Knox Brothersby Penelope Fitzgerald
-New York Times.
Here is a biography whose eccentric genius perfectly matches that of its subjects. Penelope Fitzgerald tells the lives of four extraordinary Englishmen-her father and his brothers-with style and wit./i>/i>
"The anecdotes are wonderful. The Knox Brothers...provides a striking insight into the elusive nature of Fitzgerald's genius."
-New York Times.
Here is a biography whose eccentric genius perfectly matches that of its subjects. Penelope Fitzgerald tells the lives of four extraordinary Englishmen-her father and his brothers-with style and wit. Here is the story of a deeply fascinating family mind, shared by four brothers and passed along to their remarkable biographer.
New York Observer
The New York Times
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- Counterpoint Press
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This is the story of four brothers who were born into the family of a Victorian vicarage. When, seventy years later, the eldest was asked to consider writing his life, he declined, but suggested the title: Must We Have Lives? If we must, and if we want to understand them, we need to go back two or three generations.
The family was descended from landed settlers in Ulster, the Knoxes of Edentrellick, Rathmullen, Moneymore and Prehen. At the end of the eighteenth century the head of the Edentrellick branch, Alexander Knox, surrounded by his twenty-six children, set his face firmly against change. Although he and his descendants were Presbyterians, and suffered from the same political disabilities as the Catholics, he disapproved profoundly of the United Irishmen, who were hoping, by means of a somewhat amateurish rebellion, to establish a republic. Several of the family were implicated in the rising, and were wounded, disgraced, disowned, or, as the old man put it, "lived to be hanged." But one of the sons, George, steered clear of trouble altogether, and went to try his fortune in the West Indies. This George was to become the great-grandfather of the four Knox brothers.
Having a hardheaded Ulster business sense, George acquired a sugar plantation and later recommended himself to the Governor, General Nugent, who was of illegitimate birth and always ready to help those who helped themselves. He returned to Ireland only once in the next ten years, to marry Laetitia Greenfield, the daughter of Angel Atkinson, of the Moneymorebranch. Angel, who wrote that she was "waiting till it was God's pleasure to dismiss her soul from its frail habitation," was sickly, and George no doubt hoped, when she died, to inherit some more of the Knox property. Back in London, he set up as a merchant in Henrietta Street. The next prospects were to be the begetting of a numerous family, and the Moneymore inheritance. But everything went amiss: the property passed to a cousin, and Laetitia proved as delicate as her mother. She bore two sonsGeorge in 1814, Alexander in 1818then died, a few days later, of childbed fever.
To the four-year-old elder son it was a cruel shock. One of his books survives, a little leather-bound Tasso from his schooldays, with a Latin inscription: "This book was my mother's, my loved, my long-lost mother's." The words come as something of a surprise in the history of the shrewd and so far dislikeable family. With poor Laetitia, the Knoxes acquired the beginnings of tenderheartedness.
Against all expectation, young George's father turned away from him and lavished all his affection on the second son, who had innocently caused his mother's death. What was left of the West Indian properties was settled on Alexander; everything was for Alexander.
Tempers blazed high when George refused to sit under a Presbyterian minister. His mother had been an Anglican, and so would he be. He went on to read for Holy Orders, and in 1837 was a totally penniless curate when General Nugent kindly intervened once again, and offered him a chaplaincy in the service of the East India Company. Once arrived in India, George asked for no further patronage or "interest." Even though the great John and Henry Lawrence were his cousinstheir mother was a Laetitia Knox from Prehenhe never applied to them, believing, in the words of John Bunyan, that "every tub should stand on its own bottom."
His calling in Madras was not that of a missionary, but of chaplain to the English community. At first he inspired fear, a "black" Ulsterman, forceful as a soldier, whose heart was kept hidden. It was thought that he was more than fortunate to meet and win his future wife, Frances Reynolds.
Frances was of Quaker descent. The Reynolds family were reputable linen-bleachers at Beddington in Surrey, pious, discreet and thriving; but her father, Thomas Reynolds, was not a successful business man. He was drawn to impracticable schemes. As a very young man he had been sent to Paris by George IV to fetch back a mysterious "Miss Jones," supposedly the daughter of Mrs. Fitzherbert, who spoke much of her "rights," and bequeathed to the Reynoldses a tiny pair of "royal" scissors. Later on Thomas eloped to Gretna Green with his bride, Sophia Daniell, after bribing her maid with the present of a workbox. After his marriage he gave up the bleaching business altogether and went to Cambridge to study medicine, though with no intention of practicing. The result of all this airy dreaming was that his two daughters felt obliged to go out as governesses. To avert this fate the Curzons, who were distant connections, offered to take them to India, but the girls refused, "fearing the worldliness of the society into which they would be thrown." "There were very tender consciences," Frances's son wrote, "in the borderland where Quakerism and Evangelicalism met." Eventually the Daniells paid for the passages to India, and Frances and Mary Ann set off, their boxes full of dove-gray and sober brown dresses. They took with them, also, a copy of Keble's Christian Year, something more intensely and romantically devotional than the Meeting House could offer.
Mary Ann might have been supposed to do the better of the two, for she eventually married the Hon. David Arbuthnott; but in later years she horrified her family by announcing that she and all her children were to be received as Roman Catholics. This meant that the sisters could never meet or communicate again, and both of them accepted this, in spite of the intense grief it caused. It was a division sharper than the sword.
In 1844 Frances Reynolds was a girl of twenty, short, slight and dignified, with fair hair and complexion and a sweet smile of a kind unknown among the gloomy Ulster farms and linen-sheds, a smile which she bequeathed to her descendants. George Knox, on the other hand, was the kind of Irishman who, like Samuel Beckett's Watt, "had never smiled, but thought that he knew how it was done." They were married that winter, in the church at Cuddalore, a handsome couple whose charm and influence were long remembered in Madras. In 1855 they returned to England, bringing with them a "fine family" of four sons and three daughters.
George had no intention of returning to Edentrellick, and for a while they were travelers, passing from one curacy to another. York was the place the children remembered best, and how their father, preaching at St. John's by candlelight, put all the candles out, during a flight of eloquence, with a sweep of his pudding-bag sleeve, so that the church was left in darkness. In 1857 he was appointed Association Secretary of the Church Missionary Society, and they settled at Waddon, then a village, near Croydon. The house was not really large enough. The three elder boys slept together, the youngest, Lindsey, downstairs in the pantry. Edmund, the second son, who showed early scholastic promise, had to "get up" his lessons in the corner of his mother's room, and witnessed, in fear and reverence, his mother's daily prayers, as she struggled out loud to submit her will to God. But if there was overcrowding, nobody had time to worry about it. Everyone was hard at it, family and servants alike; if nothing else offered, there was sewing and poultry-keeping, though half the eggs had to be set aside to sell for the Missions. "There was no talk of slavery," Edmund wrote. "Industry was the normal condition of rational beings, and idleness a dangerous sin. That principle ruled throughout the household."
After her eighth confinement, it is true, Frances took to the life of a semi-invalid, but from her sofa she supervised every detail of the housekeeping. Between Ulster thrift and Quaker sobriety the economy was amazingly narrow. Only one piece of bread-and-butter was allowedafter that, dry bread only. Clothes were the subject of the deepest embarrassment. The boys were dressed in tartan tunics of seemingly indestructible material, handed down from one to another, or "a shapeless garment intended to represent a lounge coat." The girls could only pray that fashion would come round full circle so that people would not laugh at their appearance in the street. Fortunately, perhaps, they went out very little, and at the neighbors' parties they had to leave before the dancing, passing, with glances of acute regret, the loaded supper-table. The Knoxes, who for years had led the spacious social life of mid-Victorian India, now "kept no company." Neither did they take seaside holidays, or, indeed, any holidays at all. Books were severely restricted, novels forbidden, and the father, who chose all his sons' school prizes, would not hear of Ruskin, who tended to unmanly self-pity.
If George was becoming as tyrannous as his own father before him, it was out of an obsession which his whole family understood. At all costs, he must save them from hell-fire, and keep them on the narrow path of Low Church Anglicanism where he himself walked. Parents in those days did not dispute in public, and whatever Frances suffered when she heard, at a distance, the savage discipline and floggings that went on behind the study door, she was never seen to disagree with him. The boys, in time, made their own protest. Frederick, the third son, bit his father through the hand during a whipping, whereupon George, the eldest, threatened to run away unless the punishment stopped. But hardship never destroys a family if the parents share it, and all the children did well. The girls, it is true, never had much opportunity to meet any company and never married, but Ellen, without opposition from her father, won her way to Oxford and became Principal of Havergal College, Toronto. And as their parents grew old the children, as a natural thing, and without resentment for their hard upbringing, helped to support them.
Edmund, the industrious second son, who was to be the father of the four Knox brothers, was a stoutly built boy, with a native cheerfulness which was difficult to subdue. Of all the family he was the most profoundly influenced by the spiritual life of his mother. Her Quaker gift of prayer remained with him as he was gradually drawn toward the Evangelicals; what that meant, he has explained himself. First and foremost, the conviction that God loved him, "as an actual fact, that must take first place in my life." There was no real division between the unseen and the seen. Secondly, to look at the Bible as a personal message from God to the individual soul, "and to read it daily with a resolve to hear what God had to say to me that dayI must find words that were meant for me." Thirdly, to value the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, which was celebrated by the Evangelicals only rarely, perhaps once a month. This faith survived even the natural doubting-time of adolescence. "When the testing came, and when I heard the question put to my soul, `Wilt thou also go away?' I was able to see that unfaith could not satisfy my deepest needs."
Meanwhile, Edmund was determined not to be a "burden." He was justifiably proud of the fact that (apart from the railway fares and the indestructible clothing) his education cost his father only one shilling. This was for the tip traditionally given to the porter by a new boy at St. Paul's School. Once this shilling was paid, scholarships covered everything. In later years he became a stout supporter of free education.
Edmund, entering in 1857, was an excellent classical scholar, but although the discipline at St. Paul's was considered mildlargely owing to the absent-mindedness of the High Masterevery boy had to expect to be beaten every day. The beatings were administered on both moral and social grounds: the "old Adam" had to be driven out of them, and they had to be "hardened" to face a competitive world. For the same reason, Latin and Greek were made doubly difficult because the grammar-books themselves were printed in Latin. At St. Paul's there were no organized games, no "team spirit" to assist in the hardening process. The boys' free time was spent in the streets or on the muddy foreshore of the Thames.
After "hardening" came "forming," when the University was supposed to give a young man's character its final shape. When, in 1865, Edmund went up to Corpus, Oxford was spiritually in low water. The loss of Newman was still felt, and the aftermath of Tractarianism lingered. "Several other combatants of the great fray," he recalled, "were familiar in the street and at University sermonsthe ferret-like Dr. Hawkins, the elephantine Ben Symons, the statuesque Plumtree, the dapper Wynter, the caustic and ingenious Mark Pattison." But even these alarming figures, even Pusey himself, seemed weary; and the vacuum created was in danger of being filled by a liberal spirit of anti-clericalism, determined to remove power, once and for all, from the hands of the Church. This did not frighten young Edmund. If the new spirit meant that fellowships would be open to everyone, if it blew into musty corners, then he welcomed it. If it denied God, he would fight it.
Corpus itself was a pious and respectable college. It was nothing for the men to study, as Edmund often did, from four in the afternoon till two in the morning, sustained by cups of strong tea, and be ready, after a cold bath, for chapel at seven-thirty. On Sunday they put on black coats and top hats for their walk in the country. At first, to be sure, Edmund felt somewhat lonely, sitting, uncouth and penniless, in his room, hearing the steps of visitors go up the stairs, never for him. But, being naturally sociable, he looked out, and made friends. The company of his mother and sisters he certainly missed, and he went so far as to give up a course of lectures on the Greek Testament to go every week after evening service to a professor's drawing room where he could spend a precious hour "in the society of ladies." But he had much to do, and had found a firm ally in F. J. Chavasse (later the great Bishop of Liverpool), "a little man, almost deformed," but full of inward fire. With Chavasse, he could make headway, in the name of Evangelicalism, against the indifference of the University. "A dull life, do you say?" he wrote. "Well, we did not find it so." In his second year he told his father that he wished to be ordained.
George Knox had not forgotten how he fought this battle on his own account, but his concern for his children's success, as well as their salvation, by now amounted to a mania. If Edmund was to enter the Church, he must start as something better than a curate; he must either get first-class honors, which would lead to a University appointment, or renounce the idea, and go into the Indian Civil Service.
All turned on the final examinations, Greats in 1868, Law and Modern History in 1869. While he waited for the results, he wrote to his sister Emily, "visions of every conceivable class came before me, and I was absolutely wretched." The results came, and Chavasse wrote: "Thank God, thank God, dear old boy, that you have got a Firstthe sight of the class list took a load off my heart. I was dreaming all night that you had got a Third. I feel now how faithless I had been to mistrust God ... I am glad for your father's sakeabove all I am glad for the sake of Evangelical religion in Oxford. No answer is needed: I should not expect a letternay I shall be vexed if I get one." The President of Corpus offered Edmund the Cobbe Prize of £3 5s, "if I cared to take it, which of course I was not loth to do." It enabled him to buy "a new suit of clothing" to receive his honors.
Edmund was ordained in 1870, by which time he had already been elected a Fellow of Merton. He was assured of three hundred pounds a year for the rest of his life, as long as he did not acquire extensive landed property (a very remote contingency), and as long as he did not marry.
Hard work, academic success, faith, endurancethese were the keys to the future. But Edmund had inherited from the Reynolds family something quite beyond his father's capacitythe ability to enjoy himself. With his round parson's hat at the mercy of the winds, he took to tricycling and spun across the Christ Church meadows; on vacation in Scotland he learned to love the Highland scenery, never, as far as he could remember, having seen mountains before; "croquet," he wrote, "had but a passing hold on me; it came in while I was still a boy," but he introduced jeu de paume and lawn tennis, both of which he played pretty badly, into the quadrangle at Merton. On weekdays, too, he began to read novelsJane Austen and Trollope. And he was living in one of the oldest and most picturesque colleges in Oxford, "its Common-room panelled with oak, lit by candles in silver candlesticks, heated by a noble fire." These things were luxury, but he could not avoid the feeling that it was wrong for a man to have them at the start of his life. They should be earned and worked for, and nothing that he had done so far seemed enough. As Tutor, and later Dean, of Merton, he threw his considerable weight into the battle for sobriety and wholesome religious instruction. For example it had become, as he put it, "the habit of the idle to smash the windows of the new buildings with stones or with small loaves left over from meals." From his method of dealing with this and other problems he became known as Hard Knocks. At the same time, he took on an unpaid curacy in the poorest parish in Oxford. He was in sole charge there, one long hot summer, when smallpox raged through the district. He improvised as best he could. There were no hospitals in Oxford then for infectious diseases.
But what about "the society of ladies"? The young Tutor who was not permitted, by statute, to marry, and who had contemplated, though not taken, a vow of celibacy, found that he had fallen in love. A new rector had come to the church of St. Ebbe's, near Christ Church Meadowsa missionary who was recuperating, somewhat unwillingly, in England from illness and over-fatigue on his Indian journeys. His name was Thomas French, and Edmund had met him before, when he had come for a time to Croydon. The eldest daughter, Ellen Penelope, was twenty years old, delicate in health and appearance, with elegant straight features. She was well educated, musical, seemed never to think of herselfbut then, nor did anyone else in Dr. French's household. Almost at once Edmund "formed an attachment."
He was returning from a summer parish outing. There were roses for sale on the Oxford station platform. On an impulse he bought one, and offered it to Ellen. If she accepted it, he would try his fate. Ellen took it. He did not know that on her first morning in Oxford she had felt a premonition when she had seen him, quite by chance, walking up Keble Terrace. She had thought, "That is my future husband."
* * *
Thomas Valpy French was a saint, holy in the noblest sense of the word, and as exasperating as all saints. A poor judge of character, he always believed the best of everyone, in spite of repeated disappointments, and was so generous that his friends did not dare mention their wants, for fear of his ruining himself. Edmund Knox, in those Oxford days, "would gladly have sat at his feet." His wife yearned to have him at home more often, but could never regret his calling.
The Frenches were a family of Norman descent, originally the de Freynes, and Thomas's father, the Rev. Peter French, inexplicably known as "Goosefair" French, was a comfortable clergyman with good connections. His mother had been a Dillwyn from Wales, and he had married the daughter of Dr. Richard Valpy, the headmaster of Reading School. The Frenches lived in the spacious vicarage of Holy Trinity, Burton-on-Trent, with a prosperous brewery round the corner. How did their son, with easy prospects in front of him, come to end his life in a lonely sand-strewn grave at Muscat, "on the edge of nowhere"?
At Rugby, Thomas French was a fine classical scholar, who had had "much to bear" during his schooldays because of his lack of guile. There was in fact a terrible simplicity about him. The urgent command of Christ, at the end of St. Matthew, to "preach the truth to all nations," came to him first at Oxford; then, like his contemporaries, he had to pray for a right choice between Africa, India and the new industrial cities. He went to India. From then onward his life was a reckless sacrifice of the body and a broadening of the mind. "The Padri Sahib," said the Punjabis pityingly, "wears himself out and leaves no water in the well."
French arrived in Calcutta in 1850, and began the intensive study of Indian languages which made him known as the "seven-tongued Padri." But the swarming poverty struck him like a blow. He gave away his stipend, cut down his meals to a handful of rice, and "set his face" against being dressed by a bearer.
His first appointment from the Church Missionary Society was to St. John's College, Agra, a Christian school which he founded himself. He knew perfectly well that his unruly Hindu pupils only attended in the hope of getting Government jobs, and at first was pained by the "power of repulsion" they showed, but gradually their minds opened to him. They found that their headmaster was a fakirlike St. Paul, as he pointed outwho could be seen after school in the marketplace, seated on a heap of melons, taking part in disputes and preaching contests, or reading the Bible among lepers. After a while, he was admitted without opposition wherever he went. He was a holy man.
In 1851 his betrothed, Miss Mary Anne Jansen, courageously came out to Calcutta to marry him. She was the daughter of a merchant of Dutch origin who had married one of the Quaker Lloyds of Birmingham, the faithful friends of Charles Lamb. The Jansens were wealthy, which of course was of no importance at all to Mary Anne's husband, but, since he was never likely to save a penny, it was just as well. Their first children were born in India, the fourth one in the garrison at Agra during the Mutiny. Mrs. French watched the furniture of the British community floating downstream by the light of their burning houses; the Professor of English Literature was shot, and his horse and carriage flung into the compound. Thomas French, however, refused to enter the fort unless he had permission to bring his native Christians in with him. When this was granted he appeared carrying a large bag, which contained, not valuables, but his Arabic dictionary.
It was the end of his work in Agra, but in 1862 he returned to India, shrunken, ill, leaving his wife and children behind him, but unable to feel at peace in England. "The more I am borne away from you, the more my thoughts travel towards you," he wrote to Mary Anne as his train left London Bridge, but there were more tongues to learn and untold millions to reach, even though in the Moslem regions to which he was bound he was lucky to make five converts in a year. His appointment was now as Principal of the college at Lahore, but in the vacations he traveled tirelessly over the mountains, first to the wild districts of the North-West Frontier, then to Kashmir, studying Hebrew and Pushtu on muleback, arriving with his shabby books and luggage, often too weak to wind up his own watch. He had become deeply interested in both Hindu and Moslem asceticism, his ambition now being to understand the mind of Indian religion and to present Christianity "without losing a grain, yet measuredly and gradually as the people can bear it." At the same time, he had become increasingly impatient of the doctrinal quarrels within the Church itself. Small wonder that the Church Missionary Society were growing somewhat doubtful of their broadminded servant.
Why did he do it? The Jansens pressed him to come home to his family, and "I must feel the objections of my father-in-law," he wrote, "but I could not abandon the work without a farther trial of it." Today he would certainly be asked: why not leave these people to their own beliefs? Why press on them something they did not ask for and do not want? To this his reply would be: "The viewing of the unseen world instead of the visible things of timethis cannot be a shallow matter; it must be deep or not at allno halves in such a business."
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