50 Ways to Gain Some Class: The Great Mr. Knight by Dorothy Whipple
Another week, another Whipple…. #177 The Great Mr. Knight.
I’m also reading Nicola Humble’s wonderful, amazing 182) The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism (hard copy, library) at the same time as my other books. What an excellent accompaniment to The Great Mr. Knight!
Humble is showing how “inter-war” (roughly between WWI and WWII) middlebrow English novels that focused on women played an important role in social change. During this time period, British institutions were changing (the economy, political system, education, religion, the family) and role expectations were also shifting, especially for women and the lower classes.
So far, her chapters have focused on class and feminism. She argues that these middlebrow authors, usually female, nearly always upper middle class, and often fairly feminist in their sensibilities, helped to delineate appropriate class and gendered roles. These delineations were both in touch with and just a bit ahead of the curve – these novelists were change agents, if you will, who showed ordinary people how their lives could be different and the ramifications of these changes. And Dorothy Whipple’s The Great Mr. Knight is a wonderful example of this.
The Great Mr. Knight
The novel deals primarily with the 1930’s era Blakes: parents Thomas and Celia; children Ruth, Freda, and Douglas. Thomas is a plant manager for an ironworks that his family used to own – his father, a somewhat dissolute intellectual, gave it up in order to spend his life reading philosophy. This was the aggravating pea in Thomas’ bed – never allowing him to forgive his father for selling off his inheritance. Celia is a classic Whipple wife: long-suffering, smart, patient, good, and wise with a bohemian streak. Ruth is smart, grounded and happy. Douglas is kind and passionate about chemistry. Freda is a classic climber: desperate to move into the life into which she feels she ought to have been born.
Enter Mr. Knight, stage door left. Mr. Knight is immediately too good to be true. One of the wealthiest men around, he comes into Thomas’s life at a key moment and helps him regain the keys to the factory and much more. But…
This was the perfect book to read after Humble’s chapter on class. The Great Mr. Knight is an exemplar of different people striving in (more than) 50 ways to move up. They change their friends, language, clothes, education, work, food, furniture, home, conveyances, etc. etc. Humble is mostly writing about Brits, as is Whipple, so this was especially helpful. Not that there is no class differentiation in the United States. Of course there is and people are more subconsciously aware of it than they like to admit. But class differences (perhaps especially in this time period) seem more historically fixed and clear and more culturally central in England. And there would have been a lot I would have missed if I hadn’t read Humble (for instance, how people trying to move up make fun of the language of the “climbers” a rung below them; the insouciance of the upper classes who can afford to break class rules because they are so solidly upper class; the manner in which someone can quickly take in the class status of an individual through their clothing).
Mr. Knight is about finding your true self and figuring out what reliably makes you happy. And it is also the chronicling of an era and a trend as the class walls moved a bit. I enjoyed it. It isn’t my fave Whipple: Someone at a Distance, Greenbanks, and High Wages are my favorites so far, but this is a good one.
And on another note:
Hang in there! Spring is just around the corner… and we all know that April showers bring spring flowers…
Happy Reading, Ruby