Last spring, I visited the hamlet of Knill, deep in the Herefordshire countryside. Knill lies on the river Lug, a tributary of the Wye, and in the 1930s Penelope Fitzgerald’s father, Eddie Knox, used to come here and fish with his brothers, taking the lease on a cottage. I had learned this from The Knox Brothers (1977), Fitzgerald’s beguiling biography of four remarkable men; loving it as much as her novels, I was keen to find this cottage, of which she had happy childhood memories.
My companion, a lover of old churches, found much to interest him in St Michael and All Angels, set amongst ancient yews; not least the framed pages of a nineteenth-century census, listing the members of the congregation and their occupations: domestic servants, agricultural labourers, carpenters. In the 1920s Wilfred Knox, Anglican priest and the third of the brothers, used occasionally to preach here to their descendants, and we can only wonder at their response to sermons delivered in clipped tones, beginning, ‘We read in Plotinus . . .’
The Classics, studied at Eton and Rugby, Oxford and Cambridge, featured largely in the education of all four brothers, born in the 1880s to the Evangelical Bishop of Manchester, Edmund Knox. A rubicund, affectionate man who had wooed delicate Ellen French with a rose bought on Oxford station, he knew by the end of his own time at Corpus Christi College that ‘hard work, academic success, faith and endurance’ were the keys to the future – not least because there was never much money. He serenely envisaged the Indian Civil Service for his three eldest sons, Edmund (Eddie), Dilwyn (Dilly) and Wilfred; the Evangelical Ministry for Ronald. All four were to choose quite different paths; each was greatly to distinguish himself.
They grew up with their two sisters
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Last spring, I visited the hamlet of Knill, deep in the Herefordshire countryside. Knill lies on the river Lug, a tributary of the Wye, and in the 1930s Penelope Fitzgerald’s father, Eddie Knox, used to come here and fish with his brothers, taking the lease on a cottage. I had learned this from The Knox Brothers (1977), Fitzgerald’s beguiling biography of four remarkable men; loving it as much as her novels, I was keen to find this cottage, of which she had happy childhood memories.My companion, a lover of old churches, found much to interest him in St Michael and All Angels, set amongst ancient yews; not least the framed pages of a nineteenth-century census, listing the members of the congregation and their occupations: domestic servants, agricultural labourers, carpenters. In the 1920s Wilfred Knox, Anglican priest and the third of the brothers, used occasionally to preach here to their descendants, and we can only wonder at their response to sermons delivered in clipped tones, beginning, ‘We read in Plotinus . . .’ The Classics, studied at Eton and Rugby, Oxford and Cambridge, featured largely in the education of all four brothers, born in the 1880s to the Evangelical Bishop of Manchester, Edmund Knox. A rubicund, affectionate man who had wooed delicate Ellen French with a rose bought on Oxford station, he knew by the end of his own time at Corpus Christi College that ‘hard work, academic success, faith and endurance’ were the keys to the future – not least because there was never much money. He serenely envisaged the Indian Civil Service for his three eldest sons, Edmund (Eddie), Dilwyn (Dilly) and Wilfred; the Evangelical Ministry for Ronald. All four were to choose quite different paths; each was greatly to distinguish himself. They grew up with their two sisters in the Old Rectory at Knibworth in Leicestershire.
At this point, the two elder boys, Edmund and Dilwyn, were ‘dark, charming, dangerous-looking, with a disposition to fight each other to the death under the nursery table’. The ‘little ones’, Wilfred and Ronald, were ‘fair, Quakerish and much more manageable’. Here the boys developed some of their enduring passions: ‘games, rules, inventions, railway timetables, the truth’. In an entertaining index, Fitzgerald lists their collective characteristics. These include: ‘Bath, inspiration in; Foreign travel, distrust of; Understatement, tendency to . . .’ This last would manifest itself in a reference to the horrors of the Somme as ‘a show’, and lunch at the Savoy as ‘something to eat’. It is a quality Fitzgerald herself was to deploy to considerable effect in her fiction. ‘We imagined other people might think we were peculiar,’ one of the brothers is reported as saying, and it is a measure of how much the four must have shared that Fitzgerald does not tell us which. Any one of them could have said it, and none much cared what others might think of them. The happiness of Knibworth days was to endure in their collective memory, but with the move to a new parish in Birmingham, the great bisecting event of all their lives took place. The Birmingham vicarage, in a narrow street, grimy and dark with smoke, had the girls in tears, though the boys fell in love with the trams. But here, at Christmas, their mother fell ill with influenza, and could not shake it off. There followed a succession of nursing homes around the country; she died eight months later, in 1892. ‘My dear, dear children,’ began their father’s letter to them all. The family was blown apart. Eddie, now 12, stayed at home with his father, struggling to assuage his grief by devising a complex tramway system up in his bedroom. Dilly and the girls were sent to a grim widowed aunt in Eastbourne. ‘Kneel down and give yourselves to Jesus,’ she instructed them. Dilly took refuge in the coal-hole. Wilfred and Ronnie were more fortunate, going to gentle Uncle Lindsay and his sisters in a placid little parish in Lincolnshire. Here the two boys’ lifelong dependence on one another began. The Birmingham house became seedy and neglected. And with the offer of a new appointment as Suffragan Bishop of Coventry, Edmund Knox knew that he could no longer manage his large family without a wife. Amazingly, a graceful and handsome young woman with ‘an airily penetrating blue gaze’ took him on. ‘Finished the Antigone. Married Bip,’ wrote Ethel Newton in her diary. At 27, eldest daughter of the (well-to-do) Vicar of Redditch, her first sight of the motherless Knox children at the railway station might well have daunted her. ‘[They] looked like scarecrows, or remnants from a jumble sale . . .’ But instructing them to call her ‘Mrs K’, which they did to the end of their lives, she loved and tamed them all. In 1929 she was commissioned by the Daily Chronicle to write a feature entitled ‘Mothers of Famous Men’. So who did these brothers become? Eddie, after a long apprenticeship in the great days of Fleet Street, was in 1932 appointed Editor of Punch. He had long since made a happy marriage to Christina Hicks, ‘a gentle, spirited, scholarly, hazel-eyed girl’, daughter of the Bishop of Lincoln. Baby number one was, of course, Penelope. Eddie was a scintillating writer of light verse, and something of his surreal humour can be divined from his transformation in early freelance days of a department store’s Great White Sale into the Great White Sail, a vast sea creature ‘travelling through glittering seas, ever onwards, fleeing – harpooned by 1,000 lady shoppers’. As Editor, he inherited the cartoonist Phil May – generally drunk – and E. H. Shepard, ‘whose airy graceful drawings seemed to blow across the pages’. At once, there was a wild rush of aspiring contributors and illustrators. ‘Meeting you, sir, is rather like meeting God,’ one such young man confided. Eddie replied that the resemblance was purely coincidental. Dilly, a tall, ungainly figure who looked like a great wading bird when he took to the dance floor, became an outstanding classicist and Cambridge Fellow, whose translation of tiny fragments of ancient Greek verses was to stand him in good stead in his later career at the Admiralty. Here, trained as a cryptographer in Naval Intelligence, he broke quite crucial codes in both world wars. These included, in 1941, finding a way into Enigma, cutting short the search for a solution by six months, and playing a huge part in the sinking of the Bismarck. Towering, caustic, brilliant and kindly, in 1920 Dilly married his Admiralty secretary, Olive Rodden, daughter of a Northumberland landowning family, and at her behest bought Courns Wood, a house surrounded by 40 acres of sodden woodland on a ridge of the Chilterns. It was never warm, except in his study and the airing cupboard. From here he roared up and down to London on the motorbike he had acquired in Cambridge days. The marriage brought two sons, whom he loved devotedly. Wilfred, ‘saintly, scholarly, sociable and strong-minded’, became an Anglo-Catholic priest and Christian Socialist. Soon after his ordination he worked in the slums of the East End. ‘I cannot’, he wrote drily in 1918, ‘find among our Lord’s charges to His disciples that they should live in the style customary to the upper middle classes.’ Two years later, he joined an eccentric and sustaining community: the Oratory of the Good Shepherd, a religious brotherhood of unmarried priests and laymen, based in Cambridge. By now, with his vow of poverty, Wilfred’s clerical black suit was barely respectable, approaching ‘absolute incoherence’ in wartime, when he took up a teaching post at Pembroke College. He was eventually appointed Chaplain there, and a photograph of him with East End fruit pickers on the Cambridge Mission shows a happy man, clearly loved by the laughing men around him. Ronald Knox, the youngest, was asked at the age of 4 what he liked doing. ‘I think all day,’ he replied, ‘and at night I think about the past.’ The golden boy of Eton, ‘perhaps the most brilliant speaker the Oxford Union had ever had’, he was the one who, converting to Catholicism in 1917, almost broke his Evangelical father’s heart. It was, however, a large enough heart to find forgiveness in it. ‘With overflowing love, dearest boy,’ the Bishop signed his letter of sorrowful acceptance. In 1926, Ronnie was appointed University Chaplain at Oxford. The honour was great, the stipend low. But he hit on a way of supplementing it. Already successful as the author of sparkling light radio broadcasts and columns in the press, he now began writing detective novels. ‘A man whose idea of the last really good invention was the toast rack’, he wrote of Bradshaw’s railway timetables, vicarages, gas taps and country-house parties. He was a sought-after guest at many such parties, once remembered standing before the fire with the family cat concealed beneath his long black soutane: no one could work out where the purring was coming from. His novels made for popular and nostalgic reading. In more serious vein, he translated the New Testament in an acclaimed version for Catholics. But no family is without its sorrows. Amidst all this achievement Eddie was the one most painfully bereaved, losing his mother at the age of 12, and his adored wife in 1935. For years he was unable to speak directly of either of them. ‘Even on such a wretched occasion as Christina’s funeral,’ writes Fitzgerald, ‘it was a memorable thing to see all four brothers together. Wilfred took the service, Dilly, who rarely entered a church, stood in silent misery at the back, Ronnie, who had not been to an Anglican service for nearly twenty years, knelt in the aisle . . . prayer manifest.’ Fitzgerald herself would have been 19, and it is a mark of this book that her presence here and throughout her story is a shadowy one. She is ‘Baby number one’; she is, we divine, the niece taken out by Dilly, ‘the kindest of visiting uncles’, from her ‘seemingly unending confinement’ at High Wycombe School. She is the motherless young woman, but nothing is ever made of that, and The Knox Brothers is all the more distinctive for its lack of ‘I remember . . .’ Not once does she use the first person – though, again, she would surely have been a witness at her father’s second wedding, to Mary Shepard, daughter of the great illustrator and friend from Punch. It was a happy marriage, but more sadness was to come for all of them. In 1942, after surgery for cancer some years earlier, Dilly was admitted to hospital and ‘began looking, in a detached way, through the burial service’. His death the following year was a mortal blow to the family. Wilfred lived on until 1950. His Life of St Paul had appeared in The Times list of best-selling books of the year in 1948, attributed to Ronnie. He would not have minded. ‘We need to be able to think of ourselves as nothing,’ he once told members of a retreat. So many students wanted to get into Pembroke College for the memorial service that there had to be a ballot for tickets. ‘It was hard to envisage life without their tattered chaplain.’ Ronnie died seven years later, soon after giving a magnificent Oxford lecture: ‘On English Translation’. He was very ill with cancer, but a member of the audience recalled that ‘all the old magic was there’. Eddie, the lone survivor, lived in contented retirement with Mary, in a little house close to Hampstead Heath. Of his death in 1971, Penelope Fitzgerald says nothing, though she clearly adored him, and The Knox Brothers wasn’t published for another six years. It’s an exceptionally good book about an extraordinary family: one of those late Victorian/Edwardian families characterized by intellectual brilliance and intense emotional closeness, of which the Darwins (see Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece, SF No. 40) and the Napiers (see Priscilla Napier’s A Late Beginner, SF No. 21) are other vibrant examples. As a collective biography it simply could not be bettered: filled with appealing detail on every page, direct, humorous and immensely sympathetic. Sadly, we were unable to identify the Herefordshire cottage from which the brothers set out to fish in the racing Lug. But we did find the nearby farm from where they fetched provisions, and as we left, late in the afternoon, cows were filing across the empty road for milking. That at least probably hadn’t changed very much.
True, people said the drains were bad at Knibworth, but who cared? 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.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 49 © Sue Gee 2016
About the contributor
Sue Gee mourns the passing of the dry, understated, clever and courteous Edwardian male, but is occasionally afforded a glimpse.