They Knew Mr Knight by Dorothy Whipple…and giveaway winners!

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!

24 comments

  1. My heart broke a little when I found out I hadn't won the Yates book, haha. Oh well. :] Still staying tuned for your thoughts on the Yates novels. :]

  2. Oh, I agree with your comments about writers who aren't prolific. You want to save something. An undiscovered JA novel would be fabulous. I must read more Whipple – I've only read Someone at a Distance and I thought it was very good.

  3. Sasha – Oh, I'm sorry! I will do another giveaway soon, and please do stay tuned!Vintage Reading – I'm glad you feel the same way! Someone at a Distance is marvellous…you should definitely read more. I love all of her novels but I think The Priory is probably my favourite of the Persephone reprints.Anbolyn – I'm glad! Please do try her – once you do, you'll never turn back!

  4. Such a big Whipple fan! I wonder what your group thought of it – did they like being introduced to her? Wouldn;'t it be wonderful to see the film

  5. I loved They Knew Mr. Knight as well and I couldn't put it down. Wish I could see the film though I heard Hollywood changed the ending of the They Were Sisters.

    1. Mrs. B.-

      Dorothy Whipple’s “They Knew Mr. Knight” not only made its way to the silver screen in 1946 but the public domain British film is available for free download, as well! It features the fine actor Mervyn Johns as Mr. Blake. The prolific, beloved actor Mervyn Johns, a staple of British stage and screen, is perhaps best recalled by American audiences as Scrooge’s clerk Bob Cratchit in the definitive film version of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” entitled “Scrooge” (1951), starring the great Alastair Sims.

      Is the 1946 movie faithful to the novel? Crushing endings withal.

      http://free-classic-movies.com/movies-04/04-1946-03-04-They-Knew-Mr-Knight/index.php

      Bon appétit!

  6. I am yet to read any Whipple and am holding out on a Persephone read (as I own Someone at a Distance) for a while as I only have three of them to read this year! This one sounds like another wonderful book.What did the rest of the group make of it, or I have I somehow missed their responses?I have flu its possible.

  7. I had a feeling Whipple wouldn't disappoint you, and I certainly understand 'saving' one work by a favorite author, too! Looking forward to my next Whipple…

  8. Simon – Thanks! I'll try and get around to it at some point!Verity – I would LOVE to see the film – I know Persephone did a screening at the BFI a while ago. We haven't met yet – the meeting is on the 20th. I read it early because I couldn't wait! Will let you know their thoughts when we do meet up!Mrs B – So glad you are a fan too. I'd love to see the Whipple films – why are they so hard to obtain, I wonder?Simon – Yet to read any Whipple?! What are you waiting for?! As I said to Verity, we haven't had the book group meeting yet, but I'll be sure to update you all on their responses afterwards!JoAnn – Whipple never disappoints! It's so nice to know that I have more to read..I don't want that feeling to end!

  9. I completely agree re 'saving' a last novel – I've got Shirley by Charlotte Bronte to read, but can't bring myself to as it is the last of her novels and there'll never be another one… I have been reading some of her juvenilia instead, which is printed by Hesperus Classics, to postpone reading Shirley! I've only read Someone at a Distance too, but am very much looking forward to reading somemore this year.

  10. I too ration the works of favourite authors and completely understand your reluctance not to read those final works by Austen and Whipple.Whipple indeed never disappoints and I am sad that my loot last week at the shop didn't include any of her books as I would love some on standby. Ah well, I shall immerse myself in other wonderful Persephones and then treat myself to some Whipple later in the year.

  11. My mum got a Whipple book for Christmas and didn't like it that much, so I've been going back and forth about reading it. I think I will though – such nice things you say about Whipple! And she has a fun name!

  12. I wish I had your discipline to put by books by authors I love! I've only read Whipple's The Priory, which was one of the best books I read last year, but I have Someone at a Distance waiting for me, which is a nice thing to think about.

  13. I'd like to think that Dorothy Whipple would be thrilled to know that her writing is being talked about on so many blogs and read in book clubs in 2010! This title is on my shelf but like you Rachel, I'm trying to space out my treasures to make them last. You've made me even more glad that They Knew Mr Knight is on my shelves!

  14. You work for the V&A?! How cool! I loved that museum when I lived in London. Such a gorgeous building and so RANDOMLY set-up…I have also never heard of Dorothy Whipple, but I hope to remedy my lapse soon, after this review.

  15. I would like to read a Whipple now after picking up a bit of a buzz about her writing being fabulous. I like books with an undercurrent of menace too !!

  16. I completely agree with your review of They Knew Mr Knight – Whipple is SO good at capturing the everyday and the ordinary and for showing humans as they really are. I was on the edge of my seat whilst reading it as I was just waiting for catastrophe!

  17. Allison – Saving a Bronte…I wish I could still do that! Though Shirley isn't my favourite so you've read the best in my opinion! Hope you get around to reading some more Whipple soon.Claire – No Whipples in all that haul? What a shame. I'm glad you've got plenty of Persephones to keep you going though!Jenny – Your mum didn't like Whipple?! You must borrow her book and read it immediately – I promise you won't be disappointed!Makedo – The Priory is my favourite Whipple Persephone I think, though it's so hard to choose between them. Do read more when you can!Darlene – I bet she would too. You're so right – spacing out is so important!Aarti – Indeed I do! It's a lot less random now – lots of work has been done over the past couple of years – it's well worth another visit!Novelinsights – You should pick one up! I'm sure you'll love them.Naomi – Isn't she just?! I LOVE HER!

  18. When I read this Whipple title, I felt just as youd did. The sense of impending disaster was present from page one and it was almost a relief in the end when it struck. Persephone have just published High Wages by DW, not quite up to the standards of this and Someone at a Distance, but still pretty darned good.

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