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Ronald Knox:
A Man for All Seasons

edited by francesca bugliani knox
pontifical institute of medieval studies, 416 pages, $65

The greatest writer of English prose in the last century, P. G. Wodehouse excepted, was not Lytton Strachey or Logan Pearsall Smith or the E. M. Forster of Pharos and Pharillon or Hugh Trevor-Roper. It was certainly not John Updike or William Faulkner, who did not always write English. It was not, alas, Evelyn Waugh. Nor, one is forced to admit, somewhat reluctantly, was it Dom David Knowles, the golden-voiced singing-master of monastic history. It is Msgr. Ronald Knox who must take the silver medal.

Why this is not more widely acknowledged is difficult to say. “Every word you have written and spoken has been pure light to me,” Waugh once told his friend, and it was Waugh who came closer than anyone to explaining the difficulty of assessing a fellow writer who did not “employ a single recognizable idiosyncratic style” or stick to a single genre. “No major writer in our history,” he said, “has ever shown such an extent of accomplishment” as this author of essays, parodies, apologetics, criticism, light verse, and memoirs; scholar and author of detective fiction; ecclesiastical historian; translator; and homilist of genius. He was not entirely right about Knox’s style, though one begins to see what he means. Knox had an unrivaled ear; he could imitate any writer in Greek, Latin, or English. But he was not one of those authors like Trevor-Roper—or Waugh himself during the writing of his memoirs—who gives one the impression of having composed with Gibbon or another exemplar open on his lap. Like Newman’s, his style is at once high—solemn, Augustan, elegant, periodic, musical—and low—breezy, chatty, colloquial—without the slightest hint of discord. It is identifiable and wholly singular.

Waugh once complained that Knox’s books could only be purchased at “a shop that specializes in rosaries and missals.” Today very few of them are in print. (The slapdash print-on-demand editions, like the one of God and the Atom I acquired from a firm based in New Delhi, with its blurry type, irregular margins, and missing pages, do not count.) Those that remain widely available are a hodgepodge: a few volumes of sermons, the detective novels, his translation of the Bible, Enthusiasm. The initiate must hunt down the Sheed & Ward originals with their pink boards, floral motifs, and decorated endpapers. One can say without exaggeration that the present volume, a bundle of appreciative essays, correspondence, and unpublished and uncollected writings, will be loved by everyone who opens it. But one also hopes that its appearance, at the centenary of Knox’s reception into the Church, will inspire a wider interest in his life and works.

Born in 1888 into a clerical family, Knox had an extraordinary childhood. His first Latin play was composed at the age of eight; a year later, he told a lie, something he would never do again. When his father, the decidedly low-church bishop of Manchester, was widowed, Ronald and his brothers—Edmund, Dillwyn, and Wilfred—“began to resemble . . . savages,” as his niece Penelope Fitzgerald once put it, running about the tumbledown episcopal residence in shabby clothes speaking only Greek and Latin. All the boys were in love with the minutiae of railway travel; one of their favorite games involved reciting in turn from Bradshaw’s Railway Guide and Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, annotating the timetable with apposite lines from the latter. Wilfred, aged three, glossed the litany of stops for cattle trains between Kibworth and Birmingham with “And wounded horses kicking / And snorting purple foam: / Right well did such a couch befit / A Consular of Rome.”

By the time he took Anglican orders in 1912, having won a fellowship to Trinity College and carried away prize after prize for classics, Knox was high church, indeed “papalist,” in outlook. There was something camp in his involvement with the Society of Ss. Peter and Paul, a flamboyant group organized by Maurice Child to publish Anglican versions of Roman Catholic liturgical texts and sell “Lambeth Frankincense” and “Latimer and Ridley votive-candle stands” to readers of the Church Times. Had he not converted in 1917, entering the Catholic priesthood a year later, he might have been one of those curious and attractive figures in the history of the Church of England like Robert Burton and Dean Swift who perform their ecclesiastical labors cursorily while setting up a niche for themselves in the byways of literature. Instead, he became a dedicated teacher at Shrewsbury School, where he devised an elaborate method of teaching Latin grammar involving hundreds of words typed on individual sheets of paper given to his students with instructions to arrange them into a piece of narrative verse. Later he was to serve for more than a decade as Catholic chaplain at Oxford.

All the while he scribbled away, writing detective novels (largely to support the Oxford chaplaincy), essays, pamphlets, articles, translations of spiritual classics (on his deathbed he completed what is undoubtedly the best English version of St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s autobiography), catechetical material, and much else. He scripted a radio program about a communist invasion of Britain, which, much like the famous Orson Welles broadcast that it inspired, led to panic among unsuspecting listeners. He invented and, with the help of Dorothy Sayers and others, refined the so-called “Sherlockian Game,” a parody of the higher criticism in which the Historical Holmes, obscured by the errors and interpolations of Watson and his lying followers, is revealed; in a similar vein he once argued that Queen Victoria rather than Tennyson must have been the true author of In Memoriam.

Such teasing was more than a parlor game; it was the only polite way in which a sensibility such as Knox’s could have engaged with the delusions of positivist biblical scholars. He was not above a certain levity even when the subject was the Roman Rite itself. In The Mass in Slow Motion, a book of reflections on the Holy Sacrifice that were originally delivered to schoolgirls, he produced a volume that is practically unique in Catholic theology in its unabashedly personal and winsome tone (“I don’t think I try to concentrate on any single phrase in it, I just babble it out with a delightful sense that I am talking to god”). This was one of the many books singled out by the excommunicated Fr. Leonard Feeney as evidence of Knox’s collusion with “the Masonic enemies of the Church (and their Jewish progenitors).”

Knox was, among other things, the last truly great writer of sermons, a literary form that, difficult as it is to imagine now, once occupied the place of the novel in the affections of the reading public. For Catholics who are inclined to choose a Mass precisely because the homily will be short—or because there will not be one at all—there can be no greater treat than to open Knox’s Pastoral and Occasional Sermons and enter into the atmosphere of that scene in Boswell in which Johnson could rattle off the names of forgotten parsons (“I should not advise a preacher at this day to imitate Tillotson’s style. . . . Seed has a very fine style; but he is not very theological. . . . Sherlock’s style too is very elegant, though he has not made it his principal study.—And you may add Smallridge”). Nor did his attachment to the delights of old-fashioned English churchmanship, high, low, and broad, end there. Knox was obsessed with Trollope’s ecclesiastical novel cycle, The Chronicles of Barsetshire. He wrote numerous essays on Trollopeana and produced what must surely be the finest pastiche of his favorite novelist, a sequel called Barchester Pilgrimage that continues the story up to the 1930s. He adored (and who could not?) 

a world we were not born into, yet one that coloured for us the outlook of boyhood, when Archdeacons really preserved and drank port and quoted Horace, and country doctors dared to roll their own pills, and Lady Luftons brooded like a visible Providence over the country-side . . . and clerical controversies, however disedifying, did at least command the attention of the whole reading public.

Singling out any one work as Knox’s best is difficult, but if pressed I would nominate Enthusiasm, his history of schismatic movements in the Western Church from the Corinthians to Hannah Whitall Smith. Every paragraph is a flawless mosaic of humor, whimsy, piety, and high scholarship. A lack of sanguinity and cultivation is one thing for which he occasionally found fault with his subjects. John Wesley, he wrote,

managed to combine incessant missionary . . . activity with a vast literary output; yet it would be hard to find another man so famous whose works are less generally read. . . . His copious reading was not digested by a habit of sane criticism; he will tell you that Ossian is “little inferior to Homer or Virgil, and in some respects superior to both,” and an hour or two with Voltaire is enough to convince him that “French is the poorest, meanest language in Europe.” He leaps to conclusions; is easily taken in, or no less easily repelled, by the last author who has been in his hands; altogether he is not a good advertisement for reading on horse-back.

This is not to suggest that Knox was one of those writers like Edmund Gosse who sneers at the Evangelical piety of his forebears; indeed, as more than one reviewer pointed out, the book’s long section on Wesley often reads like the work of an urbane Methodist who has come to terms with the shortcomings of a man he nevertheless reveres. Knox understood the value of that old-time religion as well as any of its adherents, as his moving autobiography, A Spiritual Aeneid, makes clear:

Candour compels me to admit that I neither then found, nor have since managed to persuade myself that I found, anything repulsive or frightening in such a religious atmosphere. Hell was part of those beliefs, like death; neither death nor hell dwells with any morbid fixity in the mind of a normal child. Rather, the personal love which God devotes to us, the ever-bringing miracle of His Redemption, the permanent ease of access to the glorified Saviour—these are the central characteristics of Evangelical devotion, and these its formative influences.

In fact, one might look to “evangelical rather than Catholic piety,” as Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth suggests in the present collection, for a key to many seemingly disparate aspects of Knox’s life and work. His ready wit and delight in games had been cultivated in the nursery and were the fruit of the good-humored parsonage culture encouraged by his father, who might have appreciated his son’s unfussy attitude toward saying Mass. His taste in literature was formed early on by his brothers and his stepmother, who bought him the first novels he would ever read. Even his devotion to the Blessed Virgin came to him organically as a student at Eton, well before he became a high-churchman.

A family friend once asked the young Knox, who sometimes had trouble sleeping, what he liked to do. “I lie awake and think about the past,” the four-year-old responded. Not long before his death from cancer, he told a friend he didn’t mind taking the train to Oxford, despite being very ill. “Trains, to me, you must remember, are music.” On the same trip, he had recited William Johnson Cory’s “Heraclitus,” the nostalgic elegy that was the favorite poem of all the Knox brothers, with such serenity that, the friend recalled, “We almost forgot that he was under sentence of death.” Perhaps this was because he had known since childhood that, sub specie aeternitatis, he was not. 

Matthew Walther is associate editor of the Washington Free Beacon and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.

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