Had it not been for the orange peel, none of it might ever have happened. Call it fate, or maybe even destiny, but when Thomas Blake stopped wealthy financier Lawrence Knight from slipping and falling, his life and that of his family changed course, though it's hard to say if it was for the better. Of course the other part of the equation is a life filled with discontent, which only fuels the fire. For Thomas it comes in the form of dissatisfaction in his work, an engineering firm that was once owned by his father, but now is run by someone else and where he finds himself only a common employee.
Having read two other novels by Dorothy Whipple I shouldn't be at all surprised, but I found They Knew Mr. Knight an engaging story that was hard to put down. Who would have thought a story about financial loss and gain and all the pains and pleasures that accompany it would be so entertaining. Although it was written in 1934, only a few details would need to be changed to make it as contemporary and fresh as a novel written today about current financial woes.
The Blakes are not a particularly unhappy family, at least no more so than any other middle class family making ends meet. That doesn't mean they don't have problems. Thomas works hard as an engineer, leaving early every day. Celia takes care of the house and her family and works in her garden. Three school age children--two daughters and a son round things out.
"Since the War, almost a decade now, the Blakes had been, like a happy country, without history. They had lived in the Grove, holding together. The growing children were dependent on their parents; their parents were bound to each other by affection and interests which were perhaps made mutual by lack of money. Thomas could not afford a car, a club, or golf; he therefore spent his spare time with his family."
There are two things that burden Thomas, however--the loss of the family firm, which he believes rightly should belong to him, and a layabout brother who isn't able to hold down a steady job and provide for their mother and sister, all of whom are unappreciative of Thomas's endeavors. Thus it falls to Thomas pick up the slack on top of caring for his wife and children. And so the seeds of real discontent are sewn.
Lawrence Knight is a well known man in their small town. He's a man who makes and loses fortunes yet always comes out on top, a savvy businessman who is not afraid to take risks that more often than not pay off, and pay off big. A chance encounter with Knight in a railway station and a lucky save by Thomas is just the meeting he needs to make Knight take notice. Just a little advice on how to get the Works back into his own hands, and Thomas knows he can make a success of it. Knight takes an instant liking to Thomas and the two men begin a friendship that eventually will extend to their families. A little advice, a little cash backing and some serious scrimping means Thomas is able to buy back the firm his father owned, and he does make a success of it. It becomes so successful as a matter of fact that the family is able to move to increasingly larger homes with servants and an idle lifestyle. Idle for Celia perhaps, but Thomas finds he's away from his family more than ever in order to keep the business going.
It's a fine line Thomas walks, however. He must appease Knight and keep his lifestyle afloat, which means he finds himself deeper and deeper in debt. It's not hard for him to make easy cash off speculations on the stock market, but only with Knight's help. We all know what's going to happen, though. The bubble gets bigger and bigger, but eventually it's going to burst. And Mr Knight will tire of his pet project that is Thomas Blake, and like a house of card that has no real foundation everything is going to come tumbling down.
So the story follows the rising fortunes of the Blakes over the course of a number of years and their subsequent fall from the moneyed class. The children leave school and in some cases make bad choices in love and relationships. Elder daughter Freda is a proud and foolish girl and takes for her example Mrs Knight who is herself a frivolous and unhappy woman. Freda moves in more privileged circles yet never feels their equal. Douglas likewise falls for a protégé of Mr Knight's who proves to be of uncertain morals. Only young Ruth seems to come through fairly unscathed. And Thomas and Celia? I think they both realize in the end that money doesn't buy happiness, though don't worry, in Whipple's very able hands the story never descends into mere clichédom.
Dorothy Whipple once again turns a shrewd eye on the foibles and shortcomings of her characters and once again they fall from grace, learn from their mistakes and find a sense of redemption by story's end (well, some of them anyway--the ones you care most about). Her cast of characters are always well defined and developed no matter what mistakes they may make. With every new Whipple novel I read I seem to find a new favorite, so compulsively readable are her stories. They are never mere entertainments, though entertaining they are, but show a surprising depth and weight. Three novels read, two more on my shelves yet to be read, and hopefully Persephone Books will continue reissuing her books until they are all once again in print.