|Schools of Knox
copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
27 May 2006
Penelope Fitzgerald is well regarded as a patron
saint of late developers: she published her first literary work,
a ghost story for a competition, at 58, and her joint biography,
The Knox Brothers, in 1977, at 60. Ten novels followed,
but The Knox Brothers itself is very like a novel, in
the sense that it gives a broad view of a family history told
by what seems rather like an omniscient narrator.
The authority, certainly, of the voice telling
the story is never in any doubt. One has to remind oneself from
time to time of the reason for this -- Fitzgerald is the daughter
of the oldest of the brothers in question, and knew many of
the characters she evokes very well indeed. She must have thought
at the outset: nobody will want to read the story of four brilliant
sons of a bishop, written by one of their daughters, unless
it is done exceptionally well. Total self-effacement was one
key tactic. Another was novelistic concision: this book has
some complex issues to get across, but never for a sentence
wastes your time.
Who were the Knox brothers? Monsignor Ronald
Knox, the youngest, was the best known in his day, and his example
and memory was still controversial in my Anglican childhood.
He had "poped" - gone over to Rome - and become in
his Catholic way rather the counterpart of CS Lewis as a popular
Christian apologist. This was treachery, and it was a kind of
treachery that any serious young Anglican might be expected
at any time to commit, so the example of Ronald Knox was one
that held a peculiar horror and attraction: he was, people said,
the Cardinal Newman of his day. But people also said that, having
got its claws into him, the Catholic church didn't know what
to do with him. When they finally allowed him to do what he
wanted - run the Catholic chaplaincy in Oxford, ministering
to the students (another thing that made him a threat) -- the
experience proved a disappointment.
Fitzgerald puts the context elegantly: "During
the Twenties and early Thirties the Catholic Church in England
made a miscalculation, the kind of error which history permits
to Rome so that she can resume her majestic progress undisturbed.
It was the heyday of the Conversion of England, or Apostolate
to Non-Catholics ... But the task was seen, not so much as the
capture of the Establishment as the creation of another one
side by side with it, a Catholic model, every bit as good. Power
was felt to lie with the aristocracy, public schools, universities,
rank and patronage."
Taking a vow of poverty and living in the lap
of the aristocracy was a part of this strategy. By contrast,
the High Church Anglo-Catholics believed in a mission to the
poor. Wilfred Knox, the second youngest of the brothers, fervently
argued that the Church should disestablish itself, renounce
all privileges and really take the life of poverty seriously.
As he saw it, the Established Church had made itself widely
despised by the poor.
Dillwyn Knox, who recently featured in the
Lytton Strachey letters as friend and lover at Eton of Maynard
Keynes, was a classicist devoted to editing the fragmentary
works of an indisputably third-rate Alexandrian poet, until
the first world war found a use for his combination of mathematical
and linguistic genius in decrypting German signals. The notion,
now familiar to us through numerous accounts of Bletchley Park
in the second world war (where Dillwyn also played a key role
in cracking the Enigma codes), that Oxbridge academics could
be pressed into service as code-breakers was novel at the time.
Indeed the use of such intelligence had itself to be justified.
The depiction of "Dilly" and his discovery of this
vocation, with his passage from the "golden glow"
of Cambridge homosexual life to marriage and a cold, squirearchical
existence on an estate in High Wycombe, is marvellously achieved.
The oldest boy, Fitzgerald's father Edmund,
was a journalist and writer of light verse, who edited Punch.
The frivolity out of which he made a profession was shared in
different ways by his brothers. Eccentricity itself, taken to
such a degree, is a kind of frivolousness. Fitzgerald is normally
very even-handed in her praise or otherwise, but there is no
disguising the special warmth she feels towards Wilfred, with
his socialism and self-abnegation. Her account of the Oratory
of the Good Shepherd, dismal though the community seems to have
been, evinces a keen appreciation of its values. But you are
left completely in the dark as to where Fitzgerald's personal
religious allegiances lie. What she describes is a lost world
of anguished controversy and faith.