At the end of January Jesse at Dwell in Possibility had a mini Persephone readathon and that was the perfect excuse for me to pick up the Dorothy Whipple at the end of my bed, lie on the sofa and have a cosy read.
The first hint that this might not be so cosy came with the title which felt a bit odd and had a slightly sinister ring to it. Who are ‘They’?, why is it in the past tense and is Mr. Knight a knight in shining armour or is he something shady? The second hint was inside the front cover when we’re given the helpful information to multiply all the amounts talked about by 50 so for £2000 read £100,000. Here was the middle class domestic world of Dorothy Whipple but with avarice at its centre and it was clear from the beginning that all was not going to go well.
Thomas and Celia Blake and their three children live in an ordinary house with their maid and extended family close by. Mr. Blake works at his family firm of engineers but has lost the ownership and desperately wants to buy it back. Written in 1934 but set at the end of the ’20’s, the Blake’s live in a small Midlands town in England, the post war economic recession and high unemployment a constant shadow. Enter Mr. Knight.
It’s an unsettled group of characters that he lands on and stirs up, observing them closely and smiling from under his heavy lids. All the adults are out of their comfort zones; old Mrs Blake still playing the dowager, Isabel, Thomas’s unmarried sister, stuck in a dreary house with her mother, Edward his wayward brother who can’t hold on to a job and what of Mrs Knight sitting all alone in the countryside?And Freda, their eldest daughter. Bored by everything, she leaves school as soon as she can but then what? When money’s tight her father says she’ll have to become a teacher. She sulks and sulks, but when things are better hooray no more thoughts of teaching but that leaves nothing. She hangs around the house, helping her mother but is always dressed, smoking and made up waiting for something better to happen. The Bright Young Things are in London and in her magazines but she’s in Trentham dreaming. She’s rude and selfish, embarrassed of her home and family.
Dorothy Whipple makes the point, as she often does about the rigid division of labour, that Celia as a married women could hardly get a job is well worn territory in her novels. But here she turns a sympathetic gaze on Thomas, who bares the sole responsibility for providing for his own family and his relations. While his daughter is essentially allowed to hang around, and Celia contemplates God while she knits, the damage done by his crippling fear of failure is incredibly sad, he’s as trapped by conventions as his wife.
Every now and then I did find the writing a bit clunky especially with Celia who could get a bit brusque and pious but the drama was terrific and the last 100/150 pages or so were unputdownable. It ends with no simple solutions, the effect of knowing Mr. Knight is felt by each character and each must deal with the consequences. I wish there was a sequel, I would love to know everyone’s future story.