ISBN is

978-0-333-19426-3 / 9780333194263

Knox Brothers

by

Publisher:Macmillan

Edition:Hardcover

Language:English

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About the book:

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

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