Reviews — From the January 2015 issue

Her Struggle

The reticence of Penelope Fitzgerald

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Sometimes the charisma of a nuclear family has such a strong pull that children of the second generation grow up hoping to qualify as honorary siblings of the first, and something like this seems to have been the case with Fitzgerald. The charm of her father and his three brothers began in childhood, to judge by The Knox Brothers, her 1977 group portrait of them. The young Edmund Knox, her future father, edited and illustrated the family newspaper, The Bolliday Bango. Dillwyn Knox “saw” sums without having to “do” them. Wilfred Knox maintained a private museum called, and containing, Bits of Old Churches. And Ronald Knox, the baby of the family, threatened to teach himself Sanskrit and Welsh despite a family rule against languages that no relative could understand. One thinks of the boast of the preppy-misfit hero of Wes Anderson’s film Rushmore: “I saved Latin.” Indeed, Ronald contributed a serial in Latin to The Bolliday Bango.

And when the Knox brothers grew up, one of them did save Greek — the Greek of a minor, bawdy Alexandrian satirist, at any rate. Out of mangled fragments of papyrus, Dillwyn pieced together a definitive text. Using the same skill set during World War I, Dillwyn deciphered a German code, having noticed that one of Germany’s radio operators seemed to be using it to transmit poetry (Schiller, as it happened). Edmund, for his part, contributed light verse to Punch before becoming a staffer and then, from 1932 to 1949, its editor. Wilfred took vows of celibacy and poverty, and advocated for the Anglo-Catholic movement within the Church of England, despite his somewhat eccentric manner. (“Your dog’s chewing the seat of my trousers, Canon,” a gardener once informed him. “So I see; I don’t feel tempted to follow his example,” Wilfred replied.) Ronnie may have been the most prolific. In addition to becoming, in 1917, the most famous convert to Roman Catholicism of his generation, he penned detective stories, memoirs, Christian apologetics, a fantasy reinterpretation of Sherlock Holmes that doubled as a joke about German Biblical criticism, and a new translation of the Bible.

Lee points out that Fitzgerald had little to say about the Knox sisters, one of whom, under her married name, Winifred Peck, became a successful novelist. Perhaps Fitzgerald coveted her spot in the family tree? Lee also suggests that Fitzgerald played down what Lee calls “the ambivalent sexuality of three of the brothers.” By today’s standards, perhaps she did, but in the mid-twentieth century, such information was ordinarily conveyed in public writing by means of suggestive details, and Fitzgerald was fluent in the code. To readers also in the know, her meaning must have been fairly clear when she wrote that, after losing their religion, “Dilly and [John] Maynard Keynes had calmly undertaken experiments, intellectual and sexual”; that Ronnie was a devotee of the sentimental fiction of R. H. Benson and was led into Roman Catholicism in part by his love for one of his students at Oxford; and that Wilfred went through a period of “hardly ever speaking to a woman at all,” apart from relatives. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is much less forthcoming. (All four Knox brothers have entries in it, which would probably be a record if it weren’t for the Mitford sisters.)

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’s most recent book is Necessary Errors, a novel (Penguin).

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