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The Knox Brothers, by Penelope Fitzgerald

review published on February 3, 2014. Reviewed by Kirsty Hewitt

A.S. Byatt calls The Knox Brothers ‘A masterpiece… a portrait of English intelligence, eccentricity and wisdom’. In this biography, newly reissued by 4th Estate with a striking and rather lovely cover, author Penelope Fitzgerald presents a portrait of her father and his brothers. The book was first published in 1977, and was one of Fitzgerald’s earliest works. Her father, Edmund Knox – or Evoe, as he was known by all – was ‘a brilliant journalist, humanist and Fleet Street legend’, two of his brothers, Wilfred and Ronald, were both priests, and the youngest, Dillwyn, ‘possibly the most enigmatic brother’, was ‘a Greek scholar, mathematical genius and notoriously bad driver’.

The interesting preface to this edition has been penned by Hermione Lee, whose most recent book is a biography of Penelope Fitzgerald herself. The introduction has been written by Richard Holmes, who states that ‘As a Knox, she [Penelope Fitzgerald] was descended from one of the great intellectual, Anglo-Catholic clans of late Victorian England’. He goes on to describe that The Knox Brothers is Fitzgerald’s ‘remarkable tribute to this family inheritance. It is a strikingly original group biography’. He sets out the main details of the lives of the Knox brothers, and the things which they have come to be remembered for.

Fitzgerald writes in her own introduction to the volume that: ‘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 statement pass without question’. She describes the way in which she has ‘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’.

The Knox brothers, ‘descended from land settlers in Ulster’, were born between 1881 and 1888, and spent their formative years in the Edwardian era. Their family tree, which stretches back for several generations, has been included, along with a concise bibliography and rather large index. The book has been split into nine sections, ranging from ‘Beginnings’ to ‘Endings’. The brothers were brought up in an Evangelical household along with their two sisters, Ethel and Winifred (later to become the novelist Winifred Peck). Fitzgerald talks of the way in which the men in question ‘gave their working lives to journalism, cryptography, classical scholarship, the Anglican Church, [and] the Catholic Church’.

Fitzgerald’s father was the favourite child of the family: ‘Among a courageous group, he was the most daring’. Each and every one of the boys, from their early days, is described as clever and remarkable – Dillwyn, for example, ‘did not have to “do” sums, [as] he “saw” them’. Fitzgerald tells of their schooling and scholarships in distant towns, describing the way in which ‘In this family which breathed the air of scholarship, but had constant difficulty in making ends meet, education was the way to the future’.

Indeed, the education of the boys allowed them to advance rather far in their chosen careers. Evoe, for example, worked at iconic satirical magazine Punch, during what Richard Holmes states was ‘a perilous time (1932-1948) when the magazine was still a great institution of national identity’. It is fair to say that Fitzgerald’s family made important contributions to British history. Her father fought in the First World War and survived the Battle of Passchendaele, and Uncle Dillwyn, who ‘appeared to live entirely on black coffee and chocolate’ worked upon the Enigma Code, which was instrumental in ending the Second World War. Her family are justly remembered kindly. Wilfred worked as a chaplain at the University of Cambridge, and upon his death, ‘so many students wanted to get into Pembroke Chapel for the memorial service that there had to be a ballot for tickets. It was hard to envisage life in college without their tattered chaplain’.

Many anecdotes have been included throughout, and a lot of these are amusing and heartwarming. When staying in a different house for the night and encountering electric light within a dwelling for the first time, Wilfred and Ronald ‘sat in their nightgowns, taking strict turns, as they always did, to turn it [the light] on and off, and nobody told them to stop’. Wilfred, when he was around fourteen years old, went on to collect ‘Bits of Old Churches’. ‘These’, says Fitzgerald, ‘were souvenirs, stones and chippings which must genuinely have fallen off and been honestly picked up, otherwise they did not “count”, though Eddie and Dilly sometimes assisted with a good hard blow at the church wall which Wilfred never suspected’. Quotes and recollections have also been taken into account in each chapter, and most of these hail from the letters or memories of other family members. It is clear that Fitzgerald greatly respects her ancestors, but at no time is she overly gushing or biased about them. She tells of their stories with both wit and warmth

A lot of the details in The Knox Brothers are recounted in Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. The entirety of the book is, of course, well written and so interesting, but this reviewer would suggest that a long period of time is left between reading both of the aforementioned books, as they do overlap rather a lot. In The Knox Brothers, Fitzgerald has presented a very well considered portrait of a most intriguing family, each and every one of whom deserve to be remembered.

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