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They Knew Mr Knight - Dorothy Whipple

This was my first Dorothy Whipple; the first of many to come I think. They Knew Mr Knight is the story of the Blake family, an ordinary middle-class family. The father, Thomas, is a salaried engineer working in a factory that used to be owned by his father. His only ambition is to re-purchase the works. His wife, Celia, is mild-mannered, with no burning ambition, and generally content with her domesticity. This difference is made clear in the very first chapter, with their contrasting attitudes to a new morning. Their three children are also ordinary and their lifestyle is, erm, ordinary. Into this ordinary world enters Mr Knight, a financier from the City, who drags Thomas up into a richer world.

This is a very simple book, so simple that the plot is perfectly transparent from the minute Thomas bumps into Knight (literally). What makes it different is Whipple's attention to detail. I loved Whipple's descriptions of Celia, and her thoughts. Celia is the only person in the family to be less than enthusiastic about their sudden rise in the world, and suspicious of Knight's motives. Her bafflement at the speed at which the rest of her family adapt to their new lifestyle is endearing.

As expected, Knight ruins Thomas Blake financially, and the family is thrown back into circumstances more dire than they had ever had to endure. They cope with this turn of fortunes in different ways, and in the end the family emerges stronger than ever.
The characters are all brilliantly drawn. With the exception of Mr Knight, there is no obviously good or evil character, everyone has their moments. Even Freda, the eldest daughter, comes across as flawed rather than unpleasant. I felt terribly sorry for her when she rushes into a less-than-satisfactory marriage. Whipple makes it clear that one of the reasons of the tragedy is Celia's detachment from the outside world. She knows nothing of finance or office, "a man's world". Hence she can neither warn Thomas, nor realise when he's falling in over his head. Nor can she financially support the family when their new world comes crashing around them. This is a lesson on why female empowerment is so important.

Thomas and Mr Knight are second-hand figures, seen through their wives and children. We very rarely get to hear their thoughts, and surely not in the depth we know, say, Celia. I wonder if this is because Whipple didn''t want to attempt a man's voice? I have not read anything else by her, so cannot be sure. Celia's moment of religious fervour was a bit far-fetched in my opinion, but that is probably a sign of the times. Perhaps readers contemporary to Whipple were nodding their heads and approving of Celia's moment of communion with God! My favourite characters were Celia and Mrs Knight. They very rarely interact with each other, but when they do the effect is very comic. My favourite scene is Mrs Knight showing off Field Hall to Celia who wants to buy it off her.

A must-read! I would recommend this to anyone looking to buy a new Persephone.

1 comment:

Paperback Reader said...

Another Persephone to add to the list! I loved the two Whipples that I've read so far and look forward to the rest.