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Blunt Relations

The general portrait of the country people of Haworth which is given by Mrs. Gaskell in her life of Charlotte Brontë very closely fitted the character of my Yorkshire relations if one allows for the taming effects of lower-middle-class gentility. Haworth-like tales were common among the Sawdons. They were proud, violent, egotistical. They had—according to your view—either a strong belief in the plain virtues or a rock-like moral conceit. Everything was black or white to them. They were blunt to your face, practical and unimaginative, kind yet iron-minded, homely and very hospitable; but they suspected good manners, they flayed you with their hard and ironical gaze. They were also frugal, close and calculating about money—they were always talking about “brass”—and they looked on outsiders with scorn. They were monosyllabic talkers but their silences concealed strong passions that (as Mrs. Gaskell said) lasted for life, whether that passion was of love or hatred. Their friendship or their enmity was for ever. To listen to their talk was like listening to a fire crackling. They had no heroes. They were cautious and their irony was laconic.

In the summer my grandparents took a holiday, paying for it out of a few preaching engagements. We took the train across Yorkshire to the East Riding. For the first week we would stay with my great uncle Arthur and his wife Sarah, who was my grandmother’s sister. After the placid small town life of Sedbergh, York was a shock. We were in an aristocratic yet industrial city. York is the finest walled city in England and it is dominated by the Minister. In its vast medieval dignity this is, for me, the noblest and most grave of English cathedrals. Its window glass is famous. The fact that the edifice is known as the Minster and not as the Cathedral gives it—to a northern ear—a prestige which is equaled only by Westminster Abbey in London.

My relations were working-class people. My grandmother and her sister were daughters of a small tailor—he probably called himself a “practical tailor”—in Kirbymoorside. They were expectant heiresses in a very modest way, but both had married beneath them. Very contentedly too: the difference cannot have been very great and was bridged by the relative classlessness of life in the north—relative, I mean, to life in the south.

We arrived at one of an ugly row of workers’ houses, with their doors on the street, close to the gas works, with the industrial traffic grinding by. A child could see that the Minister and his wife thought themselves many cuts above their York relations. Great Uncle Arthur was a cabinet maker in a furniture factory. The Minister glittered blandly at him and Uncle Arthur looked as though he was going to give a spit on the floor near the Minister with a manual worker’s scorn.

Great Uncle Arthur was a stunted and bandy man, with a dark, sallow, and strong-boned face. He looked very yellow. He had a heavy head of wiry hair as black as coals, ragged eyebrows, and a horrible long black beard like a crinkled mat of public hair. A reek of tobacco, varnish, and wood-shavings came off him; he had large fingers with split unclean nails. The first thing he did when he got home from work was to put on a white apron, strap a pair of carpet knee pads to his trousers, pick up a hammer or screwdriver and start on odd jobs round the house. He was always hammering something and was often up a ladder. His great yellow teeth gave me the idea that he had a machine of some kind in his mouth, and that they were fit to bite nails; in fact, he often pulled out a nail or two. He seemed to chew them.

Uncle Arthur’s wife was Grandma’s eldest sister and in every way unlike her. She was tall, big-boned, very white-faced and hollow-eyed and had large, loose, laughing teeth like a horse’s or a skeleton’s. These have ever since seemed to me the sign of hilarious good nature in a woman. Though she looked ill—breathing the fumes of the gas works which filled the house cannot have been very good for her—she was jolly, hard-working, and affectionate. She and Uncle Arthur were notorious (in the family) for the incredible folly of adoring each other. She doted on her dark, scowling, argumentative, hammering little gnome: it seemed that two extraordinary sets of teeth had fallen in love with each other.

For myself, Uncle Arthur’s parlour, Aunt Sarah’s kitchen, and the small backyard were the attractions. The backyard was only a few feet square but he grew calceolarias there. It gave on to an alley one wall of which was part of the encircling wall of York. To Uncle Arthur who knew every stone of the city I owe my knowledge and love of it. He loved to roll off the names of the “Bars” or city gates—Micklegate Bar, Bootham Bar, Monk Bar, and Walmgate—and the Minster was his personal pride. From his backyard one could go up the steps only a few feet and walk along the battlements and shoot imaginary arrows from the very spot where the Yorkists had shot them; and one could look down on the white roses of York in the gardens near the Minster and look up to the two great towers where the deep bells sounded in their phenomenal colloquy over the roofs. They moved me then; they move me still.

UNCLE ARTHUR’S HOUSE had a stuffy smell in which the smells of the gas works and the railway beyond it were mixed with the odor of camphor and camphor wax. The rooms were poorly lit by gas jets burning under grubby white globes; air did not move easily, for there were heavy curtains in the narrow passageway to the stairs. But the pinched little place contained Uncle’s genius and the smell of camphor indicated it. The cabinet maker was a naturalist—he used to speak of Nature as if she were some loud fancy woman he went about with and whom his wife had got used to. On the walls of his kitchen hung pretty cases of butterflies and also of insects with hard little bubble bodies of vermilion and green—creatures he had caught, killed, and mounted himself. In the lower half of the kitchen window he had fixed a large glass case of ferns in which he kept a pet toad. You put a worm on the toad’s table—one of Uncle’s collection of fossils—and the spotted creature came out and snapped it up.

The smell of camphor was strongest in the small front parlour. A lot of space in the window corner was taken up by another large glass case containing a stuffed swan. This enormous white bird, its neck a little crooked and sooty, was sitting on a nest of sticks and seemed to be alive, for every time a dray, a lorry, or a distant train passed, it shook and—one judged by the hard gloss of its beady eye—with indignation. In two other corners there were cabinets containing Uncle’s collection of birds’ eggs; and on the mantelpiece was a photograph of Uncle being let down by a rope from the cliffs of Whitby where he was collecting eggs under a cloud of screaming gulls.

Granda was the sedentary and believing man; Uncle was the skeptic and man of knowledge. He had been born very poor and had had next to no schooling. He told me he could not read or write until he was a grown man. A passion for education seized him. He took to learning for its own sake, and not in order to rise in the world. He belonged—I now see—to the dying race of craftsmen. So he looked for a book that was suited to his energetic, yet melancholy and quasi-scientific temperament. At last, he found it: he taught himself to read by using Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. This rambling and eccentric compendium of the illnesses of the brain and heart was exactly suited to his curious mind. He reveled in it.

Look it up in Burton, lad,” he’d say when I was older. “What’s old Burton say?”

He would quote it all round the house. Burton came into every argument. And he would add, from his own experience, a favorite sentence:

Circumstances alters cases.”

Burton was Uncle Arthur’s emancipation: it set him free of the tyranny of the Bible in chapel-going circles. There were all his relations—especially the Minister—shooting texts at one another while Uncle Arthur sat back, pulled a nail or two out of his mouth and put his relatives off target with bits of the Anatomy. He had had to pick up odds and ends of Latin and Greek because of the innumerable notes in those languages, and a look of devilry came into his eyes under their shaggy black brows. On top of this he was an antiquarian, a geologist, a bicyclist, and an atheist. He claimed to have eaten sandwiches on the site of every ruined castle and abbey in Yorkshire. He worshipped the Minster and was a pest to curators of museums and to librarians.

In short, Uncle Arthur was a crank. When his brother-in-law and he sat down in the parlour they looked each other over warily. The swan shook irritably in its glass case as they argued and there they were: the man of God and the humanist, the believer and the skeptic: the workman who had left his class and the workman who scorned to leave it. The Minister said Uncle Arthur was naïve and a joke; Uncle Arthur regarded the Minister as a snob, a manual worker who had gone soft and who was hardly more than his wife’s domestic servant. The Minister was prone to petty gossip as the clergy are apt to be. Uncle Arthur said “Let’s stop the little tattle.” He wanted a serious row. He puffed out his chest and grinned sarcastically at his brother-in-law; the Minister responded with a bland clerical snort. They were united in one thing: they had both subscribed to the saying, often heard in Yorkshire: “Dont tha’ marry money, go where money is.” They had married heiresses.

I FANCY Uncle Arthur’s atheism was weakening in these days, and that he may have been moving already toward spiritualism, theosophy, and the wisdom of the East—the philosopher’s melancholy. There was a ruinous drift to religion in these northerners. I did not know that, in this room, there was to occur, before very long, an event that would have a calamitous influence on my family but one that would play a part in starting my career as a writer. Uncle Arthur had two sons and a daughter. She was a brisk, jolly Yorkshire girl who was having a struggle with her parents. She was about to be married and after she came home from work her idea was to go round to the house she and her fiancé had found a few streets away. He would be painting and papering it and she would have more things like fire irons, or a coal bucket, to take there. Uncle Arthur and Aunt Sarah thought this might lead to familiarities before marriage and would not allow her to go unless she had one of her brothers with her, but they were rarely at home.

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