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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.

That Motu Proprio Business

I decided several years ago that I had had enough of intra-Catholic controversies, especially those surrounding and frequently caused by Pope Francis, and that I was going to start ignoring them. It seemed that I was just going to have to accept the fact that the Pope had renewed a conflict within the Church that I had thought, or at least hoped, was slowly dying down--I mean the conflict between the factions conventionally if inaccurately labeled "liberal" and "conservative."

So I stopped reading news stories about the Pope, whether in the secular religious press. It wasn't hard to do, as I've never been a Vatican-watcher, and, probably more importantly, he just didn't seem to be in the news as much. And I've been happier for it. But I can't resist taking a shot at the recent motu proprio which revokes the wide permission granted by Pope Benedict XVI for the celebration of the pre-Vatican-II Mass. In practical effect it seeks to extirpate the old Mass, and it's a weirdly punitive action, in startling contrast to Francis's talk about being inclusive etc. 

I am not a capital-T Traditionalist (little-t traditionalist, maybe), I don't attend the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM), have no particular affection for it, and no direct personal interest in seeing it preserved, beyond a healthy respect for our liturgical heritage. What I do have is sympathy for those who are attached to it. (This is an odd and maybe significant parallel to my situation with regard to Donald Trump's presidency: I didn't support him, but I sympathized with those who did.) When the question is reduced (simplistically but frequently) to the choice between Latin and the vernacular, I'm firmly on the side of English, the only vernacular I care about.

But I've always been puzzled by the hostility of the proponents of the Novus Ordo (in other words, the vast majority of bishops, clergy, and academics) to the TLM. By "always" I mean since I became Catholic in 1981. I didn't grow up Catholic and had no experience whatsoever of the old Mass, therefore no attachment to it. But like the hypothetical space traveler landing on earth and wondering why we do certain things which strike him as odd, I was puzzled by the hostility. What I saw was a significant number of people, mostly older than me, who were very deeply attached to the old liturgy and were heartbroken by the change. And I couldn't understand why no accommodation was made for them, no gesture of concern at all that I could see. It seemed that they were held in contempt by the powers governing the Church for the bizarre crime of being attached to what the Church itself had encouraged them to love.

That picture is significantly different now. Forty years have passed, and most of the people I'm talking about are no longer with us. From what I see and hear the people now devoted to the TLM, the people who reportedly fill some parishes that are essentially TLM parishes, are middle-aged and younger, and could not possibly be acting out of some residual attachment to the Church of their childhood and youth. If anything they are reacting against that, against the Novus Ordo (for various well-known reasons that I won't bother with now). And maybe that's part of the reason the Pope has taken this action: we expected this thing to die, but it's growing, so we better kill it. The hostility toward the TLM in some quarters is at least as great as it was forty years ago. And I still don't understand it. 

The stereotype of Traditionalists is that they're rigid, cranky, suspicious, and so forth. As with almost all stereotypes, there's some truth in it. But it's not the whole story. The pope's letter accompanying the document emphasizes the harm done to the Church's unity by Traditionalists who reject Vatican II. But there is a world of middle-ground between the zealous progressive who thinks the only problem with Vatican II is that it didn't go far enough in erecting a new Church, and the zealous Traditionalist who denies the council's validity entirely. No doubt you can find some of those in TLM communities. But there's also no doubt that you could find many who believe that some aspects of the Council were unwise and that its implementation was misguided and botched. To believe that is in no way "comportment that contradicts communion,"  as Francis says in the letter accompanying his edict. His immediate predecessor often said things along those lines about the Council.

There's another stereotype involved here: the smiling progressive who is tolerant of everything except disagreement, ostentatiously compassionate, but having a mean streak. Francis shows something of that tendency. If Traditionalists are as alienated as he says, is this a wise way to deal with them? What happened to "accompaniment," "going to the margins," and all that stuff? If any group within the Catholic Church is marginalized right now, it's Traditionalists. This is like a father choosing to deal with an estranged child by telling him "Actually, I never liked you anyway. Also, I'm taking your dog to the shelter tomorrow."

Here are a couple of good responses. A fairly brief one from Amy Welborn, and a longer and liturgically erudite one from Dom Alcuin Reid.

And now I'll go back to not paying attention.

Terry Eagleton: Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate

I have the local library to thank for my having read this invigorating little book. They took it out of circulation (or rather, no doubt, non-circulation) and put it on the giveaway shelf, and I, having heard a few things about Eagleton that sounded interesting, took possession of it. And I'm glad I did. The library will not be getting it back from me, as sometimes happens to books I've picked up as discards. It's now riddled with book darts marking passages I particularly liked.

TerryEagleton-ReasonFaithAndRevolution(The apparently torn place is printed on the cover.)

What I had heard about Eagleton had given me the impression that he's an interesting atheist, which is unusual. Most atheists have such a shallow, and often just plain wrong, understanding of theistic concepts, and the place and function of religion in the human psyche and civilization, that reading them is just an exercise in frustration. No one over the age of fifteen should ever think the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a clever and telling argument against belief in the Creator God. (See Wikipedia if you haven't heard of it. I will admit that "Pastafarian" is funny.)

But there are those whom I call deep atheists who do understand the questions and their significance, and are willing and able to work out the import of their atheism. Some of these have a great deal of insight and are not only worthy of respect, not only interesting to read, but actually illuminating about the beliefs they reject. Terry Eagleton is one of these.

On the basis of this book I'm not sure that he is technically an atheist, but he is an ex-Catholic who no longer believes, at least not in that specific faith, but does understand it. He's also a Marxist. From both points of view he challenges the thin secular technocracy which thinks it is pushing us along on the way to history's final destination. Which I suppose could be true, but not as they imagine it.

Here is Eagleton against the shallow atheists Dawkins and Hitchens:

Dawkins falsely considers that Christianity offers a rival view of the universe to science. Like the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett in Breaking the Spell, he thinks it is a kind of bogus theory or pseudo-explanation of the world. In this sense, he is rather like someone who thinks that a novel is a botched piece of sociology, and who therefore can't see the point of it at all. Why bother with Robert Musil when you can read Max Weber?....

Christopher Hitchens makes much the same crass error, claiming in God Is Not Great that "thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important." But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.

And here he describes the profundity they don't see, and for that matter that many nominal Christians don't see:

For Christian teaching, God's love and forgiveness are ruthlessly unforgiving powers which break violently into our protective, self-rationalizing little sphere, smashing our sentimental illusions and turning our world brutally upside down. In Jesus, the law is revealed to be the law of love and mercy, and God not some Blakean Nobodaddy but a helpless, vulnerable animal. It is the flayed and bloody scapegoat of Calvary that is now the true signifier of the Law.... Here, then is your pie in the sky or opium of the people, your soft-eyed consolation and pale-cheeked piety...

The only authentic image of this violently loving God is a tortured and executed political criminal....

The prosperity gospel people are not the only ones who need to hear that; I can't say it strikes me as good news. It's not the whole story, obviously, but it is an important part, and one that most of us prefer not to face.

The latter part of the book focuses on the conflict between militant Islam and the secular West, and on the essential failure of the latter to grasp the powers of religion and culture, to think that exporting capitalism and democracy to the Islamic world would be both an easy and an effective way to resolve the conflict. To some extent it's a criticism of the various wars we've waged in the Middle East, and is less interesting to me, as the immediate importance of those arguments has receded in the political nervous breakdown that the United States, along with much of the rest of what we call "the West," is undergoing, 

Eagleton is primarily a literary critic. I don't go in much for contemporary criticism, having gotten off the literary bus just before it arrived at post-modernism, and not liking what I can see of that. But he's hostile to post-modernism, so perhaps I'd find his criticism worthwhile, too.

I Want This On My Tombstone

However, I did try.
 --St. Katherine Drexel

I've taken it out of context--the sentence doesn't actually end there. And I'm not 100% certain that it was St K.D. It was in one of the daily meditations in a fairly recent Magnificat, maybe in March. I'm pretty sure I wrote it down, with attribution, somewhere, and now I can't find it. But in any case it sure fits.

Whole Lotta Kristin Goin' On

I am for the time being a little obsessed with this novel. A few notes as I make my way through the second book, The Wife:

Here's an excellent commentary on the novel from David Warren, a Canadian Catholic writer whose name I've seen here and there in publications like Touchstone (I think). I came across it because I was looking for information on the two translations. He defends the old one, and says that Undset worked with the translators. I would certainly like to know more about that. I am not 100% opposed to the archaisms, but am not 100% sold on them, either.

Tina Nunnally says that there are some significant omissions from the original in the Archer translation. I've now encountered one of those, and can vouch for the fact that it's very significant indeed. It has to do with Kristin's repentance for the events of The Wreath, and while it does not change the fact of that repentance, which is clear enough in Archer, it adds a great deal of force and passion. Why was it omitted? I can't think of any good reason why a translator would have taken such a liberty. I know nothing about Archer but it seems unlikely in the extreme that even a militant atheist would have done so, especially as the book is drenched in Christian doctrine and sensibility throughout. So presumably it was an aesthetic choice, and if so was it Archer's or Undset's? She must have approved it, at least, if Warren is right about her participation. Perhaps she thought she had laid it on a bit thick? That's possible, as it's not just a paragraph--it's a couple of pages. But if so I disagree. I found the passage very moving and would put a plus in Nunnally's column for it if I were tallying the merits of the two translations.


I suspect that Nunnally does not have a good feel for the Christian aspect of the novel. In keeping with my general practice of not reading introductions to novels until after the novel itself, I skipped Nunnally's introduction to The Wreath. I've now read it. She says that although Kristin is "well versed in the strictures of the Church...[s]he listens to her heart rather than to those around her." That's a very inadequate description of the moral, never mind spiritual, dimension of the novel.  (Also, I roll my eyes whenever anyone talks about following one's heart.) And:

Kristin's act of rebellion might be viewed as foolhardy or courageous...

How about wrong? And "strictures" suggests the usual modern misunderstanding of Christianity and especially of Catholicism: that it's all about rules invented and imposed by a (white male) power structure. Not that the Church hasn't made it easy for people to see it that way, but one would like a translator of Sigrid Undset's work to have a richer understanding of its spiritual world. In any case Kristin isn't merely "well versed in the strictures"--she is a believing Christian, which is another matter entirely. And then:

...but in either case she has to suffer the consequences of her actions. She must learn to take responsibility for her own fate.

Well, that's not false, but it's not very insightful, either. Only in the next paragraph does Nunnally mention sin, but even then there's an implication that the novel's conception of sin is a feature of its medieval culture rather than a conception of human life that is at the very least very much alive and relevant to our own time. 


But Nunnally's comments are profound when considered beside something I saw on a site where people comment on books--it wasn't Goodreads, but something like it, and I don't remember where now. 

Life was difficult for women in medieval Norway, but Kristin's would have been easier if she had made better choices.

The same could be said of Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth.


That fashionable "choices" and "decisions" terminology has bothered me for  a long time. It suggests a certain calm, reasonable process of evaluating possible courses of action and rationally picking one as promising the best "outcome," another word much favored today. I once heard it applied, laughably, to the "decision" of a group of drunken college girls to take a golf cart for a midnight spin which ended with the golf cart on its side and a few relatively minor injuries to the girls. I've seen it applied in contexts like this: "He was in prison because of decisions he made when he was young." And the final (pre-prison) one of those "decisions" was to rob a convenience store and shoot the clerk. Sure, it was a "decision" in some strict sense, but the language makes it sound like he calmly deliberated about the choice of armed robbery as a career. More likely it was not much better than an impulse, possibly one of a series of impulses likely to lead to bad "outcomes." At best it was an extremely inadequate risk analysis. We aren't operating rationally when we "decide" to act on an impulse, or, as Kristin did, on an overwhelming passion. Of course life involves a constant choice between right and wrong, but the tone of this kind of talk is often suggestive of just the opposite: that it's a merely utilitarian calculation of likely practical result.


Apparently there is a thriving tourism business in Norway built around Kristin Lavransdatter and other Undset works. I very much want to see those places, as Undset's descriptions make the landscape sound wondrous. At minimum, I would like to see a good many photographs of them. There should be an illustrated companion to Undset's medieval works, though I have not been able to find one. And for the human environment of the novel, there is an attempt at constructing Jørundgard, the estate of Kristin's family. It was built for the 1995 movie of The Wreath, directed by Liv Ullman. I saw it at the time and thought it was interesting in itself but not especially good as an adaptation of Undset. I'd like to see it again, if only for the visuals.

Psalm 104:1-4

Praise the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, thou art become exceeding glorious; thou art clothed with majesty and honour.
Thou deckest thyself with light as it were with a garment 
 and spreadest out the heavens like a curtain.
Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters
 and maketh the clouds his chariot, and walketh upon the wings of the wind.
He maketh his angels spirits
 and his ministers a flaming fire.

This is from one of the several psalms read at the Easter vigil, to which I'll be going in a few hours. A blessed and joyful Easter to all. 

Here endeth the posting of Coverdale psalms. 

Psalm 116:11-14

What reward shall I give unto the Lord 
 for all the benefits that he hath done unto me?
I will receive the cup of salvation
 and call upon the Name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows now in the presence of all His people;
 right dear in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.
Behold, O Lord, how that I am thy servant;
 I am thy servant, and the son of thine handmaid; thou hast broken my bonds in sunder.


In more recent translations, "right dear" is "precious." I rather like "right dear."

Psalm 69:1-2,7-9

Save me, O God,
 for the waters are come in, even unto my soul.
I stick fast in the deep mire, where no ground is;
 I am come into deep waters, so that the floods run over me.

And why? for thy sake have I suffered reproof;
 shame hath covered my face.
I am become a stranger unto my brethren,
 even an alien unto my mother’s children.
For the zeal of thine house hath even eaten me
 and the rebukes of them that rebuked thee are fallen upon me.


The first two verses are not included in today's Mass reading. I just like them. This is one of the imprecatory psalms, full of curses for the psalmist's enemies, and God's. Verse 23 has some relevance for our society.

Let their table be made a snare to take themselves withal 
 and let the things that should have been for their wealth be unto them an occasion of falling.

Psalm 71:1-2

In thee, O Lord, have I put my trust, let me never be put to confusion,
 but rid me, and deliver me, in thy righteousness; incline thine ear unto me, and save me.
Be thou my strong hold, whereunto I may alway resort;
 thou hast promised to help me, for thou art my house of defence, and my castle.