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.
The clever girl saw that I was the answer and petted me so that I was delighted to go with her. I was the chaperone and I fell in love with her. It piqued me that when we got to the house, her young man would spring out at her from the front door and start kissing and cuddling her. “Oh, give over,” she cried out and said “I’m going to marry him,” pointing to me. I did not leave them alone for a minute. A bed had come to the house and the excited young man soon had us all bouncing up and down on it, rumpling my hair with one hand while he tickled her with the other, till she was as red as a berry. At last the wedding day came and I was sad. I longed to be with them and wanted to be their child and was sad that I was left out of it. Aunt Sarah teased me afterward and said that since I was in the photograph of the wedding group, I was married too. This cured me of my passion. For at home in London we had a book, bought by my father, called Marriage on Two Hundred a year which, like my mother’s song “At Trinity Church I met me doom” caused words between my father and mother. I was beginning to form a glum opinion of married life. Why did these tall, adult animals go in for what—it seemed—was nothing but worry?
Uncle Arthur’s eldest son was a tall, sad young man, with puffy cheeks. Whenever I was in York and he was at home he took me out rowing on the Ouse. Once the boat got caught in the willows and began to sink at the bow. He was a hero to me for he was a post office sorter who worked on the night mail train to London. He had the superb job of putting out the mail bags into the pick-up nets beside the line, as the train screamed through at sixty miles an hour.
It was the other son, a lithographer whom I saw only once, who made the strongest and most disturbing impression on me. There are certain pictures that remain with one all one’s life and feed disquieting thoughts into it. I was taken to a poorish house in the winter one evening and there he sat, a pallid and ailing man, with blue circles under his eyes, with medicine bottles beside him. Several young children were playing on the floor: the mother was giving the bottle to a new baby. There was—to me—the sickly smell of young children which I hated, for being the eldest of my family, I had often to look after my brothers and sister when they were tiny. This second cousin of mine was very ill, he had lost his job as a lithographer because of his illness, and looked as if he were dying. In fact, he was no more than a nervous sickly dyspeptic, one of the victims of the Yorkshire diet of pastry, cakes, and strong tea; and my grandfather said with disapproval that he was an artist. One was shown a lot of people in Yorkshire who were “warnings”: after the picture of Crippen the murderer in the papers, there was the town drunk of Sedbergh, the town fighter, the town gambler. This cousin of mine was the warning against the miseries of art, unwise marriage and failure. (When I was eighteen I wanted to be a painter and the sick smell, above all the sensation of defeat and apathy in that room, worried me.) Years passed. I must have been about eleven when father brought home the news that the dying Cousin Dick had been suddenly and miraculously cured by Christian Science. This was the calamitous influence—yet not without its benefits—which was to affect my early literary life.
IT WAS ON ONE of these stays in York that my grandfather took me along the walls to the Minster and showed me the famous stained glass. I had already had many pernickety tours with Uncle Arthur, who pointed out bits of joinery and stone masonry, and explained every historical detail. He was a connoisseur of carving and especially of tombs. It was a sight to see him standing bandy, threatening and bearded in the aisle, with bicycle clips on his trousers—for he rarely took them off—and looking up to the vault of the aisles with an appraising eye. He often had a ruler sticking out of his jacket and on my first visit I really thought he was going to pull it out and start measuring up. He didn’t go so far as to say he could have built the place himself, but once we got to the choir stalls and started on the hinges and dove-tailing, he looked dangerously near getting to work on them. The choir stalls appealed to him because there are often pot-bellied and impish bits of lewd carving under a seat or on the curl of an arm, and he always gave me a pagan wink or nudge when he found one. Once he said “That’d vex t’Minister.” Uncle Arthur behaved as if he owned the place and would get into arguments with vergers and even bewilder a clergyman by a technical question.
My grandfather’s attitude was different. The grandeur, height, and spaciousness of the place moved him. He was enraptured by it. But, pointing down at the choir, he said that it was sad to know that this lovely place was in the possession of the rich and ungodly and a witness not to the Truth but to a corrupt and irrelevant theology.
The Minster was scarcely the house of God any more but the house of a class.
“And you cannot,” he said severely, “worship God freely here. You have to pay for your pews.” The clergy, he said, were like the Pharisees in the Bible.
We left the cathedral and went up to steps to the walls once more at the point where the railway runs under an arch into the old York station where a model of Stephenson’s Rocket stands; and we sat in one of the niches of the battlements and looked down on the shunting trains, the express to Edinburgh coming in, the Flying Scotsman moving out to London, under their boiling white smoke. And there he told me about the wrongs of England and of a great man like Carlyle, and of John Ruskin, who had hated the railways.
“Great men,” he said. “God-fearing men.”
The granite walls, the overpowering weight of English history, seemed to be loaded on to us. To choose to be a great man was necessary; but to be one one must take on an enormous burden of labor and goodness. He seemed to convey that I would be a poor thing if I didn’t set to work at once, and although the idea appealed to me, the labor of becoming great was too much. I wasn’t born for it. How could I get out of it? In the south fortunately we were feebler and did not have to take on this task. I loved the north but I was scared by its worship of work.
After York we used to take the train to see the remaining sister of my grandmother, the third heiress. She lived upon the edge of the moors above Kirbymoorside where my grandmother came from, in a hamlet called Appleton-le-moors. This was wild and lonely country. You drove up five or six miles in the carrier’s gig; if it was raining, the passengers all sat under one wide umbrella. There was a long climb to the common, with the horse snorting and puffing, and then you were in the wide single street of the hamlet, with grass verges on either side and you were escorted in by platoons of the fine Appleton geese. You passed the half dozen pumps where girls were getting water for their cottages and arrived at a low cottage built of flint where my Great Aunt Lax lived.
The frown went off Grandfather’s face when he left his York relations. His preaching was over. He was free. He was back in his wife’s country. Aunt Lax had a farm and land that she now let off. The industrial revolution, the grim days of Hull and Nottingham and Bradford were forgotten, we were in true country and had gone back a century and Granda forgot his respectability and took off his clerical collar.
At first sight Aunt Lax looked hard. She was a tallish and skinny woman with iron-grey hair which she kept in curlers all the week except Sundays. She had a long thin nose, a startling pair of black eyebrows like charcoal marks, wore steel spectacles and was moustached and prickle-chinned like a man. Not only that, like a man she was always heaving things about; great pails of milk in her dairy, churning butter, clattering about on clogs, shouting across the street; and her skirts were half the time kirtled to her knees. Her arms were long and strong and bony. On a second look you saw that her lizard-like face had been beautiful; she had had a dark Scandinavian beauty. But the amusing thing about this spinsterish creature—and perhaps it was what made her so gay and tolerant—was that she had been married three times. The rumour was that there had been a fourth. These marriages were a shock to the family, but Lax in name, shrewd in nature, this indefatigable Wesleyan did well out of her weddings and funerals and, for a village woman, had put by quite a tidy sum.
When I was six I met the last Mr. Lax. He was a dumb giant who sat on a chair outside the cottage in the sun. He was very old and had a frightening glass eye. Since there were many ploughs, carts and traps and gigs in her farmyard, I came to think he was a moorland farmer, but this was not so. A few years ago, sitting in a pub at Lastingham nearby, I found an old shepherd who had known him well.
“Nay, he was nobbut t’old watchman up at t’lead mine,” he told me. If Aunt Lax had done well out of her two previous husbands, the third was obviously a folly. And a strange one. The chimney of the lead mine—now abandoned—stands up like a gaunt warning finger in the middle of the heather that rolls away from Lastingham, and when she was a girl she was locked in the house, as all the village girls were, when the miners came down on Saturday nights to the village pub. North country love is very sudden. There it was: a miner got her in the end.
YEAR AFTER YEAR I went to Appleton, sometimes alone, sometimes with Cyril, the brother who was a year or so younger than I. Aunt Lax had no children of her own so that there was nothing possessive or spoiling in her affections. We hauled water for her at the pump and, for the rest, she let us run wild with the jolly daughters of the blacksmith and anyone we came across. We scarcely ever went to chapel. The smell of bacon woke us in the morning and we went down from our pretty room which contained a chest of drawers made by Uncle Arthur, to the large kitchen where the pots hung on the chains over the fire and where she sometimes cooked on a spit. Her baking days were less fanatical than my Grandma’s and her washing days were pleasanter. Even the suds smelt better and there were always the big girls to chase round with us when the washing was brought in from the line or the hedges when the day was over.
When her third husband died, it was thought that amorous or calculating Great Aunt Lax would take a fourth. She had picked her second and third at the funeral feasts at which dozens of local farmers could form a sound opinion of her as a caterer and housekeeper. They had a good look round at her stables when they came, knew her acres and her fame as the leading Wesleyan for miles around. Instead, she took in a female friend, a Miss Smith. She, too, died and on the very day my brother and I arrived at the cottage. We arrived in a storm and were taken at once to one of the outer sculleries where a village girl came in, stripped us, scrubbed off the London dirt and swore to us she’d let us see the dead woman upstairs. We longed to see the body, but the girl took us off to the blacksmith’s where we had to stay. But we were allowed to play in a barn and watch the scores of country people coming to the funeral feast. We avenged ourselves by opening six or seven bales of rag strips which Aunt Lax used for her winter occupation: making rag hearth rugs. We threw the rag all over her orchard.
She was not very vexed. There was a lot of questioning of us afterwards in York and in London about who had come to the funeral, for Aunt Lax was supposed to have added to her wealth by Miss Smith’s death, and everyone was trying to guess if there would be a fourth or whether any Sawdons were on the prowl. If there was a fourth nobody knew for certain. She grew to be rather witch-like.
The moorland life was eventless. Every so often Aunt Lax would dress up in a heavy grey tweed costume, put on her hat and go off to Kirbymoorside Market, sitting by the carrier. It was a state visit. She would go there to buy cloth, or stones of flour and other things for her bins, and to see her lawyer. Once a week a pedlar would come around or a man from Whitby selling herrings and she gossiped at the door.
She understood boys. She told us of all the local crimes and knew the sites of one or two murders. She sent us down to the mill because a man had murdered his wife there years before. One year when I was nine I came up from London terrified with street tales about Jack the Ripper and I tried to get her to tell me he did not exist or had at any rate died long ago.
“Nay,” she said. “He’s still alive. He’s been up here. I saw him myself at ‘Utton-le-‘Ole last market day.” (All of our Sawdons dropped their “aitches.”)
This cured me of my terror of the Ripper: the fears of childhood are solitary and are lasting in the solitariness of cities. But in villages everyone knows everything that goes on, all the horrors real or imaginary; people come back from prison and settle down comfortably again; known rapists drink their beer in the public house in the evenings; everyone knows the thieves. The knowledge melts peacefully into the general novel of village life.
But one alarming thing occurred when I was five or six, in Appleton. It had the Haworth touch and it showed the dour, dangerous testing humour of the moorland people. We all set out one afternoon in a gig, my grandparents, Aunt Lax and myself, to a farm, a lonely stone place with geese, ducks, and chickens fluttering in the yard. A few dark leafed trees bent by the gales were standing close to it. We had tea in the low-ceilinged kitchen and the farmer noticed that I was gazing at a gun which hung over the mantelpiece.
“T’lad is looking at yon gun of yours, feyther,” said his wife.
“Ay,” said the farmer. “Dost know what this is lad?”
“Ay. And what does it shoot?”
“I don’t know.”
“Would ‘ee like to see it?”
“Eeh. He’d be fair capped to touch it,” said my grandmother.
The farmer got the gun down and let me touch it, then (helping me, for it was heavy), he let me hold it.
“Dost know how it works?”
The farmer broke the gun, showed me where the cartridges were, closed it, clicked the safety catch and the trigger. He gave it to me again and allowed me to do this. I was amazed.
“Would ‘ee like to see the cartridges?”
“Yes please,” said my grandmother.
“Please,” I said.
He got a couple of cartridges from a drawer and loaded the gun.
“There you are. It can shoot now. Hold it.”
“Ready! Present! Fire!” said my grandfather. “You can shoot a rabbit now.”
The farmer steadied the gun which swayed in my small hands.
“Ay,” said the farmer. “Take off t’ safety catch. Now if you pull t’ trigger now it’ll fire.”
“Would it kill people?” I asked.
“Ay,” laughed the farmer. “People. Come, mother, come Grandma and Mrs. Lax, stand over against the wall, t’lad wants to shoot you.”
“No,” I said.
“Ah he does,” said the excited farmer, waving them to the dresser and there they stood laughing and the gun swung in my aching hand.
“Eeh t’little lad wouldn’t shoot his grandma as makes him those custard pies.”
“Safety catch off. Now if you pull t’ trigger—has ‘e got his finger on it?—they’ll all be dead.”
“No,” I said with tears in my eyes and nearly dropped the gun. The farmer caught it.
“Eh well, it’s a lesson,” said the farmer hanging the gun back on the wall.
“Old Tom likes a joke,” they said, going home, but Aunt Lax said the kitchen was small and that was the way Mr. Robinson shot his wife “down ‘t Mill,” no accident that was. But all the way my grandma moaned:
“Eeh, who would have thought our Victor would want to shoot his grandma. Eeh. Eeh, well.”
I sulked with misery and, after a couple of miles, she said to me:
“He’s got a monkey on his back.”—a sentence that always roused my temper for I felt at my back for the monkey and screamed, “I haven’t. I haven’t.”
That was the night I told my grandfather again I hoped he’d be knocked down by a train at the Junction when he crossed the line and I got my second spanking.
I came home from these Yorkshire visits sadly to whatever London house we were living in and would see in my mind’s eye the white road going across the moors, like a path across a swollen sea, grey in most seasons but purple in the summer, rising and disappearing, a road that I longed to walk on, mile after mile. I was never to see one that moved me so strangely until, in my twenties, I saw another such in Castile. It brought back my childhood and this was the cause of my walking across Spain. So, when one falls in love with a face, the reason may be that one saw such a face, perhaps of an old woman that has excited one in childhood. I always give a second look at any woman with Aunt Lax’s eyebrows and her lizard-like face.
This is the second of three selections from V.S.Pritchett’s memoirs, A Cab at the Door
December 7, 1967