Best Book of the Week!
At the beginning of They Knew Mr. Knight, the Blakes are an ordinary, relatively happy middle-class family. Things are fairly tight for them financially, and their house is too small for the family. The two girls, Freda and Ruth, share a small room, and the boy Douglas lives up in the cold attic. Still, only two family members are discontented. Thomas Blake has always resented his feckless father having sold the family factory just as Thomas was old enough to work there and learn the business. He works there but only as an engineer, not as the owner. And his father left his mother and siblings penniless, so that Thomas and his wife Celia have had to support them ever since, his brother Edward being unable to hold down a job. The other discontented family member is Freda, the oldest girl, who dreams of leading a wealthy and fashionable life.
On the way to work one morning, Thomas saves Mr. Knight from falling on the stair to the train. Mr. Knight is a wealthy financier, and he immediately takes Thomas under his wing. He helps him buy back his family’s factory and gives him tips on investments. Soon, the family is doing enough better to move into a bigger house.
But Celia doesn’t like Mr. Knight or the effect he has on Thomas. She doesn’t like how Mr. Knight leaves Mrs. Knight alone all the time and flaunts his young mistress before her. She doesn’t like how Thomas has become a little self-important and doesn’t confide in her anymore or spend as much time with the family. She doesn’t like their new house and misses her old busy life.
As the Blakes’ fortunes improve, we get a growing sense that all will not be well for long. Celia finds herself in a big house with maids and nothing to do. Her new garden doesn’t inspire her, and the children are grown and going about their business. The two eldest have unhappy love affairs, both with charming but morally lax people they meet at Mr. Knight’s parties.
Through all this, Mr. Knight himself remains a shadowy figure, appearing seldom. He seems generous, but we already know he is restless and prone to losing interest in projects. We wonder what will happen when he loses interest in Thomas, who keeps trying to pay back the money he owes him, only to have Mr. Knight point him toward a new investment opportunity.
Celia is the main character in this novel, which manages to build up a fair amount of suspense over everyday concerns. Part of the novel touches on her spiritual needs, as she has sometimes felt she’s had a glimmer of the knowledge of God and wishes she could get closer to it.
I was completely gripped by this novel and its picture of the fleeting quality of happiness, the corroding effects of greed. Except for Mr. Knight, the main characters are mostly very human and likable. You want the Blakes to come through their acquaintance scatheless, but you know they will not. If it’s not telegraphing too much about the book to say so, this novel reminds me very much of The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope, only we are more attached to the characters.