Did you ever read 'Cranford' I wonder? This fictitious town
created by Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell and based on Knutsford in Cheshire,
was peopled by a community who practised genteel poverty. It's
hard to describe genteel poverty - it is a facade behind which
those who have known better times, hide. People who have been
brought up in an atmosphere, if not wealthy, at least not short
of money. Sisters, maybe, who had never married and lived on
a tiny annuity left to them by their parents. Or retired Army
or Navy officers who lived on a pension that was inadequate.
They tried to emulate their former homes and made a pretence
of preferring the evening firelight to candlelight, of not wanting
the fire lit until it was absolutely necessary, of eating sparsely
in order to better their digestive organs.
It was all rather pathetic, but pride was at stake and an unwritten
law prevented them from telling the truth. Their greatest pleasure
was the visit to the local draper and haberdasher to match ribbons
for the bonnets which were to be retrimmed. The owner of the
shop would make a fuss of them, seating them on chairs to indicate
the lack of hurry, and bring out box after box of ribbons and
lace, though he knew full well that the purchases would only
amount to a shilling or so.
The Miss. Parks belonged to this age. Two maiden ladies, they
lived in a cottage whose floor was below street level, at Stake
House End, the junction where Kerridge and Bollington meet.
To me, they seemed very small, but maybe I was a big girl and
looked over their heads.
No-one really knew them, they kept aloof from the neighbours
and yet they were kind and gentle people. If they had Christian
names, they were lost in time. Lavinia or Tabitha would have
suited them, or perhaps Serenity or Patience. Always called the
Miss. Parks, though I realize now it should have been the Misses
I'm sure they turned sheets sides to middle and when their dresses
showed signs of wear and tear, they turned them too.
Sometimes their brother dashed in to visit them. He never walked,
always dashed. He was much taller than they were and dressed
in an Inverness Cape - the kind which had two or three smaller
capes on the shoulders - and always wore a deer stalker hat.
I'm not sure if Sherlock Holmes based his wardrobe on Mr. Park's,
or he went to the same tailor as Sherlock, but there was a great
similarity. He would stay a night or two, causing a great flutter,
then dashed out again until the next visit.
Occasionally, the sisters would go to Manchester. Scorning the
early trains when cheap tickets were available, they travelled
by the 10.00 o'clock when the price of a ticket was doubled.
It was 'common' to travel with work people, or so their 'genteel'
upbringing had taught them. They always carried a spare pair
of white gloves to be put on when they reached the town, because
railway carriages were notoriously dirty. Then too, they would
carry small parcels containing empty boxes, or nothing at all,
to the depths of their reticules or handbags. These were produced
only when they reached home again giving the illusion that it
had been a day spent in shopping.
What sad and pathetic lives people lived at that time. No-one must
know of their poverty and yet everyone did. If only the Miss. Parks
could have brought themselves to confide in someone, much help
could have come their way. But upbringing and pride had to be sacrificed.
© 1985 Enid Simpson