Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford: Summary & Thoughts – Chapter 4

Gaskell Blog © Katherine C.

Heading to visit Mr. Holbrook at his invitation

As Miss Matty, Miss Pole, and Mary Smith arrive at Woodley, Miss Matty looks wistful. It’s the first time she’s seen the home of Mr. Holbrook. How the emotions and dreams of youth must have rushed upon her! It’s understandable that she was reluctant to come. He receives them with the joy and while Miss Pole and Miss Matty rest, Mary expresses interest in the gardens and Mr. Holbrook gives her the tour showing his 26 cows, each named after a letter in the alphabet and quoting poetry without pretension but,

naturally as if he were thinking aloud, and their true and beautiful words were the best expression he could find for what he was thinking of feeling… I never met with a man, before or since, who had spent so long a life in a secluded and not impressive country, with ever-increasing delight in the daily and yearly change of season and beauty.

Mr. Holbrook is a hard-working man yet he’s not ambitious in the worldly sense. He’s content with his yeoman status and promptly corrects anyone who calls him a squire. His passion is nature and poetry; his sitting room is filled with a variety of books– ones that he likes and finds interesting, not those he ought to read because they’re classics; quite different from Deborah’s literary pursuits. Perhaps it was his honest and unassuming ways that attracting Miss Matty to him.

Mary Smith and Mr. Holbrook walking through the gardens

The dinner is pleasant until they are served peas with the duck. How will they eat them? Their forks are two-pronged and the delicate green peas fall right through! Miss Matty remains lady-like and patiently eats one by one but of course doesn’t get very far. Miss Pole sighs and leaves them untasted. Mary sees Mr. Holbrook, who is blithely unaware of their predicament, using his knife as a kind of shovel. She courageously imitates and survives.

After dinner Mr. Holbrook asks Miss Matty to fill his pipe, an honor for a lady when he was growing up– he doesn’t know how Deborah trained Matty to hold tobacco in abhorrence. She daintily stuffs the tobacco in the bowl, her feelings gratified that he asked her and a sense of how her days would have been lingering in the air.

“It is very pleasant dining with a bachelor,” said Miss Matty, softly, as we settled ourselves in the counting-house. “I only hope it is not improper; so many pleasant things are!”

Mr. Holbrook reading poetry to the ladies, Miss Matty falls asleep

Once he finishes smoking his pipe he joins the lady and offers to read poetry. He reads Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall.’ Miss Matty dozes off and Miss Pole is counting the stitches of her crochet. When he finishes Matty wakens and says it was ‘pretty’ and compares it to a poem that Deborah used to read her by Dr. Johnson.

As their pleasant day comes to a close Mr. Holbrook says he will call on the ladies soon to inquire how they arrived home. We wait and watch and hope. Perhaps Miss Matty’s future has some of the light she dreamed for in her youth. Part of what makes this chapter so poignant is the fact that Miss Matty conceals her true feelings but we observe and see what her silence doesn’t tell us.

She never spoke of any former and more intimate acquaintance with Mr. Holbrook. She had probably met with so little sympathy in her early love, that she had shut it up close in her heart; and it was only by a sort of watching, which I could hardly avoid, since Miss Pole’s confidence, that I saw how faithful her poor heart had been in its sorrow and its silence.

Miss Matty waits for him, seated at the window despite the chill and wearing her best cap. When he arrives it’s with the news that he is going to Paris, he’s always wanted to go and asks if there is anything he can get for them while there. To Miss Matty’s delight he gives her the book of poems that he read from the evening before and calls her ‘Matty’ as he did years ago. But she also worries, mentioning how he had to be careful what he ate when he was young and foreshadowing what is to come.

I promised to let her know how Thomas Holbrook went on; and, I’m sorry to say, his housekeeper has sent me word to-day that he hasn’t long to live. Poor Thomas! That journey to Paris was quite too much for him. His housekeeper says he has hardly ever been round his fields since; but just sits with his hands on his knees in the counting-house, not reading or anything, but only saying, what a wonderful city Paris was! Parrs has much to answer for, if it’s killed my cousin Thomas, for a better man never lived.”

When he dies Miss Matty decides to allow her servant Martha to have a follower for she ‘does not want to grieve any young hearts.’ The question now is why did she turn down Mr. Holbrook? Was it because what her father and Deborah disapproved the match? Mr. Holbrook is such a congenial character that his loss like Mr. Brown’s is frustrating, we we’re just starting to get to know him.

Alyson Kiesel suggests in her essay “Meaning and Misinterpretation in Cranford” that it’s often the characters who bring change to Cranford that die. Captain Brown brought masculinity, the railroad, Charles Dickens, and frank speech. Mr. Holbrook brought the threat of marriage, Tennyson, and Paris. Think of it as an older England being invaded by a newer one; it’s a battle and Gaskell is letting Cranford (old England) win but at what cost?


Works Cited

Kiesel, Alyson. “Meaning and Misinterpretation in Cranford.” ELH Winter 2004: 1001-1017. Gale Literature Resource Center. Web. 11 Nov. 2010.


7 Comments Add yours

  1. JaneGS says:

    >“I only hope it is not improper; so many pleasant things are!”

    I just love this quote. I found this chapter just heartbreaking. Matty is such a dear, and I found her desire to become a widow touching but her allowing Martha to have a follower was the greatest tribute she could have given to Mr. H.

  2. When Holbrook dies (oh dear another man takes his leave of Cranford) I was really touched by Miss Matty’s change in attitude in allowing Martha to have a caller. She didn’t want to be the reason why love was put off. Nice change. Martha wastes no time and says Jeb can call tomorrow! LOL Guess we know what was on her mind???

  3. Alexa Adams says:

    I had to put aside Cranford for a few week, as life has brought almost all my reading to a halt, but I am now on a train with nothing better to do but catch up and comment. Poor Miss Matty, and poor Mr. Holbrook! It does seem that each character I get fond of dies almost as soon as the affection develops. I though Mr. Holbrook marvelous, even. If he does eat with his fork and can’t pronounce Goethe.it doesn’t hurt that Locksley Hall is one of my favorite Tennyson poems (I may have to go reread it now – if I can find the time!). And Mary Smith’s willingness to follow suit and eat her peas with her knife has greatly increased my appreciation of her. I must echo Laurel Anne’s thoughts on Martha – Mr. Holbrook has not died in vain if it has freed Miss Matty from Miss Jenkyns postmortem dictatorship. My favorite quote – “I should call him eccentric; very clever people always are!”

    1. I hope that you’re having a good trip! Mr. Holbrook is one of my favorite characters. His love of poetry and honest ways are very charming. I haven’t read Locksley Hall– I must!

      It’s wonderful to see Miss Matty slowly freeing herself from Miss Jenkyns’ shackles.

      Thank you for commenting. 🙂

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