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They Knew Mr. Knight (1934)

by Dorothy Whipple

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1816121,202 (4.27)23
The Blakes are an ordinary family: Celia looks after the house and Thomas works at the family engineering business in Leicester. This book begins when he meets Mr Knight, a financier as crooked as any on the front pages of our newspapers nowadays; and tracks his and his family's swift climb and fall.… (more)
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[They Knew Mr Knight] - [[Dorothy Whipple]]

Perhaps because Mrs Blake's Christian name is Celia, I had the actress Celia Johnson in my mind's eye while reading this book, and although [The Knew Mr Knight] was published eleven years before the release of 'Brief Encounter' the image seems appropriate, as I’m sure the Blakes were much like the family in the film.

It is clear from the outset that this is a novel about corruption, and it comes close to covering all of the Deadly Sins.

Thomas Blake is employed in an engineering works founded by his grandfather, but sold by his late father just as Thomas was about to join the firm, so now he works ’as a servant where he should have been the master’. The new owner, Simpson, lost his son in the Great War, so looks with bitterness upon Thomas, who came through unscathed. Simpson has taken to telling Thomas he’s going to sell the business, but Thomas, who believes the business is good, can’t decide whether Simpson is just saying this to distress him, knowing that Thomas could never buy it himself. Family finances are tight because Thomas is also supporting his unpleasant widowed mother, his sister, and his ne’er do well brother, who all live in a separate house in a meaner part of town.

Celia is the warm centre of the family. Her background was more affluent than her present circumstances, but she does not resent the change. Perhaps because she has travelled, been to balls, etc., she is not greedy for them, unlike those around her. “She was the wife of Thomas, the mother of Freda, Ruth and Douglas, the mistress of Agnes (the maid) and of No. 17, the Grove, but when she was alone she was herself. When she was alone, another self, ordinarily covered over, walled in by preoccupations of house, husband and children, took the air, as it were, and walked abroad.” It is perhaps that other self which gives her such a firm anchor and her previous experience which gives her a degree of immunity from the temptation which will be put in her way.

Freda, the elder daughter, deplores her surroundings. She is ashamed of her home and family and spends her time studying women in magazines, imaging herself one of them, and is devastated when her father tells her that she will have to stay on at school and study to become a teacher. At a time when the professions were barred to married women a young girl would equate teaching with a life of spinsterhood far from love or pleasure. Whipple allows Freda a vulnerability seen only by Celia.

Mr Knight, a local man made good, has recently returned to town Few people know what he does, but they know he is very rich. Everyone grovels to him, honoured by his slightest acknowledgement. One day, dashing for a departing train, Blake finds himself in Knight’s first class carriage. Though Blake, a regular commuter, has only a third class ticket, the conductor sees he is being spoken to by Knight and doesn’t ask for his ticket. This is Blake’s first direct experience of the world to which Knight can provide access, but at the same time he has committed a small act of dishonesty in travelling first class for which he has not paid, and the corruption has begun. Blake begins to acquire a certain prestige when it becomes known that he is on speaking terms with Mr Knight.

Knight is a speculator, buying and selling shares and companies, able to accumulate great wealth but accepting the risk of losing everything. Money and what it can bring are all that interest him. His faithful wife is kept in style but left at home while he is seen about with a series of glamorous young women. He agrees to help Thomas buy back the family business. Mrs Knight, lonely and childless, takes an interest in Freda, who rejoices in being seen in the Knights’ chauffeur driven car.

Thomas and Freda fall headlong into the slipstream of the Knights, dazzled by the glamour and utterly failing to understand the world they are entering. Douglas, too, is ensnared. Though she tries to keep them away from the Knights, Celia is unable to protect her children from catastrophic loss of innocence. Ultimately the Blakes are ruined by their contact with Mr Knight.

A well written book which I will certainly reread.

An interesting historical social change is thrown up in this novel in that from time to time Celia wrestles with the notion of God, but she does so almost as though it were simply one of the tasks on her daily list. I have noticed Christian faith appearing somewhat surprisingly in a number of books written around this time, even in crime novels, but as is noted in this Persephone edition, it was a time when Christian observance was an accepted part of everyday life, with weekly attendance at church the norm, regardless of the strength of one’s belief, and a degree of religious observance would have been included in school life. In such a world it would not be surprising for someone in difficulty to think about the faith in which they had been raised.
3 vote Oandthegang | Mar 2, 2016 |
Dorothy Whipple, how do I love thee? They Knew Mr. Knight is the story of a middle-class businessman, Thomas Blake, whose life and work becomes entwined with that of a big-time entrepreneur named Lawrence Knight—a man that the reader can quickly see is full of style but no substance. Everything Mr. Knight does revolves around money—he even looks at Thomas’s modest little house and sees things in terms of financial value. The novel follows the Blake family’s rise and fall, poignantly so in many places.

On the other hand is Thomas’s sensible wife, Celia, who shies away from the constant striving of her husband and Mr. Knight. Although written in the first person, the story is seen through the eyes of Celia Blake, probably the most likeable character in this book due to her practical common sense. Yet she’s painfully gauche at the same time, naive and trusting where maybe she shouldn’t be. So it’s painful to the reader to watch her rise and fall in tandem with her husband (along with their teenage children).

This is a novel about striving, to become bigger/better/whatever than one is, sometimes at the cost of other people. Dorothy Whipple tends to hit her reader over the head with her theme, but the story unravels itself in a very clever way. You know that Something Bad is going to befall some of these characters, but the interesting thing is how it’s all going to happen. Dorothy Whipple’s prose style is very simple and straightforward, which is why I love her books; her books tend to be long(ish) but the story moves swiftly. ( )
1 vote Kasthu | Jan 27, 2012 |
21 Jan 2011

Marvellous Persephone in which a family's fortunes are swept up - and then inevitably down - by their association with a business magnate who resembles, in my mind anyway, the Monopoly Banker. Lessons are of course learned, and fortunes within the family rise and fall, but the portraits of family life and relationships are beautifully portrayed as ever with Whipple. Another good old-fashioned satisfying read. ( )
  LyzzyBee | Aug 29, 2011 |
Persephone publish 5 Dorothy Whipple books, four novels and one book of short stories, and it is easy to see why, her writing of families and their ups and downs their triumphs and disasters is brilliant. This is the third of the four novels re-published by Persephone that I have read. My favourite was They were Sisters, but this one is almost as good. I found it quite unputdownable really, it is nearly 500 pages long but I read it so quickly it din't feel as long as that.

Celia is an innocent, a housewife and mother who knows nothing of finance, and understands even less. She is however a steadfast and true woman who supports her husband, and her children in everything, and she knows enough to dislike Mr Knight. Freda - the eldest daughter is rather selfish, although she longs for great things to happen to her, the reader can't help but shake their head over what must surely come to pass, and pity her in her silliness. This is a very moral tale, in which those who aim too high have everything come crashing down, and who have to live with the results. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | Nov 29, 2008 |
My first Dorothy Whipple book!

The characters were interesting (and flawed) but the story was predictable. I don't think the predictability bothered me as much as the ending; Celia's realization tied it up too quickly.

I look forward to reading more of the author's work. Time to look at the Persephone catalog again! ( )
  Sarahsponda | Jun 24, 2008 |
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» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Dorothy Whippleprimary authorall editionscalculated
Macmath, Terence HandleyAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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The Blakes are an ordinary family: Celia looks after the house and Thomas works at the family engineering business in Leicester. This book begins when he meets Mr Knight, a financier as crooked as any on the front pages of our newspapers nowadays; and tracks his and his family's swift climb and fall.

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"Celia!" he cried, slamming the sitting-room door behind him. "What do you think? Knight's floating a new artificial silk company here, and he's making me one of the directors. He's giving me fifty shares and my director's fees will come to about two hundred a year, and what's more, Blake's are supplying the machines for the factory."
He ended breathlessly, and husband and wife stood at gaze.
Then Celia spoke.
"But why?" she asked.
Thomas was taken aback.
"Why?" he repeated. "What do you mean - why?"
"Well, I understand about your supplying the machines, but why is he makiong you a director? I mean, why should he provide us with two hundred a year for nothing?"
Thomas jingled money in his pockets and looked at her in an irritable fashion. She was taking the edge off his joy.
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