A New Kind of Crazy
Martin Phipps: From the Soundtrack of The Crown

Penelope Fitzgerald: The Knox Brothers

My attempts to impose some kind of order and method on my reading never last, and the reason is usually that some stray impulse seizes me and I pick up a book that was not in line to be read, sometimes not even toward the end of that line but rather in the "someday" or even the "maybe someday" category. This book was one of those. I don't even remember why I picked it up, except that it was lying conspicuosly on the shelf out of place and on top of a stack. Probably I was looking for another book when this one caught my eye.

Anyway I didn't need to read very much before deciding to continue.

I didn't know that there were four Knox brothers and that they were all remarkably gifted. I think I had heard that Ronald had a brother who was an Anglican clergyman, but that was all. They were, from oldest to youngest, Edmund, Dillwyn, Wilfred, and Ronald. Edmund was a writer, chiefly satirical I think, and was associated for much of his life with Punch, including a stint as editor. Dillwyn was a classicist and, during the 20th century wars, a cryptographer. Wilfred was an Anglo-Catholic with a very strong commitment to the social justice efforts of the Church, a fairly rare combination I suspect, at least in that he didn't just talk social justice but also acted vigorously for it.

And Ronald--well, any Catholic who has an interest in that very rich vein of English Christianity that flowered from the late 19th century until the middle of the 20th knows who Ronald is. He, as I implied, was the reason I had any interest in this book at all, but the other three proved to be as interesting as he, in their general capacity as human beings rather than as a result of their fame.

But the reason I didn't put the book back on the shelf after browsing it for a bit had at least as much to do with the quality of the writing as with my interest in the Knoxes. It's a very well-crafted piece of literature in itself. I was vaguely aware that there is an English novelist named Penelope Fitzgerald, but had never read anything by her, and certainly had no idea that she was the niece of Ronald Knox: Edmund Knox was her father. She was a late bloomer as a writer--published in 1977 when she was 60, this was only her second book, and the novels came later.

I can't tell what Fitzgerald's own religious views are, but she is certainly both knowledgeable about and sympathetic toward those of her two committed uncles. The other uncle seems to have been agnostic if not atheist, and if there is any mention in the book of her father's religion it's not much emphasized. Their father was also an Anglican clergyman, eventually a bishop, but of very Evangelical convictions, and the Catholic sympathies of two of his sons were a great disappointment to him.

While they were growing up these two brothers had been about as close as age permitted, and Ronald's "going over" to Rome was as big a disappointment to his Anglo-Catholic brother as to their father. It meant not just a theological divergence but a rupture in the family, and was very painful to both. I admit that I previously had almost no sense of what Ronald Knox was like as a person, and the effect of this and many other aspects of his life naturally shed light on his work.

Fitzgerald is straightforward in her affection for all four brothers, and the book is a warm tribute. She keeps herself out of it as a character--apart from the foreword, I'm not sure that the word "I" occurs in the narrative. Only if you happened to notice that Edmund was the only one of the brothers to have a daughter would you realize that when it is related that Ronald said this or that "to his niece" it was said to the author of the book you're reading. Yet the whole thing is suffused with a personal warmth, as promised in the preface:

In this book I have done my best to tell the story of my father and his three brothers. All four of them were characteristically reticent about themselves, but, at the same time, most unwilling to let any moment pass without question. I have tried 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.

When I was very young I took my uncles for granted, and it never occurred to me that everyone else in the world was not like them. Later on I found that this was not so, and eventually I began to want to make some kind of record of their distinctive attitude to life, which made it seem as though, in spite of their differences, they shared one sense of humour and one mind.

We, as well as they, are well served by her book. Recommended enthusiastically as a completely fascinating picture of a fascinating family, as well as the now-vanished culture they inhabited.

The Knox children lost their mother early, when Ronald was four. In discussing their father's need to remarry and the kind of woman whom he could marry, Fitzgerald notes that "She would have to be vicarage born and bred." A whole way of life, now presumably unknown to anyone living, is implied in that.

Addendum: I had totally forgotten and had to be reminded by Janet that Marianne had contributed a piece on Penelope Fitzgerald to the 52 Authors thing we did in 2015. It's really good. Click here.


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She was one of our 52 Authors. Marianne wrote about her. I read whatever books of hers I could get my hands on and enjoyed them very much. This looks really interesting.


Oh my goodness--I had totally forgotten that. I really seriously worry about my memory. Thank you, and here's the link, which I'm also going to put in the post:


Now I recall why I have one of her books at home, that I have course not yet read. Need to move it up closer to the top of my books to be read pile. One of my many problems is that I generally don't deem a book worthy of reading unless it has a minimum of 500 pages for me to tackle. :-)

That's interesting. I'm the opposite. The longer it is, the more I think "do I really want to spend that much time on it?" I think I'm a relatively slow reader.

A few years ago I picked up at the library a collection of her essays, titled The Afterlife. Can't remember a lot about them now, mostly short pieces of literary criticism and some travel writing, including one on her trip to the Holy Land late in life. Have to check it out again.

I was about to say that's not listed in her Wikipedia bibliography, then I noticed that The Afterlife is the American title. It was A House of Air in the UK. It's not in my local library, but a couple of the novels are. Not The Beginning of Spring, though, which you said was your favorite. Nor The Blue Flower, which Wikipedia says was her biggest critical success (or something to that effect).

The library also has a movie of The Bookshop, released in 2019. Bill Nighy is in it. Not sure I recognize any of the other names involved.

When I was going on about the Knox brothers book a couple of weeks ago my wife was talking about reading one of the novels, but I don't think she has yet--I think she had already embarked on Kristen L., which she just finished. Anyway I'm going to ask her.

Library catalog entry provides this summary of the movie: "In England in 1959, free spirited widow Florence Green follows her lifelong dream by opening a bookshop in a conservative coastal town."

Not promising. I'd be surprised if PF did anything so banal as free spirit vs conservative town. I mean, that could be an element, but probably not that crude.

Summary for the novel: "The pettiness of an English seaside town. It is described by Florence Green, a middle-aged widow who buys a house for a bookshop, something the town has not had for over a century. Leading her enemies is Mrs. Gamart who wanted the house for an arts center."

I liked The Bookshop, but my memories of it are occluded by my more recent memories of the movie.


What did you think of the movie?

I haven't read this book in years, and may in fact never have finished it, but I loved and remembered the line about discovering that other people were not like her uncles.

For me it's one of those that make me think I would have liked to know the author, which is always a special pleasure. I meant to mention in this post that I generally don't care much for biography. This was an exception, obviously.

"Not promising. I'd be surprised if PF did anything so banal as free spirit vs conservative town. I mean, that could be an element, but probably not that crude."

It's not. IIRC, the bookstore fails simply because no one is interested in it, and because the proprietor has the worst possible luck. Fitzgerald seems to like writing about characters who have the worst possible luck.

Something or other that I read about her after I read the Knox book said that she and her husband were constantly in financial and other difficulties. May have been Wikipedia, but whoever was being quoted said something to the effect that they couldn't figure out how to manage ordinary life. That would feel a whole lot like bad luck. :-)

Her husband's drinking problem contributed a lot to it as well, I'm sure.

I mentioned this in the '52 Authors' thread, but in case anyone didn't see it, Everyman's has two omnibus editions of her books available, each one containing three novels. I don't remember how many she wrote in total, but I don't think it's many more than these six.

And Everyman editions are pretty nice. According to Wikipedia there are nine novels. I think the missing ones (from Everyman) are The Golden Child, At Freddie's, and Innocence.


A very good piece in the New Yorker on the biography of Fitzgerald published in 2013 talks about hard her life was, and mentions that it wasn't only a drinking problem with her husband, but that he stole money from his law offices and was disbarred, and the only work he found was in a travel agency as a clerk.

It also touches on something I've wondered about, which is why her well-situated family didn't help her financially while she struggled to bring up her three children. It seems she simply didn't ask for help. Still find it odd they didn't come to her rescue.

The consequences of stealing money from your employer definitely go well beyond bad luck. :-)

I suppose she may not have let the family know how just how bad her situation was. That's total speculation of course.

Several Evelyn Waugh books are $2.99 right now on Amazon Kindle or Nook, if anyone has interest in that type of thing...

I don't think I'll ever find it comfortable to read for very long on any electronic device, but at that price some books are worth having in electronic form so that you can search for specific words or phrases.

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