The Knox Family
Whether writing fiction or a biography of her uncles, Penelope Fitzgerald was superb
Dec 4, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 12 • By BRIAN MURRAY
"I think that everyone's got a certain amount in them that they can write about," Penelope Fitzgerald told an interviewer earlier this year. "And they can write about it early in life, or late."
Fitzgerald chose late. She was fifty-eight when, in 1975, she published her first book -- a biography of the English painter Edward Burne-Jones -- and nearly sixty when she started writing fiction in a serious way. Fitzgerald's 1979 novel, Offshore, won Britain's prestigious Booker Prize; three others -- The Bookshop (1978), The Beginning of Spring (1988), and The Gate of Angels (1990) -- were shortlisted for the same honor. In 1998 Fitzgerald won the American National Book Critics Circle Award for The Blue Flower, her final novel and first international best-seller. She died this April at the age of eighty-three.
Publishers, mindful of Fitzgerald's continuing popularity, are now making her earlier works available to American readers. Fitzgerald's novels are marked from the start by an assurance of structure, a maturity of tone: They're wry, graceful, and lean. Fitzgerald often focuses on oddballs and outcasts, as well as on self-deluding souls encumbered in life's struggles by their own weaknesses and flaws. "One should write lives of people one admires," Fitzgerald once explained -- but "novels about people who are sadly mistaken."
Thus, in The Bookshop, Fitzgerald's most representative novel, a widow named Florence Green opens a bookshop in Hardborough, a dull and soggy coastal town in East Anglia. Florence is middle-aged and wary, suspecting for example that "men and women aren't quite the right people for each other." Still, as her last name suggests, Florence has remained something of an innocent; she has "a kind heart," which "is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation."
The people of Hardborough, Florence soon learns, aren't much interested in books or culture. They are, however, quite good at petty bickering and stirring up suspicion and spite, and in the end Florence's little bookshop folds in a squall of unexpected controversy. She leaves Hardborough with her "head bowed in shame," far less green than before. Florence, Fitzgerald suggests, will no longer "blind" herself to the grim fact that, in the final analysis, human beings are "divided into exterminators and exterminates, with the former, at any given moment, predominating."
The same issues of power and themes of cruelty are present in The Means of Escape -- a new collection of eight stories previously unpublished in the United States. These fable-like pieces, most written in the 1990s, illustrate vividly Fitzgerald's fondness for indirection and avoidance of heavy-handed explanation. Indeed, many readers will decide that several of these stories -- "Beehernz," "Not Shown," and "At Hiruharama" -- are rather too pared down: turned into puzzles, not tales. Others, like "The Axe" (Fitzgerald's first published story), are oddly surreal. For readers new to Fitzgerald, The Means of Escape is not the place to start. Still, even in these stories you can see her fascination with power and cruelty. "The Axe" features a cold-blooded manager who, for little reason, fires an old and pathetically devoted employee, with vicious and haunting results. "Not Shown" includes an oppressive woman who, we're told, "belongs to the tribe of torturers. Why pretend they don't exist?"
In all her work, Fitzgerald favored underdogs, the weak against the strong, and she despised self-importance and careless brutality. Just as emphatically, she prized wit, ingenuity, and generosity -- qualities amply displayed in her remarkable family of clerics, writers, and intellectuals. In fact, back in 1977, Fitzgerald published a fine family biography, The Knox Brothers, that pays tribute to her father, Edmund ("Eddie") Knox, and his three younger brothers -- who are now largely forgotten, but who were men of considerable achievement in their day.
Her father's family, Penelope Fitzgerald reports, included many Anglican churchmen: ministers, missionaries, and minor religious authors. But it was Edmund -- her grandfather -- who ascended most impressively in ecclesiastical rank, serving as bishop of Birmingham and, later, Manchester.
This Bishop Knox would probably not be remembered at all today, were it not for the fact that he sired four extraordinary boys. Edmund (1881-1971), the eldest brother, made his mark as an essayist, wit, and editor of the humor magazine Punch. Though now defunct, Punch prospered under Edmund, "the King of Fleet Street" as he was popularly known. The second brother, Dillwyn (1884-1943), even more impressively, was a world-class classicist and cryptologist who played a key role in cracking German codes, from the First World War's "Zimmermann telegram" to the Second World War's "Enigma" machine. The third brother, Wilfred (1886-1950), was an Anglican priest and a biblical scholar -- an unassuming man known for his singular piety and visible good works.
The fourth brother, Ronald (1888-1957), however, was the real star -- an engaging and sociable figure once dubbed by the Daily Mail as "the wittiest young man in England." Schooled at Eton and Oxford, "Ronnie" was throughout his life most comfortable with artists and academics, and moved easily among members of Britain's social elite. At Oxford, Ronald's closest friends included the poet Julian Grenfell and the future prime minister Harold Macmillan; in later years he counted among his confidants a distant cousin, Evelyn Waugh. Waugh, indeed, published a biography of Knox in 1959, hailing him as a man "who never lost a friend or made an enemy."
In 1917, however, he came close -- shocking and disturbing much of Britain when he left the Anglican priesthood for membership in the Church of Rome. Two years later, Ronald Knox was ordained a Catholic priest, "taking" -- as Fitzgerald notes -- "the antimodernist oath" against "all liberal interpretations whether of scripture or history."
Almost overnight, Father Knox became one of Britain's more controversial figures and the most famous convert since John Henry Newman left the Church of England in 1845. In 1926 Knox became Catholic chaplain at Oxford and -- requiring supplementary funds for the post -- threw his writing career into high gear. In a continuing series of sermons, essays, and books, Knox aimed to illuminate Catholic doctrine and, more broadly, defend Christian belief in an increasingly secular age. By the mid-1940s, Knox was known internationally for his learned but accessible religious writings; he was "at his best," Fitzgerald writes, "in the art of clear explanation." Among his English-speaking contemporaries, only C. S. Lewis or G. K. Chesterton achieved more influence and fame.
The donnish Knox lacked Chesterton's volcanic imagination and theatrical flair. Still, like Chesterton, he wrote lively, stylish, and often highly colloquial prose. And, like Chesterton, he repeatedly challenged many of the era's most prominent secular thinkers. Knox's Caliban in Grub Street (1930), for example, includes chapters entitled "The Higher Cretinism," "The Prudery of the Moderns," and "Bungling Up Damnation." It challenges Arnold Bennett, Rebecca West, and other advocates of what Knox ironically calls "the modern enlightenment."
One hears clear Chestertonian echoes when, for example, Knox chides Bennett for Bennett's contribution to the 1925 volume My Religion, a now hilariously outdated collection of essays by Arthur Conan Doyle, Hugh Walpole, and other famous English writers about their attempt to roll their own faiths. Bennett had written, "I do not believe, and never have at any time believed, in the divinity of Christ, the Virgin Birth, the Immaculate Conception, heaven, hell, the immortality of the soul, the divine inspiration of the Bible." And Knox responded, "This statement lacks, perhaps, scientific precision. Does Mr. Bennett believe in original sin? I imagine not; and if he does not believe in original sin, then he believes in the Immaculate Conception; not merely in the Immaculate Conception of our Lady, but in the immaculate conception of everybody else."
Like Chesterton, Knox enjoyed detective stories and published in the 1920s and 1930s several well-known essays about the genre, then nearing its golden age. Knox's "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes" is a true classic, spoofing the pomposity of much academic writing as it pretends to grapple seriously with the "grave inconsistencies" one finds in Dr. Watson's account of "the Holmes cycle." Later, in his foreword to The Best Detective Stories of the Year 1928, Knox famously laid down ten rules he deemed necessary for "the full enjoyment of a detective story." This "Detective Story Decalogue" included the avoidance of twins, secret passages and other cheap distracting tricks -- as well as the counsel that "the detective must not himself commit the crime."
Knox practiced what he preached. During the 1930s and 1940s he published several good mystery novels of his own, including The Viaduct Murder (1926), The Three Taps (1928), and Still Dead (1934). Knox's novels sold well and were critically praised, although one Chicago reviewer suggested that "the witty and soft-hearted Father Knox" wouldn't recognize "a real crook," while another complained that Knox's thick plots were redeemed only by his "witty asides."
In The Knox Brothers, Fitzgerald rightly stresses the importance of Ronald Knox's Enthusiasm (1950), a superbly written account of Christian heresy by a man who, in his own words, "dreaded the undue interference of emotion in religion." Fitzgerald also amply records Knox's struggle to produce a new, more modern translation of the Bible -- the chief project of his final years. Knox, Fitzgerald writes, wanted to produce "a Vulgate which could be read aloud with pleasure and which English Catholics, perhaps for the first time, might study together at home." Although admirable in many respects, the Knox Version never quite caught on, and was harshly dismissed by some reviewers. "It was," Fitzgerald writes, "an exercise in humility to read these opinions, and Ronnie said that on his deathbed, if he found he had no enemies left, he intended to forgive his reviewers."
Fitzgerald, however, provides little of the flavor of any of Ronnie's books; in fact, she rarely quotes from -- or comments on -- any of the Knox brothers' published writings. Fitzgerald records, for example, that in the late 1940s, Wilfred hit Britain's best-seller lists with a brief life of St. Paul. But we learn nothing else about the book's argument or style. Fitzgerald does note that her own father's humor "came partly from a sheer love of words," particularly puns; he was the sort of fellow who once began an address to the Omar Khayyam Society with the words "Onaccustomarkhayyam to public speaking." Otherwise, she ignores the popular light essays and verses that Eddie published under the pen name "Evoe."
There are other omissions and gaps. Fitzgerald says very little about the range of her subjects' friendships, or the personalities of their children, or the qualities of their wives. We aren't told, for example, that Edmund's second wife, Mary Shephard, not only illustrated the children's classic Mary Poppins, but used Edmund himself as a model for one of its characters -- the fatherly Mr. Banks.
But then, The Knox Brothers doesn't aspire to be a conventional literary biography. Instead, Fitzgerald has constructed a book that is very much like the best of her novels: understated, sympathetic, and tight. The Knox Brothers is fueled by the power of loving memory -- a daughter's desire to make her father and his brothers live again through an affectionate rendering not only of their deepest convictions, but their habits and idiosyncrasies.
As Fitzgerald makes clear, the brothers didn't invariably think or act as one. Neither Edmund nor Dillwyn shared the religious beliefs of their younger brothers; "Dilly," in fact, was a "ferocious agnostic" for much of his life. Ronald, one gathers, had little regard for Wilfred's socialist views. Still, the brothers were bound by mutual respect and a shared sense of humor -- by the values and attitudes they acquired as children growing up "in a Victorian vicarage." In addition to a lifelong fondness for games and jokes, the Knox brothers were bound by their modesty, their industry, and their belief in "getting on with it" in the face of adversity.
They were also, all of them, intellectually curious and gloriously quirky. Thus we're told that, as a student at Oxford, Wilfred devised "a series of ingenious tasks" to fill his idle moments, including "a series of controlled experiments in the college gardens" to determine, once and for all, "whether tortoises really preferred yellow flowers."
As an adult Wilfred was famously shabby, sporting cheap raincoats and preferring paper clips to collar studs. He was, moreover, "unusual in manner." Malcolm Muggeridge recalled that, upon meeting Wilfred, he was "greeted with an almost unintelligible remark out of the side of the mouth, followed by a number of disjointed sentences. Could they connect? Well, that was the fascination."
But perhaps the most attractive Knox trait was their "tenderheartedness," to use Fitzgerald's phrase. These were plainly decent and firmly anchored men whose ambitions didn't eclipse their consideration for others, and for whom civil behavior was, simply, the gentlemanly way. Thus Eddie's friends would remember the "casual courage" he displayed during the air raids of the Second World War. "He took to wandering about wherever the bombs fell thickest," a friend recalled, "with a bottle of whiskey in his pocket, looking for people who needed it."
In the foreword she wrote, shortly before her death, for this year's republication of The Knox Brothers, Fitzgerald observed that her father and his three brothers were "characteristically reticent about themselves, but, at the same time, most unwilling to let any statement pass without question." "I have tried," she continued, "to take into account both their modesty and their love of truth, and to arrive at the kind of biography of which they would have approved." The result is an unusually attractive and readable book that, in its idiosyncratic way, provides a vivid portrait of four good and talented men whose values, it's clear, are also Fitzgerald's own. The Knoxes, one thinks, would have heartily approved.
Brian Murray teaches writing at Loyola College in Maryland.