Ronnie Knox, the Priest as Man of Letters

The eclipse in Ronald Knox’s fortunes after his death contrasts starkly with the recognition that he had enjoyed in his lifetime as writer, classicist, journalist, broadcaster, preacher and translator.

Many contemporaries and fellow writers had praised his works. Among them were Evelyn Waugh, Martin D’Arcy, T.S. Eliot, Robert Speaight, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Maurice Baring and Hilaire Belloc. Sigfried Sassoon read Let Dons Delight (1939) no less than five times. Waugh omitted discussion of Knox’s many works from his biography because he was certain that he, Knox, would soon be the subject of scholarly interest. [1]

Waugh’s prediction proved false. Knox’s inductive habit of thought, the clarity and directness of his prose modelled on the classics, his eschewal of overt experimentation and, perhaps most importantly, his conversion to Catholicism, were soon looked upon as outmoded and unpopular.

Ronald Knox

Not even Fitzgerald’s biography of the Knox brothers revived Ronald’s fortunes. [2] After the 1970s few of Knox’s works continued to be published and studied by literary and academic critics. For most people he remained, throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the witty pre-Vatican II Catholic convert, the anti-modernist, the friend of the English aristocracy, the apologist out of tune with, and isolated from, the modern world, including modern literature.

This is unfortunate. Although often critical of what we call ‘modernism’ in literature and theology and also of ‘avant-garde’ movements, Knox stood up for the importance and power of literature. This is remarkable in that he was a clergyman speaking from within the institutional Catholic Church. Literature and religion, and more particularly, literature and Catholicism were inseparable elements of his life. His ‘dedication to literature’ was all encompassing, evident in everything he wrote, as Rowan Williams noticed, even in his translation of the Bible. [3] Something well written, whether religious or secular in content, was a ‘refraction of God’s perfect beauty’, Knox wrote, and a vehicle of grace. [4]

These sentiments inform Knox’s appreciation and practice of literature in three ways. First, he did not belittle post-reformation English literature, as some contemporary Catholic converts had done, and he appreciated the literary merits of Shakespeare, Dryden, Swift, Trollope, Jane Austen, Dickens, Stevenson, Lewis Carroll, W.H. Mallock and C.S. Lewis, among others.

Second, he applied his literary talents to different tasks, whether writing as a classicist, translator, spiritual guide, historian of ideas or theologian. Third, he wished, as a novelist, essayist and journalist, to reach as wide a public as possible and to challenge his readers intellectually through humour and satire rather than drama, psychoanalysis and the ‘mythical’ methods that besotted his contemporaries.

Laughter and humour were a family trait and part of his nature from his earliest years but his talent for satire and parody and his sense of humour also owed much to his love of English literature. In his introduction to Essays in Satire (1928) he claimed that English was the only literature in which humour, as distinct from satire, flourished.

If satire was, for Knox, a weapon in the prophet’s profession of truth, humour was a tool in the preacher’s call to holiness, as apparent in the sermons for young people (for example in Retreat for Beginners, 1960). [5]

Until the mid 1930s Knox thought that parody and satire in the manner of Dryden and Swift – and, we can add, Butler and W.H. Mallock whom he mentioned – were powerful devices for exposing the inconsistencies of Anglican modernism (Absolute and Abitofhell, 1912; Reunion all Round, 1914), the presumptions of ‘popular modernism’ (Caliban in Grub Street, 1930) and literary pretensions or fashions.

His first novel entitled Memoirs of the Future 1915-1988 was published in 1923, one year after Eliot’s Waste Land and Joyce’s Ulysses and two years before Virginia Wolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Through the narrator Lady Porstock, who writes in 1988, Knox has a chance to make fun of the avant-garde in art and literature, in particular Futurism.

In his next novel Sanctions (1924), a microcosm of contemporary society and its ideas, Knox shows a dislike for the self-referentiality of the literary world: Mr Chase, Mr Lydiard and Mr Esrick ‘were literary men, but all wrote the kind of literature you did not read unless you yourself were literary’. [6] Writing a piece for the Sunday Dispatch in 1929 he confirmed that among the things he did not believe in ­­ – besides mass production, big business and jazz music – were ‘the sex novel and Gertrude Stein and all the nasty modern movements that play upon our fear of being thought stupid or old-fashioned […] the Modern mind when it really gets going, and Progress […] and Tennyson.’ [7]

© Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies

In an essay written for The Evening Standard, he confessed: ‘I revere the moderns, because I feel their books must be terribly difficult to write; but I wish they were not so terribly difficult to read!’ [8] That was the reason why, in his view, detective novels had become so popular. In an unpublished lecture entitled ‘The Suicide of Art’ (16 March 1955), Knox signals the inconsistencies of intellectuals in an age in which serious purposes were frequently vaunted. In Sanctions the facilitator and promoter of the philosophical week-long discussions, Mrs Chulmleigh, a Whig and a professed agnostic, had been able to defend Tennyson and Rossetti ‘without seeming old-fashioned’. [9]

In conclusion, for Knox literature was not a laboratory for experimentation. It was part of the flow of history, part of man’s journey through life. The art of writing was not the preserve of a literary elite. Authors, and no less artists, should not be isolated from the public. Artistic creativity and the cultivation of beauty, understood as a reflection of God’s beauty were communal rather than solitary endeavours. It was with these ideals in mind – different though they were from those espoused by Eliot, Joyce, Virginia Wolff and other canonical modernist authors – that Knox contributed in his own original way to the ‘Catholic revival of English literature’ in the first half of the twentieth century.

Much more could be said about the aspirations of his many purely literary work both as critic and author. A good illustration is On Getting There (1929), a forgotten collection of exquisite essays, written in the manner of Thackeray’s Roundabout Papers, where he defends Dickens’s and Trollope’s novels, in particular the ‘objectivity’ of their characters. [10] The same can be said of the Essays in Satire (1928) mentioned above and his literary appreciations of Crashaw, Pascal, Johnson, Stevenson, Chesterton and Belloc. The four novels and six detective stories that he wrote between 1923 and 1939 as well as Barchester Pilgrimage (1935), a continuation of Trollope’s last novel, still need to be studied and contextualized. These works and many others by someone whom Penelope Fitzgerald calls a ‘word master’ await new readers and critics alike. [11]

 

 


[1] Evelyn Waugh, The Life of the Right Reverend Ronald Knox (Chapman and Hall, London, 1959), p. 2.
[2] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Knox Brothers (Flamingo, London, 2002) [1st edition 1977].
[3] Rowan Williams’s comment on the 2008 publication of the Knox Bible by Baronius Press: https://www.baroniuspress.com/book.php?wid=56&bid=60#tab=tab-6.
[4] Ronald Knox, ‘Half a Century’, The Tablet (19 November 1949, pp. 331–333). Reference here is to p. 332.
[5] See Milton Walsh, ‘Ronald Knox and Humour in the Service of God’ in Ronald Knox: A Man for All Seasons, ed. Francesca Bugliani Knox (PIMS, Toronto 2016), pp. 288–304. Ronald Knox discusses the difference between ‘humour’ and ‘satire’ in his Essays in Satire (Sheed and Ward, London, 1928), pp. 15–43.
[6] Ronald Knox, Sanctions: A Frivolity (Methuen, London 1924), p.10.
[7] Ronald Knox, ‘What I Don’t Believe In’, The Sunday Dispatch (27 January 1929), p. 10.
[8] Ronald Knox, ‘What Do You Read as You Ride?’, The Evening Standard (27 January 1928), p.7. Reprinted as ‘Second Readings’ in Ronald Knox, On Getting There (Methuen, London, 1929, pp. 29–34).
[9] Knox, Sanctions, p. 13.
[10] Knox, On Getting There, pp. 37, 47.
[11] Fitzgerald, The Knox Brothers, p. 241.

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