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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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.