The title of THIS ABOVE ALL is taken from Polonius’ advice to Laertes: “This above all: to thine own self be true....” This theme runs through the novel and is the fundamental lesson that the principal characters must learn. The characters of THIS ABOVE ALL and their problems are intended to represent the people and tribulations in any period of peril. The author made a conscious effort to achieve a universality with his picture of wartime England. The protagonist, Clive Briggs, doubts whether England is worth fighting for, but beneath his bitterness, a deep loyalty remains firm. Eric Knight generally avoided sentimentality in his treatment of both love and war; he understood the dangers of romanticizing heroism and patriotism. The author questioned many assumptions of contemporary British life, but he always returned to a deeply rooted belief in the British people. THIS ABOVE ALL is not a great novel, but it presents a vivid panorama of a violent and traumatic moment in British history.
The descriptions of the cities and countryside are accurately portrayed, and the scenes of bombing raids are particularly effective. The dialogue is realistic but too discursive. The book would have profited and been better art if the conversations had been condensed; dialogue in a novel should seem real but cannot be authentic without risking boredom. Knight’s greatest triumph is with his secondary characters, who seem to possess a vitality that escapes the principal characters. Old Hamish and Gertie, the elderly dancer who has lost her leg, are touching in their scenes together and suggest a quality for endurance against all odds, which is one of the great attributes of the British people.
Clive insists that each person in the world encompasses all the rest of the world within himself. People should admit, he tells Prue, that they are cowards as well as heroes, that they can be cold and yet friendly, moral and immoral, religious and indifferent to religion. The author represents all levels of society in this novel and illustrates how peoples’ fundamental natures are laid bare in time of crisis. Individuals, he seems to be saying, sometimes have more in common than they realize. If they are true to themselves, they cannot help but be true to one another.