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 …

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