The Magazine

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
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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."