Dorothy Whipple’s 1934 novel, They Knew Mr Knight, centres on a typical middle-class family in the Midlands in the late 1920s, the Blakes: ‘…the Blakes had been, like a happy country without history. They had lived in the Grove, holding together.’ Whipple examines what happens when the ordinary collides with the extraordinary: a chance encounter between Mr Blake and the infamous financier Mr Knight.
Celia and Tom Blake are middle-aged, with three teenage children: Freda, 17, Ruth, 15, and Douglas, 13. They live in a modest house in the suburbs of Trentham (Whipple’s fictional version of Nottingham). Tom manages a small engineering firm in Leicester that used to belong to the Blake family (to Tom’s chagrin his father sold the firm just before Tom was old enough to take over the business).
Tom supports an extended family on his manager’s income: as well as his own wife and children he looks after his widowed mother, spinster sister, and a younger brother who seems to be permanently between jobs. Celia ‘married down’ when she married Tom – the antique furniture in their house at the Grove is all hers, and she has a small private income. However, we know that she married for love, and the fact that Tom has to spend all his disposable income on his extended family means he has no money to join a club, or play golf, which means the couple spend spare time in comfortable domesticity together: gardening or going for long country walks.
Whipple makes it clear that the Blakes are not well off. They don’t run a car, can’t afford a second subscription to the Boots lending library, and eldest daughter Freda is beginning to feel under pressure to train as a teacher to bring in extra income to the family home. Moreover, the family can only afford one live-in maid (oh horror! how times have changed since the 1920s…). However, Tom and Celia Blake are portrayed as a close, loving couple, who may not be rich in material possessions, but are happy with each other and their ordinary lives.
Enter Mr Knight, charming multi-millionaire (and, as we later discover, fraudster) financier.
What ensues is a pact-with-the-devil story. Tom, enthralled by Mr Knight, flattered by his attentions, embarks on a series of risky ventures that result in him realising his dream of buying back the engineering works and providing amply for his relatives – but at what personal cost to him and his family?
They Knew Mr Knight is a huge – but hugely engaging – book, running to 470 pages in the Persephone edition. The story is told through a large cast of characters: the Blakes and their extended family, as well as Mr Knight and his long-suffering wife.
Although told through various viewpoints, my favourite is Celia Blake. I’m not sure whether Whipple was deliberately writing with her readership in mind, or simply writing about the type of women she knew, but I feel her characterisation of Celia is spot-on. As an ordinary Nottingham mum-of-three-teenagers myself, I felt a real empathy with her, and her experience pulled me through the narrative. And what I found fascinating is that a real-life character, Charles Hatry, apparently inspired Whipple’s creation of Lawrence Knight. Hatry was an obscenely wealthy WW1 profiteer and suave swindler of the inter-war years, whose demise is said to have triggered the Great Depression.
My one criticism is that, as with some of Whipple’s other work, towards the end of the novel she slips into pontification on God, faith, etc. In his afterward in the Persephone edition, the Rev. Terence Handley MacMath explains that Whipple ‘inhabits a world where religious truth and social feeling overlap.’ However, whilst I accept Mr Knight is clearly presented as a demonic figure and the seven deadly sins (pride, greed, lust, gluttony, wrath, envy, and sloth) are explored throughout the book, the overt Christian sentiment grated a little for non-believer like me. But, of course, attitudes to religion have changed since 1934, and to paint They Knew Mr Knight as a morality tale is to do Whipple a disservice: it’s not a book about God, it’s a book about relationships, and this was recognised at the time. When it was published The Times Literary Supplement (TLS) wrote: “The portraits in the book are fired by Mrs Whipple’s article of faith – the supreme importance of people.”
It comes as no surprise that this is one of Whipple’s most popular works, and the film rights were snapped up (the film came out in 1946).
In short – They Knew Mr Knight is a classic story of have-it-all, lose-it-all, regain-it-again, focusing on one ordinary English family in the1920s.