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Via Nineweaving.

This is Penelope Fitzgerald's loving and hilarious biography of her father and uncles: Edmund (Evoe) Knox, longtime editor of Punch magazine; Dillwyn Knox, classical scholar, famously of Bletchley Park during the era of the breaking of Enigma; Ronald Knox, mystery writer, Catholic priest, and translator of the entire Bible all by himself; and Wilfred Knox, best described as a uniquely Anglican sort of ascetic. The eldest and longest-lived, Edmund, was born in 1881 and died in 1971. The book goes into some light family history before the 1880s and is then comprehensive through the middle 1950s, when the younger three died.

And by comprehensive I mean comprehensive. The Knox brothers, by virtue of genius, wide-ranging interests, and quantities of luck, knew just about everyone famous in their generations and were also familiar with large swathes of the not-so-famous. This book serves very well as a history of its times, though it is perhaps best at the period just before World War I, a time it looks at with relief, interest, fury and regret-- the 'All That' Robert Graves was saying goodbye to.

But the reason to read this is its tender portrait of four very different, very opinionated, very brilliant men. Also, it is consistently hysterically funny, in that way that only happens when things are drawn directly from life. The young Edmund Knox, for instance, on first getting a house of his own, piled all his receipts and tailor's bills into two hatboxes on the floor of the closet. When he had to write a business letter, he would overturn the hatboxes, and then begin 'Dear Sir, on consulting my files...'

Or there is the inimitable diary entry their stepmother, a scholar of Greek, made and was never after let to live down: "Finished the Antigone. Married Bip."

Or this excerpt, which is longer, but worth it. )

I am not going to try to attempt to excerpt the description of Wilfred at Christmas, except to say that I laughed until I hurt myself, and no favorite uncle ever had a better epitaph. There is also an utterly priceless description of Lytton Strachey, at Cambridge, falling into and out of love with Dillwyn in the space of about twenty minutes. (Dillwyn, though the book does not go into it, was seeing someone at that point-- Maynard Keynes.)

And yet it's a book that does handle the dark as well as the light, the losses and disappointments and the terrible rift that formed between Ronald and the rest of his family when he became a Roman Catholic. Wilfred was an Anglo-Catholic: it is not, remotely, the same thing. And their father was an Anglican bishop. And Dillwyn was an atheist. Unlike many families in such circumstances, they continued to speak, continued to see each other, continued to love; but they inflicted deep wounds. This is part of what makes this such a good history, the details of these doctrinal conflicts that mattered so terribly much, and which now I only know because I read a lot about this time period. Fitzgerald makes you care about them here.

I have left out so much that is good about this, from Ronald's scheme for writing bestselling mystery novels to support himself while Chaplain at Oxford (it worked) to Dillwyn's plans for writing poetry according to a schema based on cryptography (the poems, surprising everyone, aren't half bad). This is a lush book, an embarrassment of riches, the kind of thing I am always hoping to run into among the histories of various people's favorite Victorian and Edwardian relatives. This is a treasure.


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