They Knew Mr Knight by Dorothy Whipple

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29478731._sx318_Fiction – Kindle edition. Persephone Books, 2000. Originally published 1934. 496 pgs. Purchased. 

The Blakes are considered to be a typical English family: Celia is a homemaker with three children – Freda, Ruth, and Douglas – while Thomas holds down a job at a Leicester engineering business and serves as the breadwinner for his wife and children, his widowed mother, his unemployed brother, and his unmarried sister. Yet, the family has long believed they could be more and have more if only Thomas’s father hadn’t sold the engineering works for a pittance.

Thomas has always longed to buy back the works, a desire well out of his reach due to the financial support he must outlay for his extended family. When he meets a wealthy financier named Mr. Knight and convinces the man to help him purchase the works, Thomas cannot believe his luck and quickly launches his family into a higher socio-economic class. They are owners instead of workers, able to send Douglas to Cambridge and Ruth to a year abroad in France.

As the family swiftly climbs, Thomas becomes more dependent upon Mr. Knight’s advice and their finances become shakier and shakier. It quickly becomes apparent to the reader and those around the Blakes that Mr. Knight is a crook. However, Thomas refuses to heed anyone else’s advice and, as a woman, Celia feels unequipped to question her husband.

What goes up, most come down and, as expected, the financial house of cards upon which Thomas has built his newfound fortune quickly collapses. The family is forced to make tough choices, with some finding hope in God and others quickly latching onto to those who might provide the high rolling lifestyle they’ve come to love.

There is something about Dorothy Whipple’s writing that is just utterly comforting to me. The melodrama within is believable without being absurd, and her plots are so absorbing that it is easy to become lost in them, even during the worst reading slumps.

I admit, her writing isn’t completely memorable; I often have to check back and see if I’ve already read a particular title. But if I need a cheering read, her works are among the first to pop into my head as possibilities.

With They Knew Mr Knight, I had an inkling as to how the novel might end. (Badly with the Blakes losing everything, of course.) That inkling didn’t stop me from enjoying her vivid storytelling, though, and I found myself hoping against hope that I would be wrong about the conclusion. The Blakes, especially Celia, as such lovely and innocent people that it is difficult not to root for them, not to cover your eyes as they dig an even deeper hole from themselves.

Most of the ending played out as expected, but one aspect took me by surprise: the rather fanatical preaching about the importance of God in an individual’s life. The novel makes sure the reader understands that if the Blakes had followed God’s commandments, then they would not have been taken in by the seven sins, particularly avarice (greed) pride, and envy, and the manifestation of the devil through Mr. Knight. Then, it makes sure to remind the reader that it is never too late to see the error of one’s ways, to return to joyful acceptance of all one does have.

The afterwards by Terence Handley Macmath and Christopher Beauman explain how Whipple’s religious beliefs are manifested in this novel, and I certainly feel like I walked away with a better understanding of Whipple as a writer. If the postscripts hadn’t given away so many of the plot points, I might have wished I had read them prior to starting the novel in order to start with the right expectations.

As it was, I was thrown by the forceful religiosity of this otherwise enjoyable tale. Having read three other Whipple titles, I wasn’t expecting to be preached at, let alone in such a heavy-handed manner, and it unfortunately soured my experience with this book.

According to the Persephone website, the leaves and flowers of the endpaper (above) is mean to “evoke the large garden by which Celia is so fatally tempted”. No information about the date of manufacture or name is provided. 

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