Cecily's book reviews

In general I've written reviews of every book I've read since I joined GoodReads (RIP) in May 08, along with one or two I read prior to that. More recent reviews tend to be longer (sometimes a tad too long?). I always carry a book, though I don't get as much time as I'd like to get engrossed - life is busy, but in a good way. Too many of my favourite authors died without writing enough! Apart from reading, and writing about reading, I enjoy Scrabble, good restaurants, woodland, and attending the theatre.
They Knew Mr. Knight - Dorothy Whipple This is a pitch-perfect period piece: middle class couple in their mid 40s, living in middle England, mid wars. It could have been hackneyed, or just dull, but it isn't - and it's beautifully written.

It opens with exquisite descriptions of the minor niggles of a slightly dull life; the precise annoyances being different for husband and wife, although the latter generally has a great "capacity for contentment". Each mundane thought and task (even shaving) sheds delicate light on the character involved, setting the scene for what follows.

PLOT

There is a clear arc to the plot - and indeed, the characters in it. Thomas Blake runs what was his family engineering business (sold because of his late father squandered money, mostly on drink). A chance meeting with entrepreneur Laurence Knight gives Thomas the chance to better himself, and thus his family. It cleverly portrays the excitement and expectation felt by characters, even when the reader suspects the future may not always be so rosy. It's poignant, without ever being sentimental.

CHARACTERS

Thomas and Celia have three children, who are teens at the start and young adults by the end: Freda, Ruth and Douglas. Each has a distinct and different character, and the way they are shaped by events has a certain inevitability with hindsight, even though none of the precise details feel predictable.

In addition, Thomas supports his widowed mother, spinster sister and feckless brother (Edward).

The eponymous Laurence Knight is a wealthy man, returned with his wife, to the town he grew up in.

The problem with mixing in these three different levels of society is that it involves a degree of unfamiliarity or even pretence and fear of being found out: "she was always... finding herself in company to which she felt either superior or inferior" - but never comfortably equal.

THEMES

At one level, this is a small family saga with a predictable plot (transformation through rise and fall - not just of the main characters). But that is only true in the most superficial sense. Within that familiar framework, many issues are vividly explored.

There are minor spoilers in this section, so you may prefer to skim the headings and then jump to the quotations at the end.

Role of Women

Celia is a wonderful mother, loving wife, and diligent and competent housewife. However, she is ill-educated in matters of business and finance, and ponders "briefly, how helpless women and children are; their fates are decided for them by men". She is cross when Thomas assumes decision-making power about Douglas' schooling on the basis that he's the man; she makes her points, but doesn't dare be really firm.

In such an environment, it's no wonder that the childless women come across as sad, unfulfilled and, in the case of neighbour Mrs Greene, an unpleasant busy-body, loathed by all.

However, when times are tough, it is Celia (and to some extent, Ruth) who is the strength of the family.

Growing Pains - Parenting Teens

Celia, struggles to understand each of her children and react appropriately to the challenges that arise with each, letting them make their own mark - and mistakes - but hating the hurt that sometimes resulted. Issues about parties, friends, fashion, heartbreak, embarrassing family members etc are just as pertinent now as then. "She was beset with the desire, common to all anxious mothers, to press into service food, sunshine, cushions, distractions, everything she could think of... to make him better."

Freda is a dreamy, self-centred snob: "when involved in any disagreeable situation, Freda's instinct was to escape". When she has a perm, against her mother's wishes, she is "almost frightened by her own behaviour" but ultimately "vanity drove out remorse". Freda blames her mother for everything that is less than perfect in her life, and her mother "didn't know whether Freda was really trivial or merely being perverse".

Ruth is outwardly more practical, but finds it hard to complete things. However, she shares her parents' capacity for love and loyalty, and proves to be a shrewd judge of character, especially with her grumpy grandmother.

Douglas is passionate - mainly about chemistry, which would be fine, were it not for the fact his father runs an engineering business.

Marriage

All the marriages have a delicate dynamic, and several include an imbalance of love or loyalty that is only acknowledge by one partner.

For one couple, the apparently pragmatic reasons for swapping between double and single beds have much deeper resonance and cause "a slight barrier... between them, of which poor [other half] was entirely unaware".

For another, the wife was "ashamed sometimes of clinging where she wasn't wanted... 'He'll be old sometime, and then he'll want me.'".

By contrast, there is a beautiful example of the transformative power of love.

Wealth

Prosperity makes barely-dreamed of luxuries almost commonplace, but it also provides new stresses, whether of fitting in, spreading wings, not having enough to do - or all three.

Thomas thought "Celia ought to be very satisfied... to be so well set up in this house, with these maids. She had nothing to do now but enjoy herself." But the extra staff "kept their places and saw that she kept hers. There was none of the hearty coo-operation of maid and mistress that there had been at The Grove". This, and endless bridge, which she only does "because there seemed to be nothing else to do" lead to depression: "my top life is all right... But my underneath life is all wrong".

Conversely, "the bitter bread of dependence" affects many characters in the book at different times, and each reacts differently: some are strengthened by it, and others are weakened.

Christianity

Thomas and Celia are non-religious (unusual in those days), though they take their children to church because "it was safer. No good taking away when they had nothing to offer in place."

Nevertheless, Whipple was a Christian, and the book is laced with subtle messages about avarice, snobbery and Faustian pacts, bundled with non-preachy lessons about pride, forgiveness and honesty. These are discussed more explicitly in an excellent afterword.

However, towards the end, there is a much more explicit section that feels out of place with the tone of the rest of it. A shame, imo, and the only real weakness in the book.

QUOTATIONS

* Her daughters "had her smooth skin now, her perished bloom. She had flowered, borne fruit, and was now fading". Later "Beauty was fugitive now. It came and went" (she was only 41 at this point!).

* "It was the sort of house where one could speak upstairs and be heard down. Smells, too, travelled easily in it."

* "The tram careered on, without having stopped. It had a reckless air."

* A grand car "arrested his attention by its discreet magnificence".

* "He continued to read the paper as he talked, because he often found it easier to talk to his children that way."

* The spinster aunt came "bringing an atmosphere of martyrdom. 'I was chopping cabbage,' she announced."

* "They had no money and lived in a small, uninteresting way."

* "Edward was fortified by the knowledge that he was the most respected frequenter of The Swan... as comfortable at The Swan as the Blakes were in their own sitting room until he entered it." Ouch: the sting in the final phrase.

* The perils of making something for an ungrateful relative: "The jacket... gave more pleasure to the maker than it would to the recipient... They gave her double gifts... presents and causes for complaint."

* "The murk of the night curling in at the window."

* "She even managed to keep an expression of disapproval during mastication."

* "Man is not constituted to bear suspense. He can bear adversity, suffering, parting, death, but not suspense."

* A mother, with a son-in-law she dislikes, feels "bitter, uneasy, shut out, able only to ask brightly about the husband's health".

(Recommended by Clare P)

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