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The Knox Brothers Paperback – August 7, 2001


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Penelope Fitzgerald's novels expertly map the unquiet heart. But so, too, do her three biographies, all of which mingle truth and tact, wit and documentary power. The Knox Brothers, first published in 1977, is suffused with rich, right strangeness and sad delight. Fitzgerald begins her group portrait of her father and three uncles a few generations back, establishing on the Knox side a tradition of religious fervor, dominant fathers, and invalid mothers. The Frenches were equally ecclesiastical but not so dour, her great-grandfather Thomas perhaps the most extraordinary of the lot: he ended his days wandering through Arabia preaching Christ's love. (In the end, "agents of the Sultan, who deeply respected the strange old fakir, were deputed to keep watch over him, but they could do nothing when they found him insensible, still with a book in his hand.")

We would gladly spend more time among these ancients, but this is the story of four sons--two of them agnostic, the other two deeply religious--born to Edmund and Ellen Knox between 1881 and 1886. Edmund George Valpy, Fitzgerald's father, would go on to edit Punch under the sobriquet Evoe. Alfred Dillwyn was first a classical scholar and then a world-class cryptographer. Wilfred Lawrence was concerned above all with poverty and inequity and made his life as an Anglo-Catholic priest. And, lastly, Ronald Arbuthnott, too, devoted his life to God, causing great familial distress by converting to Catholicism. (As a young boy, he would perform funeral rites for dead birds while sporting his sister Ethel's "pinafore for a surplice.") Raised in an era in which Anglicanism and Empire held sway, the brothers were blessed with a bright beginning in Leicestershire:

All the children were so happy there that in later years they could cure themselves of sleeplessness simply by imagining that they were back at Kibworth.... They were completely safe in the large nursery at the top of the back stairs, looking down into the kitchen garden, where in memory it was always summer, with the victoria plums ripening on the south wall. Their father mounted his stout horse, Doctor, to set off on his parish visits, and their dearly loved mother waved from an upper window.
This is only one beautiful passage among many in The Knox Brothers, and very characteristic as it weaves between sharp description and never-never-land nostalgia. Alas, it also points forward to irreparable change. First their father was granted a larger, less bucolic diocese in industrial Birmingham, and next their mother died too soon, in 1892.

The Knox Brothers is as acute as it is affectionate. Whether Fitzgerald is describing "slumbrous" turn-of-the-century Oxford or an infinitely more advanced Cambridge circa 1903--or Ronnie's 1951 private audience with the Pope, during which these men of the cloth mostly discussed the Loch Ness monster--she effortlessly evokes vanished worlds. She can also paint an entire relationship in a short space. As Dilly lay dying, his wife "nursed him devotedly. These two people had loved each other for twenty years without being able to make each other happy. They would have given the world, now they were at the point of separation, to understand one another." There is everything to savor in such scenes, so revealing of character and (perhaps) class. All four brothers, even as they grew into their separate visions, never lost their love for one another, and worked their wild talents as hard as was humanly possible. About the only enigma these intellectuals and devoted practical jokers could never resolve--and Penelope Fitzgerald makes us wonder if any of us can--was "an inner struggle between reason and emotion, and between emotion and the obligation not to show it." --Kerry Fried --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

As many readers know, Fitzgerald was 60 when she published her first novel, The Golden Child . She then wrote eight other novels; the last was The Blue Flower . What readers may not know, especially in the U.S., is that Fitzgerald was the product of a very illustrious family. Her father, E. V. "Eddie" Knox, was a contributor to Punch before becoming its editor from 1932 to 1945. Her uncles were Dillwyn, a mathematician and a chief codebreaker in both world wars; Wilfred, an Anglo-Catholic apologist; and Ronnie, aka Monsignor Ronald Knox, a well-known Roman Catholic priest. No wonder it took so long for Fitzgerald to produce a novel. This Knox Brothers is a so-called definitive edition of the 1977 version, and Fitzgerald completed work on it just prior to her death in April 2000. Bonnie Smothers
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Counterpoint (August 7, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1582431639
  • ISBN-13: 978-1582431635
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,678,203 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Walter C. Ebmeyer on October 29, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Penelope Fitzgerald's father was Edmund Knox, first son of an Anglican bishop. Edmund became editor of Punch. His next youngest brother was Dillwyn, who played a major role in the British cracking of the Nazi Enigma code. The next brother was Wilfred, an Anglo-Catholic author and social worker who never told a lie. The youngest was Msgr. Ronald Knox, who converted to Catholicism and single-handedly translated the New Testament from original sources. The wonder of the story is not only that all four brothers were so great, but also that Ms. Fitzgerald can write the four disparate stories so gloriously. She seems to know as much about Oxford faculty politics as the working of the German code machine. I'll end with two cliches: (1) I couldn't put it down, and (2) I was sad when it ended.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By taking a rest HALL OF FAME on December 18, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Penelope Fitzgerald produced some of the finest short novels written. Before she started her career as a novelist she wrote these collected biographies of her father and his 3 brothers in 1977. It seems appropriate that this collection of familial histories was updated and placed in its final form by Ms. Fitzgerald shortly before her death.
For those that believe Genetics play a role in the hereditary talent of later generations, this book certainly will reinforce that view. Whether when reviewing her Father's life, or that of his 3 brothers, all these men were exceptional in there own manner. There were characteristics they held in common; amongst them were brilliant wits, and integrity. The latter trait would seem redundant, or perhaps should be one we hope someday will be for all men like her Uncle Wilfred and her Uncle Ronald. Both of these men were Priests, but even here these Brothers maintained their own identities. Wilfred was an Anglo-Catholic Priest, and his Brother was a Priest of The Roman Catholic Church. The History of these men's lives are all of great interest, however the differences in the Religious Denominations, at first so similar to the ear, and then so different theologically, provided some of the more interesting aspects of the book.
Father Ronald went beyond the normal duties of his calling, and expanded his talents not only into journalism, but I believe rather specially as an Author of Detective Novels. All this was in addition to being The Chaplain At Oxford, and a man who translated a revised form of The New Testament, so that so many more could enjoy the writings.
For readers familiar with World War II, the word Enigma has a meaning in excess of the dictionary definition.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By L. C. Murtaugh on January 21, 2003
Format: Paperback
Why read biographies? Several reasons come to mind: to get a glimpse of a vanished past, to live vicariously through glamorous and interesting people, to learn truths about the good life that survive those vanished pasts and apply to even the unglamorous.
All of these apply in spades to _The Knox Brothers_, novelist Penelope Fitzgerald's 1977 biography of her father, Edmund ("Evoe") Knox and his brothers, Ronald, Wilfred and Dilly.
The most famous of the Knox brothers today is Ronald, a famous British convert to and apologist for Catholicism. His conversion is well-detailed by Fitzgerald, along with the strife it caused within the family: his father was an Anglican bishop, and remained essentially unreconciled to his convert son, and his brother Wilfred also became an Anglican clergyman. Evoe, who also achieved great fame as editor of the humor magazine Punch, was an indulgent agnostic, but Dilly was rigorously atheistic.
Despite such differences, mutual love and respect prevailed among the brothers, and as Fitzgerald writes, "one would think it must have been as clear then as it is now that if human love could rise above the doctrines that divide the Church, then these docrines must have singularly little to do with the love of God." The humane perspective that would later distinguish her novels is on ample display in this biography, as is her wry humor.
Perhaps most fascinating and unusual of the four brothers was Dilly, who served in both world wars as a codebreaker, and played an instrumental role in cracking the German Enigma machine during World War II. Fitzgerald describes his work in generous detail, and places it in the context of the family's general fascination with language and wordplay.
I highly recommend this biography, which like the lives of its subjects is briskly paced and rich in variety. One caveat: if you have no place in your heart for Anglophilia, you may find the personalities of Fleet Street and Oxbridge rather tiresome.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Old Gussie on October 17, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Penelope Fitzgerald,s fascinating story about her extraordinary uncles, each and every one of them. Men of the cloth, the Enigma code breaker, and a distinguished literary editor. She is a marvelous writer.
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