliveing as long as he could, to spite the selfish young lover. At last old Mr. Sargent fell ill, and then Jasper could bear it no longer: he produced the fine money himself, and handed it to Netty, and spoke to her plainly.

"You and your uncle ought to know better. You should press him more. There's the money. If you let the house and ground slip between ye, I won't marry; hang me if I will! For folks won't deserve a husband that can do such things."

The worried girl took the money and went home, and told her uncle that it was no house no husband for her. Old Mr. Sargent pooh-poohed the money, for the amount was not worth consideration, but he did now bestir himself, for he saw she was bent upon marrying Jasper, and he did not wish to make her unhappy, since she was so determined. It was much to the squire's annoyance that he found Sargent had moved in the matter at last; but he could not gainsay it, and the documents were prepared (for on this manor the copyholders had writings with their holdings, though on some manors they had none). Old Sargent being now too feeble to go to the agent's house, the deed was to be brought to his house signed, and handed over as a receipt for the money; the counterpart to be signed by Sargent, and sent back to the squire.

The agent had promised to call on old Sargent for this purpose at five o'clock, and Netty put the money into her desk to have it close at hand. While doing this she heard a slight cry from her uncle, and turning round, saw that he had fallen forward in his chair. She went and lifted him, but he was unconscious, and unconscious he remained. Neither medicine nor stimulants would bring him to himself. She had been told that he might possibly go off in that way, and it seemed as if the end had come. Before she had started for a doctor his face and extremities grew quite cold and white, and she saw that help would be useless. He was stone-dead.

Netty's situation rose upon her distracted mind in all its seriousness. The house, garden, and field were lost – by a few hours – and with them a home for herself and her lover. She would not think so meanly of Jasper as to suppose that he would adhere to the resolution declared in a moment of impatience; but she trembled, nevertheless. Why could not her uncle have lived a couple of hours longer, since he had lived so long? It was now past three o'clock; at five the agent was to call, and, if all had gone well, by ten minutes past five the house and holding would have been securely hers for her own and Jasper's lives, these being two of the three proposed to be added by paying the fine. How that wretched old squire would rejoice at getting the little tenancy into his hands! He did not really require it, but constitutionally hated these tiny copyholds and leaseholds and freeholds, which made islands of independence in the fair, smooth ocean of his estates.

Then an idea struck into the head of Netty how to accomplish her object in spite of her uncle's negligence. It was a dull December afternoon, and the first step in her scheme – so the story goes, and I see no reason to doubt it – "

" ' Tis true as the light," affirmed Christopher Twink. "I was just passing by."

The first step in her scheme was to fasten the outer door, to make sure of not being interrupted. Then she set to work by placing her uncle's small, heavy oak table before the fire; then she went to her uncle's corpse, sitting in the chair as he had died – a stuffed arm-chair, on castors, and rather high in the seat, so it was told me – and wheeled the chair, uncle and all, to the table, placing him with his back towards the window, in the attitude of bending over the said oak table which I knew as a boy as well as I know any piece of furniture in my own house. On the table she laid the large family Bible open before him, and placed his forefinger on the page; and then she opened his eyelids a bit, and put on him his spectacles, so that from behind he appeared for all the world as if he were reading the Scriptures. Then she unfastened the door and sat down, and when it grew dark she lit a candle, and put it on the table beside her uncle's book.

Folk may well guess how the time passed with her till the agent came, and how, when his knock sounded upon the door, she nearly started out of her skin – at least, that's as it was told me. Netty promptly went to the door.

"I am sorry, sir," she says, under her breath; "my uncle is not so well to-night, and I'm afraid he can't see you."

"H'm! – that's a pretty tale," says the steward. "So I've come all this way about this trumpery little job for nothing!"

"Oh no, sir – I hope not," says Netty. "I suppose the business of granting the new deed can be done just the same?"

"Done? Certainly not. He must pay the renewal money, and sign the parchment in my presence."

She looked dubious. "Uncle is so dreadful nervous about law business," says she, "that, as you know, he's put it off and put it off for years; and now to-day really I've feared it would verily drive him out of his mind. His poor three teeth quite chattered when I said to him that you would be here soon with the parchment writing. He always was afraid of agents, and folks that come for rent, and such like."

"Poor old fellow – I'm sorry for him. Well, the thing can't be done unless I see him and witness his signature."

"Suppose, sir, that you see him sign, and he don't see you looking at him? I'd soothe his nerves by saying you weren't strict about the form of witnessing, and didn't wish to come in. So that it was done in your bare presence it would be sufficient, would it not? As he's such an old, shrinking, shivering man, it would be a great considerateness on your part if that would do."

"In my bare presence would do, of course – that's all I come for. But how can I be a witness without his seeing me?"

"Why, in this way, sir; if you'll oblige me by just stepping here." She conducted him a few yards to the left, till they were opposite the parlor window. The blind had been left up purposely, and the candle-light shone out upon the garden bushes. Within the agent could see, at the other end of the room., the back and side of the old man's head, and his shoulders and arm, sitting with the book and candle before him, and his spectacles on his nose, as she had placed him.

He's reading his Bible, as you see, sir," she says, quite in her meekest way.

"Yes. I thought he was a careless sort of man in matters of religion."

"He always was fond of his Bible," Netty assured him. "Though I think he's nodding over it just as this moment. However, that's natural in an old man, and unwell. Now you could stand here and see him sign, couldn't you, sir, as he's such an invalid?"

"Very well," said the agent, lighting a cigar. "You have ready by you the merely nominal sum you'll have to pay for the admittance, of course?"

"Yes, said Netty. "I’ll bring it out." She fetched the cash, wrapped in paper, and handed it to him, and when he had counted it the steward took from his breast-pocket the precious parchments and gave one to her to be signed.

"Uncle's hand is a little paralyzed," she said. "And what with his being half asleep, too, really I don't know what sort of a signature he'll be able to make."

"Doesn't matter, so that he signs."

"Might I hold his hand?"

"Aye, hold his hand, my young woman – that will be near enough."

Netty re-entered the house, and the agent continued smoking outside the window. Now came the ticklish part of Netty's performance. The steward saw her put the inkhorn before her uncle, and touch his elbow as if to arouse him, and speak to him, and spread out the deed; when she had pointed to show him where to sign she dipped the pen and put it into his hand. To hold his hand she artfully stepped behind him, so that the agent could only see a little bit of his head and the hand she held; but he saw the old man's hand trace his name on the document. As soon as 'twas done she came out to the steward with the parchment in her hand, and the steward signed as witness by the light from the parlor window. Then he gave her the deed signed by the squire, and left; and next morning Netty told the neighbors that her uncle was dead in his bed.

"She must have undressed him and put him there."

"She must. Oh, that girl had a nerve, I can tell ye! Well to cut a long story short, that's how she got back the house and field that were, strictly speaking, gone from her; and by getting them, got her a husband. When the old squire was dead, and his son came into the property, what Netty had done began to be whispered about, for she had told a friend or two. But Netty was a pretty young woman, and the squire's son was a pretty young man at that time, and wider-minded than his father, having no objection to little holdings; and he never took any proceedings against her.

There was now a lull in the discourse, and soon the van descended the hill leading into the long straggling village. When the houses were reached the passengers dropped off one by one, each at his or her own door. Arrived at the inn, the returned emigrant secured a bed, and having eaten a light meal, sallied forth upon the scene he had known so well in his early days. Though flooded with the light of the rising moon, none of the objects wore the attractiveness in this their real presentation that had ever accompanied their images in the field of his imagination when he was more than two thousand miles removed from them. The peculiar charm attaching to an old village in an old country, as seen by the eyes of an absolute foreigner, was lowered in his case by magnified expectations from infantine memories. He walked on, looking at this chimney and that old wall, till he came to the churchyard, which he entered.

The head-stones, whitened by the moon, were easily decipherable; and now for the first time Lackland began to feel himself amid the village community that he had left behind him five-and-thirty years before. Here, besides the Sallets, the Darths, and others of the Pawles, the Privetts, the Sargents, and others of whom he had just heard, were names he remembered even better than those: the Jickses, and the Crosses, and the Knights, and the Olds. Doubtless representatives of these families, or some of them, were yet among the living; but to him they would all be as strangers. Far from finding his heart ready-supplied with roots and tendrils here, he perceived that in returning to this spot it would be incumbent upon him to re-establish himself from the beginning, precisely as though he had never known the place, nor it him. Time had not condescended to wait his pleasure, nor local life his greeting.

The figure of Mr. Lackland was seen at the inn, and in the village street, and in the fields and land about Upper Longpuddle, for a few days after his arrival, and then, ghost-like, it silently disappeared. He had told some of the villagers that his immediate purpose in coming had been fulfilled by a sight of the place, and by conversation with its inhabitants: but that his ulterior purpose – of coming to spend his latter days among them – would probably never be carried out. It is now a dozen or fifteen years since his visit was paid, and his face has not again been seen.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Netty Sargent's Copyhold: A Literary Criticism and Interpretation

Thomas Hardy's "Netty Sargent's Copyhold" is a short story that explores themes of love, class, and social status. The story is set in the small village of Cresscombe, where the protagonist, Netty Sargent, lives with her father, a tenant farmer. The story begins with Netty's father receiving a letter from the landlord, Mr. Benvill, informing him that his lease on the land will not be renewed. This news throws Netty's life into chaos, as she must decide whether to stay in Cresscombe or leave with her fiancé, a carpenter named Job.

The story is a powerful commentary on the rigid class structure of Victorian England, where social status was determined by birth and wealth. Netty's father is a tenant farmer, a position that places him firmly in the lower class. His lease on the land is not renewed because Mr. Benvill wants to sell the land to a wealthy gentleman, Mr. Fowles. This decision is made without any consideration for the impact it will have on the Sargent family, who have lived and worked on the land for generations.

As the story progresses, Netty's dilemma becomes clear. She loves Job and wants to leave with him, but she is torn between her love for him and her loyalty to her father and her home. Her decision is complicated by the fact that she is pregnant, a fact that she keeps hidden from everyone except Job. This pregnancy adds a sense of urgency to Netty's decision, as she must consider not only her own future but also the future of her unborn child.

One of the most striking aspects of the story is the way that Hardy portrays Netty's emotions. The language he uses is simple and direct, yet it conveys a depth of feeling that is both powerful and moving. For example, when Netty first receives the news about the lease, Hardy writes: "Netty's heart sank within her. She felt as though a great weight had been lifted from her, leaving her empty and alone." This description captures the sense of despair and loneliness that Netty feels, as she realizes that her life is about to be uprooted.

Another aspect of the story that is worth exploring is the way that Hardy uses the natural environment to convey the mood and emotions of the characters. For example, when Netty and Job are walking through the woods, Hardy writes: "The trees seemed to lean towards them, as if they were trying to shelter them from the outside world." This description creates a sense of intimacy and closeness between the two characters, as if they are in their own private world.

Throughout the story, Hardy uses vivid imagery and symbolism to convey deeper meanings. For example, when Netty goes to see Mr. Benvill to plead for her father's lease, she wears a white apron, which symbolizes her purity and innocence. This imagery is juxtaposed with Mr. Benvill's black suit, which symbolizes his power and authority. The contrast between the two images highlights the power dynamic between the two characters.

Another example of the use of symbolism is the way that Hardy describes the landscape. The land is described as "sour and broken," which mirrors the sense of despair and hopelessness that Netty feels. The contrast between the bleak landscape and the bright future that Netty dreams of with Job highlights the tension between her desires and the reality of her situation.

In conclusion, "Netty Sargent's Copyhold" is a powerful and moving story that explores themes of love, class, and social status. Hardy's use of language, imagery, and symbolism creates a rich and complex world that draws the reader in and leaves a lasting impression. The story is a testament to Hardy's skill as a writer, and it continues to resonate with readers today.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Thomas Hardy's "Netty Sargent's Copyhold" is a classic piece of prose that has stood the test of time. This short story is a perfect example of Hardy's ability to create vivid characters and settings that transport the reader to another time and place. In this analysis, we will explore the themes, characters, and setting of "Netty Sargent's Copyhold" and how they contribute to the overall meaning of the story.

The story is set in the English countryside in the mid-19th century. The main character, Netty Sargent, is a young woman who lives with her father, a farmer who is struggling to make ends meet. Netty is a hardworking and independent woman who takes care of her father and the farm. She is also in love with a young man named Jim, who works on a neighboring farm.

The story begins with Netty's father receiving a letter from a lawyer informing him that he has inherited a copyhold, a type of land tenure that was common in England at the time. The copyhold is a small piece of land that is owned by the lord of the manor, but the tenant has the right to use it for a certain period of time. The copyhold is a valuable asset, and Netty's father is overjoyed at the news.

However, the joy is short-lived when the lord of the manor, Mr. Twycott, informs them that he wants to buy the copyhold back from them. Mr. Twycott is a wealthy man who is used to getting what he wants, and he is determined to buy back the copyhold at any cost. Netty's father is torn between his desire to keep the copyhold and his fear of angering Mr. Twycott.

The conflict between Netty's father and Mr. Twycott sets the stage for the rest of the story. The themes of power, class, and money are central to the story. Mr. Twycott represents the wealthy and powerful class, while Netty's father represents the struggling working class. The copyhold is a symbol of the power struggle between these two classes.

Netty is caught in the middle of this power struggle. She is torn between her love for Jim and her loyalty to her father. She is also aware of the class differences between herself and Jim. Jim is a working-class man, while Netty is the daughter of a farmer. Their love is forbidden by the class system, and this adds to the tension of the story.

The setting of the story is also important. Hardy's descriptions of the English countryside are vivid and detailed. He paints a picture of a rural community that is struggling to survive in a rapidly changing world. The land is a valuable asset, but it is also a source of conflict and tension. The beauty of the countryside is contrasted with the harsh realities of life for the working class.

Hardy's use of language is also noteworthy. His prose is rich and poetic, and he uses metaphors and symbolism to convey deeper meanings. For example, the copyhold is a symbol of the power struggle between the classes, but it is also a symbol of the land itself. The land is a source of life and sustenance, but it is also a source of conflict and tension.

In conclusion, "Netty Sargent's Copyhold" is a classic piece of prose that explores themes of power, class, and money. The characters are vivid and well-drawn, and the setting is rich and detailed. Hardy's use of language is poetic and symbolic, and he conveys deeper meanings through metaphors and imagery. This story is a timeless reminder of the struggles of the working class and the power of the land.

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