The Persephone book I meant to read this weekend was The Children Who Lived in a Barn, which I bought sometime last year. I was sure I knew where it was but when I looked it wasn't there, or anywhere else in the house as far as I could discover. So, determined not to be left out, I borrowed one from Simon, who kindly brought three along for me to choose from. I dithered a bit, but really there was no contest as I've been wanting to read another Dorothy Whipple since I so much enjoyed Someone at a Distance last summer.
Dorothy Whipple is a writer who no-one really seems to know how to praise -- that is, they do praise her, but they tend to do so in terms which sound rather off-putting -- Persephone themselves say she is "not a great writer", and describe her as "serviceable, perceptive and humane". Not the sort of terms that would make you rush to buy one of her books -- but nevertheless she is one of their best-selling authors. This seems a bit paradoxical, to say the least, and it raises interesting questions about quality which I'm not going to get into here. Suffice it to say that my second Whipple novel was a joy from start to finish and I whizzed through its 470 pages in no time.
They Knew Mr Knight is a novel about a family, the Blakes. Middle class, middle income, middle England. Thomas Blake works in a small engineering works, once owned by his family but now bought out by his late manager. Celia is his wife, and the centre of the novel -- I'll say more about her in a minute. Then there are the three teenage children, beautiful, discontented Freda, happy, bright Douglas, and dreamy, imaginative Ruth. Their house is small, though they have a maid (this is 1934, by the way, when that would have been the norm), and Celia, at forty-one, is generally contented, though she worries as all mothers do about her children and their futures, and regrets the slow but inexorable loss of her beauty:
She had flowered, borne fruit, and was now fading. The inexorability of time and life made Celia turn on her back, and stare at the ceiling. The sweep of life was sad, even tragic, but it was magnificent.
Thomas, though, is not contented. He's resentful of the fact that he has to work for a man who once worked for him. And so it is that when he attracts the attentions of Mr Knight, a hugely wealthy local financier who has recently moved into the district, he falls for him like a ripe plum. And, at first, this seems all to the good, as Mr Knight puts Thomas in the way of making a great deal more money. His income quadruples, he's able to buy back the works, the family moves house twice, ending up in the glorious little stately home the Knights have vacated after their move back to London. But lacking Mr Knight's interest and attention, Thomas starts to make a mess of his investments and disaster follows swiftly.
That's the bare bones of the plot, and a good one it is. But so much more is going on here. Each of the children has their own story -- Freda, unable to be happy with her life, incapable of sharing her feelings with the rest of the family, falls in with a fast set of young people a great deal wealthier than she is and suffers dreadfully from unrequited love -- Douglas, a brilliant career as a scientist ahead of him, falls for a beautiful young woman who turns out to be dangerously involved with Mr Knight, and who breaks Douglas's heart -- and Ruth, sent off to France for a year, whose great ambition is to be a writer. Then there's Edward, Thomas's brother, seemingly a lost cause, who is redeemed by love; Thomas's dreadful, angry old mother; and wonderful, tragic Mrs Knight, whose early incarnation as a music-hall singer has to be concealed but bursts through from time to time despite her efforts to suppress it.
Above all, though, this is Celia's story. Celia, though absolutely human, is, essentially, a good woman. Now as anyone who has studied literature will know, goodness is the hardest quality for a writer to do well. Famously, Milton is said to have failed to make God a sympathetic character in Paradise Lost -- everybody who reads the poem is much keener on Satan. But Whipple seems to have succeeded where Milton failed. Clearly she was interested in goodness, as Ellen in Someone at a Distance is also possessed of it. In the Afterword to They Knew Mr Knight, the Reverend Terence Handley McMath puts this down to her religious beliefs. He tell us that "Dorothy Whipple inhabits a Christian world where religious truth and social feeling overlap", finds Christian language and images throughout the novel, sees Mr Knight as Satan and reads the plot as one of sin, love and redemption. Far be it from me to disagree with Rev. McMath. But though Celia undoubtedly has a spiritual inner life, it is not one in which church-going figures -- in fact she has tried a number of churches of different denominations and not found one she really relates to. But as she gets older, she has found herself increasingly on a search for "something in me" that
stretches out, like one of those caterpillars that cling to the end of a twig and wave themselves about in the air, feeling for something to hold onto. It's my spirit, I suppose.
This search, "profoundly isolated" and unremitting, occasionally results in brief flashes of apprehension of what she takes to be God, until, near the end of the novel, when she is at her lowest imaginable ebb, she has a full-blown epiphany in which she is caught up in a state of ecstacy:
It was God. She was sure. She was drawn into love, warmed, reassured, made happy like a child by a father. Grief was wiped out. The light that she had seen in flashes now shone full upon her. She was amazed by its spendour. She sank to the floor and knelt there, flooded in radiance. She saw. She knew. For a little space of time, she lived at the height of perception; for one moment, which would illuminate a lifetime, she was able, in spite of her thick self, to apprehend God.
Well. I think that's all very interesting. But don't let it make you think this is a preachy novel, because it really isn't. It's witty, perceptive, and brilliant in its depiction of people and their complex relationships. Sorry, Persephone, but I think it does Whipple a great disservice to describe her as "serviceable'.