The Blake family typifies many English middle-class families. Thomas and Celia Blake have two daughters and one son. There is Douglas, who longs to be a chemist but is expected to follow in his father’s (and grandfather’s) family business. There is dreamy, cheery Ruth who seems to get along with everyone and has aspirations of becoming a novelist, and there is the difficult, unhappy and snobbish Freda.
“I saw Freda setting off in the Rolls-Royce this morning,’ said Mrs. Greene with her smile. ‘I saw the man tucking the rug round her. She takes it all as to the manner born, doesn’t she?’
Thomas Blake, the patriarch, longs for financial security; enough capital to perhaps even buy back the machinist factory that his father, due to unwise decisions, had lost. “Thomas’s father, Percival, long dead, had not been a good business man. He inherited the works from his father, but he had not been able to manage them. He first made his manager, Joseph Simpson, a partner, and later, as Thomas was about to enter them from school, he sold the works outright to Simpson for a ridiculously small sum.
Thomas, at seventeen, felt a chagrin bitter beyond his years…”
Douglas, constantly caught up with his chemistry experiments, needs a good university education, and Freda, scorning the teaching or secretarial careers held out to her, desires to become part of the upper class: “Mr. Knight was so rich, he had a magnificent car, a lovely house, and no children. Suppose Mr. and Mrs. Knight took a fancy to her? Suppose they adopted her? Standing by the dressing-table, she saw herself as the darling of Mr. and Mrs. Knight, with all their wealth at her command.”
The stability of the family seems to rest most upon Celia. And yet Celia herself has no overt talents or education to sustain the apparent weight her family puts upon her…“Half an hour of peace and solitude was precious in her busy day. She was the wife of Thomas, the mother of Freda, Ruth and Douglas, the mistress of Agnes 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…”
When a chance meeting with the affluent financial wizard, ‘Mr. Knight’, evolves into something more, Thomas Blake is set upon a path that begins to fulfill all the family’s dreams of wealth and position… but will security evade them in the end?
Not just about financial security, greed and power, “They Knew Mr. Knight” is also about social position and acceptance. Each character, from the well-heeled, suave and assured Mr. Knight down to the frustrating, cynical and gossipy Mrs. Greene, is a realistic portrait of the best and worst in human nature.
“It had been agreed between them, when Freda left school, that when she had done the work allotted to her in the house, she should do as she liked. She must live her own life, she said. What this life as, her mother could not make out; it was no sort of a life that anybody else could define. A great deal of it seemed, to Celia, to be spent in yawning and saying there was nothing to do.’
“They Knew Mr. Knight” is the first Whipple novel I have read and it drew me in, compelling me to spend many late hours in the evening comfortably reading and enjoying the well-drawn cast of characters, all with their own flaws and strengths.
According to notes in an afterword, in 1932 Swedish “Match-King’ Ivan Kreuger committed suicide in a Paris hotel after financial losses totaling 300 million. In 1930 Clarence Hatry was sentenced to fourteen years for fraud. Dorothy Whipple wrote “They Knew Mr. Knight” sometime around this time and it was published in 1934.
I so enjoyed this novel and can’t wait to read more Dorothy Whipple in the future.