Everyone knows that I love Dorothy Whipple. I wish she was still alive so that she could write more books and I could meet her in person and tell her how wonderful I think she is. But sadly she is not, and I am swiftly running out of new books of hers to read. I don’t want to ever lose the sense of excitement I get when I pick up a new novel of hers, so I am rationing myself. That’s also why I have never read my volume of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan and The Watsons…I can’t bear to have read everything and never be surprised and delighted by new characters again.
But I digress. I chose They Knew Mr Knight for the V&A’s Staff Book Group’s January read. Many of the group members had never heard of Persephone books and none had heard of Dorothy Whipple (apart from Bloomsbury Bell, of course). As Winston Churchill said, With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility; very wise, I think, and applicable to my situation; with the power of choosing what other people are reading, comes the responsibility of ensuring it is something people will enjoy reading, or at least enjoy discussing. Therefore I began reading with anticipation, but also slight worry, in case They Knew Mr Knight wasn’t as good as her previous books, and all of the Book Group rounded on me with angry stares and shaking fists because I made them waste a week of their reading lives on a book they thought was awful. I needn’t have worried, because Dorothy has well and truly delivered the goods, yet again, with this wonderful novel.
They Knew Mr Knight opens on the peaceful world of Celia and Thomas Blake, who live in a northern manufacturing town with their three teenage children. Thomas is a kind, quiet man; he takes pride in providing for his family and has dreams of becoming prosperous enough to give them all the things they dream of, like holidays and a car. Celia is gentle, loving, and delights in the simple things of life. She cares for her children and husband deeply, and always tries to do kindnesses to others.The family have a fairly comfortable lifestyle, but as with all of us, money is frequently tight, especially as Thomas is responsible for looking after his elderly mother, spinster sister, unwisely married sister, and feckless brother on top of his wife and children. Thomas works at Blake’s, an ironworks that used to belong to his father and grandfather, but was sold off when he was 17 to pay his father’s debts. This is something that has long bothered Thomas; he hates to work as a mere employee, when in his mind, he should be the owner of the works. When he is given the opportunity to buy the works, he starts thinking of ways in which he can cobble together the money to do so. As luck would have it, Thomas makes a chance encounter with a local billionaire (in our modern money) financier, Mr Knight. Thomas saves him from slipping down the stairs at the station one morning, and he is then invited to take the train with him up to town. During this journey the two strike up a friendship, and it isn’t long before Mr Knight has come up with a scheme to provide Thomas with the money to buy the works.
Now the owner of Blake’s, Thomas is finding his financial situation a lot easier. And Mr Knight has taken him under his wing, passing more and more opportunities for Thomas to make easy money in various schemes. Celia is uneasy with Thomas’ ways of making money, but she loves him, and trusts him, and so the family soon begin to bask in the comfort of having more money than they could ever have imagined. Thomas loves being able to provide all of the material things he wanted to give his family, and no matter how much money he is making, he is always thinking of more he could gain. Celia enjoys being able to treat herself without worrying, and do simple things like have fancier evening meals. Before they know it, they have moved to a new, bigger house, and they are part of the town’s highest society. Mr Knight’s wife, Maudie, is a frequent visitor, and she takes a special interest in the Blake’s eldest daughter, Freda, bringing her along to society parties and encouraging her to mix with wealthy and titled people her age. The pinnacle comes when Mr Knight decides to leave town, and he invites Thomas to buy his beautiful house, Field Place, that Celia has coveted ever since she first cast her eyes on it. From the outside, their lives could not be more perfect.
But, throughout all of this upward mobilisation, the heart of the family seems to have shifted. Thomas’ attention is no longer directed towards Celia and their children; it is focussed only on the stock market and the next step up the ladder of prosperity. The children have all had their heads turned and their hearts destroyed in some way by the trappings of wealth. Celia, despite being surrounded by all the material wealth she has ever desired, and the house of her dreams, is desperately unhappy, bored and fearful that the man she fell in love with has gone from her forever. The endless, grasping pursuit of wealth and position has brought the family nothing but unhappiness and heartache, and when the sand they have built their new lives upon starts to shift beneath them, they realise just how far removed they have become from the people they once were.
They Knew Mr Knight is, in short, terrific. There is an undercurrent of menace the whole way through, as Thomas’ financial speculations become riskier and riskier; it is clear that at some point, the bubble has got to burst. This tension kept me on the edge of my seat, and I was desperately worried for the family, knowing that something awful had to be coming. It is powerful in showing how much value people put on material things, without realising the truly important treasures in life. Celia’s deep unhappiness as she becomes richer demonstrates how the soul needs love, friendship, laughter and security to flourish; these are all the gifts Celia had before Thomas even met Mr Knight, but it took her nearly losing them all to realise just how much they meant to her. By the end, the family have been broken, but they are beginning the process of being put back together again; they have learnt that money is not the answer to their problems, and that only in loving and supporting one another can they grow to achieve their potential and true happiness. This message is illustrated by the journey of Edward, Thomas’s pain of a younger brother, as he goes from being a depressed, aimless waste of space at the beginning of the novel to a devoted husband and father and a prosperous businessman by the end; all it took for him to become fulfilled and successful was feeling valued and loved for the first time, when he met the woman who would become his wife. Whipple makes it clear that the security of a loving family is all that is important in life, and the unhappiness and superficiality in the lives of the rich characters only serves to highlight this even more.
This is just the sort of novel I adore; it is about ordinary life, and nothing particularly exciting happens, but in its simplicity of plot, there is a characterisation that is second to none, and a profundity and beauty in its descriptions of the human soul that I have rarely found elsewhere. I can’t recommend it highly enough; Dorothy Whipple really saw people, and she had the tremendous gift of being able to transfer what she saw into the written word. Read as much of her as you can; she will inspire you to take joy in the simple, beautiful things of life, and that is why I always close her books feeling a happier and more hopeful person.
FINALLY, the winners of the Richard Yates giveaway, generated from a random number generator, are as follows:
Disturbing the Peace: Claire of Kiss a Cloud
Revolutionary Road: Miss M who posted as Anonymous
Congratulations! Please email me to let me know your addresses and I’ll send them off to you as soon as I can!