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Ronald Arbuthnott Knox (1888-1957)


Prolific English satirist, essayist, novelist, and translator, whose career as a writer spanned over 50 years. Most of Knox's books dealt with religion and spiritual topics. He converted to Roman Catholicism at the age of 29, and devoted his later life mainly to his translation of the Bible. Its complete version was published in 1955. Knox was also a leading member of the English Detection Club. In 1929 he published his ten commandment of crime fiction in the 'Introduction' of The Best Detective Stories of the Year 1928. Knox stressed in his Detective Story Decalogue fair play between reader and writer, and forbade death rays, poisons unknown to the science, supernatural agencies, fortuitous accidents. "Chinamen" were totally forbidden.

"Words are born and die; they live only so long as they have an important errand to fulfill, by expressing what needs expression." (from Enthusiasm, 1950)

Ronald Arbuthnott Knox was born in Knibworth, Leicestershire, the fourth son of Ellen Penelope French and the Reverend Edmund Arbuthnott Knox, later bishop of Mancester. Ronald's mother died when he was four year old. In 1895 Edmud Knox married Ethel Newton, twenty years his junior. Ronald's brother Wilfred become later a theologian; another brother, E.V. Knox, became the editor of Punch.

In 1900 Knox entered Eton. He was the coeditor of The Outsider (1906), an Etonian magazine and while still at school he published his first book, Signa Severa (1906), a collection of English, Greek and Latin verses. Knox, poem, The Wilderness' about planting a garden in School Yard, delighted generations of Etonians. After receiving his B.A. in 1910 in classics and philosophy from Balliol College, Oxford, he became a Fellow of Trinity College. In 1911 he was ordained an Anglican deacon and a year later priest in that religion. In 1912 Knox was named chaplain at Trinity College. During World War I he taught at Shrewsbury School and served at the War Office in military intelligence.

To the horror of his father, Knox converted to Catholicism in 1917 and resigned his fellowship of Trinity. In the privately printed book, Apologia (1917), and in A Spiritual Aeneid (1918) Knox explained his religious search and his rejection of the contemporary Anglican Church. In 1918 he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest. Knox taught at St. Edmund's College, Hertfordshire, from 1919 to 1926, and from 1926 to 1939 he was a chaplain to the Catholic undergraduates at the Oxford University. In the summer of 1939 he moved to Shropshire to translate the Vulgate. St. Jerome's fourth century Latin Bible had remained the official Catholic version for many centuries, and the bishops of England and Wales requested him to make a new translation. Knox also worked as a private chaplain in aristocratic houses, first to Lord and Lady Acton at Aldenham Park, and then to Katherine Asquith at Mells. Knox's version of the New Testament was published in 1944, the Old Testament in 1949 and 1950. The complete text, with hundreds of revisions suggested by the overseeing committee, was published in 1955. Knox's work was well-received but the Church decided to abandon the Vulgate and go back to the original Greek and Hebrew.

During World War II Father Knox headed a committee that provided Catholic books for servicemen. When Lord Acton decided to move with his family to Southern Rhodesia, Knox moved with his books to Mells, Somerset, where he took up chaplaincy at an old friend's estate. Knox died on August 24, 1957. He never married. His literary executor was Evelyn Waugh, whose biography on his friend appeared in 1959. The novelist Peneloped Fitzgerald, daughter of his brother E.V. Knox, published in 1977 The Knox Brothers.

The Belif of Catholics (1927 ) established Knox as one of the foremost Catholic voices in England. He expressed his worry about the consequences of modern world view, which has subjected fundamental dogmas of the Christian religion to criticism, or interpretation, and to restatement. "Neither the Church of England nor any Nonconformist body registers any increase of membership which keeps pace with the annual birth-rate; some of them have to register a net loss, not only of ministers, but chapels and of Sunday scholars. What hopes can be conceived that religion continues to be a real force in a nation which has so feeble a grasp on Church membership as this?... But can any sensible person delude himself into the idea that a decline of organized religion does not mean, pro tanto, a decline of religion altogether?" Among the main causes of this decline Knox saw popular education and newspaper culture, industrial development which focuses men's thoughts upon their material interests, a reaction against old faiths and old loyalties, and mass production which has made life pleasurable.

Knox was a prominent figure of the Detection Club. With its major writers he published in the early 1930s Scoop (1930) and Behind the Screen (1931), which appeared in The Listener and were written originally to be broadcasted. The Floating Admiral (1932) brought together again members of the Detection Club. The short story 'The Fallen Idol' appeared in Six Against Yard (1936). Its other writers were Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley, Freeman Wills Crofts, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Russell Thordike. Behind the Screen was a domestic drama, murder within a family. Knox's contribution was its last chapter, 'Mr Parsons on the Case' in which he showed his skill in weaving together stories written by Hugh Walpole, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthoiny Berkeley, and E.C. Bentley. The murderer is Robert Ellis, a throughly neurotic type, but also more sympathetic Miss Pettigrew, a dress-maker, is involved in the crime, and Knox ends his account with a small twist: "So the two amateurs pieced it out together. They could not know everything. They could not know that Miss Pettigrew instead of waiting in the hall all the time, went into the pantry to sneak biscuits, and so never saw Robert pass. That only came out at the inquiry, and was used by the court, most unscrupulously, as evidence that Miss Pettigrew was, at the moment at the murder, insane." (from 'Mr Parsons on the Case')

Knox's first mystery novel was The Viaduct Murder (1925). In the story a group of golfers discover the dead body of the local atheist below a railway viaduct. The pipe-smoking insurance investigator Miles Bredon, Knox's s series hero, was introduced in The Three Taps (1927). At that time Knox worked in Oxford, where he typed his books between eight-o'clock Mass and lunch. Bredon's investigations continued in The Footsteps at the Lock (1928), a story about two scheming cousins, The Body in the Silo (1934), Still Dead (1934), in which a body vanishes and appears again, and Double Cross Purposes (1937), about treasure hunt set in the Highland countryside. After six mystery novels Knox stopped writing them because his bishop ordered him to spend his time with more dignified pursuits.

In real life as a priest Knox had to accept miracles and divine agencies, but he condemned them in detective stories, in fiction. He regarded the detective novel as an intellectual puzzle which must obey the rules of logic - a view which was shared by many of his colleagues, but not entirely by T.S. Eliot who wished that writers would take more trouble and space over the characters. As a detective type Miles Bredon is not so memorable as G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown. Miles plays Patience, a difficult form of Canfield, and lets at the same time his unconscious work for him. Other central characters are Miles's wife Angela, his Boss, Sholto, and Inspector Leyland from Scotland Yard. The Body in the Silo is considered Knox's best mystery. In the story the murderer kills a wrong man, an influential politician, whose body is removed to the silo. Also the blundering murderer ends up dead. Critics have considered Bredon simply a bore and Knox's plots implausible. Knox himself was more good-humored as a critic, but he eventually protested when the young Lady Acton threw Double Cross Purposes into the Mediterranean. Knox's other books, such as Let Dons Delight (1939), imaginary conversations written from the perspective of an Oxford common room, and Enthusiasm (1950), a survey on the history of religion, have been praised for their wit and stimulating ideas.

In 1912 Knox became one of the first practitioners of the mock-serious pastime called Sherlockian scholarship with his article 'Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes', which first appeared in Blue Book 1912. Originally Knox wrote it as a satirical attack on the methodology of literary criticism, exemplified in the achievements of the school called "the higher criticism." Knox's absurd premise, that Sherlock Holmes is a real person, amused Conan Doyle, who wondered why "anybody should spend such pains on such material."

For further reading: The Life of Right Reverend Ronald Knox by Evelyn Waugh (1959, US title: Monsignor Ronald Knox); Ronald Knox by Thomas Corbishley (1964); Ronald Knox, the Writer by Robert Speaight (1966); The Knox Brothers by Penelope Fitzgerald (1977); 'Ronald A. Knox' by Susan Oleksiw, in Mystery & Suspense Writers, Vol. 1, ed. by Robin W. Winks (1998) 

Selected works:

  • Signa Severa, 1906
  • Selected Poems by Robert Browning, 1908 (editor)
  • Remigium Alarum, 1910
  • Juxta Salices, 1910
  • A Still More Sporting Adventure!, 1911 (with Charles R.L. Fletcher)
  • Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes, 1912
  • Naboth's Vineyard in Pawn, 1913
  • Some Loose Stones: Being a Consideration of Certain Tendencies in Modern Theology Illustrated by Reference to the Book Called "Foundations", 1913
  • The Church in Bondage, 1914
  • An Hour at the Front, 1914 (abridgment as Ten Minutes at the Front, 1916)
  • Reunion All Round, 1914
  • Authority in the Church, 1914
  • An Hour at the Front, 1914 (rev. as Ten Minutes at the Front, 1916)
  • Bread or Stone: Four Conferences on Impetrative Prayer, 1915
  • Absolute and Abitofhel, or, Noah’s Ark put in commission and set adrift , 1915
  • An Apologia, 1917
  • The Essentials of Spiritual Unity, 1918
  • A Spiritual Aeneid, 1918
  • Meditations on the Psalms, 1919
  • Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 1920
  • Q. Horati Carminum Liber Quintus, 1920 (with others)
  • Memories of the Future, Being Memories of the Years 1915-72, 1923
  • The Miracles of King Henry VI, 1923 (editor and translator)
  • Virgil: Aeneid, Books VII to IX, 1924 (editor and translator)
  • Sanctions: A Frivolity, 1924
  • A Book of the Acrostics, 1924
  • Londinium Defensum, 1925
  • Thesauropolemopompus, 1925
  • The Viaduct Murder, 1925
  • Other Eyes Than Ours, 1926
  • An Open-Air Pulpit, 1926
  • The Belief of Catholics, 1927
  • The Three Taps: A Detective Story Without a Moral, 1927
  • The Footsteps at the Lock, 1928
  • Anglican Cobwebs, 1928
  • Essays in Satire, 1928
  • Miracles, 1928
  • The Mystery of Kingdom and other Sermons, 1928
  • The Rich Young Man: A Fantasy, 1928
  • The Church on Earth, 1929
  • On Getting There, 1929
  • The Best Detective Stories of the Year 1928, 1929 (ed., with Henry Harrington; US title: The Best English Detective Stories of 1928)
  • The Best Detective Stories of the Year 1929, 1930 (ed., with Henry Harrington; US title: The Best English Detective Stories of 1929)
  • Caliban in Grub Street, 1930
  • The Scoop, 1930 (with other members of The Detection Club; serialized in The Listener)
    - Murha yksinoikeudella. Ruumis varjostimen takana (suom. 1985)
  • Behind the Screen, 1931 (with other members of The Detection Club; serialized in The Listener)
    - Murha yksinoikeudella. Ruumis varjostimen takana (suom. 1985)
  • The Floating Admiral, 1932 (with other members of The Detection Club)
  • Broadcast Minds, 1932
  • Difficulties, Being a Correspondence About the Catholic Religion Between Ronald Knox and Arnold Lunn, 1932
  • The Body in the Silo, 1934 (US title Settled Out of Court)
  • Still Dead, 1934
  • Barchester Pilgrimage, 1935
  • Heaven and Charing Cross: Sermons on the Holy Eucharist, 1935
  • Six Against the Yard, 1936 (with others; US title Six Against Scotland Yard)
  • The Holy Bible: An Abridgement and Rearrangement, 1936 (ed.)
  • Double Cross Purposes, 1937
  • Let Dons Delight, Being Variations on a Theme in an Oxford Common-Room, 1939
  • Captive Flames, 1940
  • The Westminster Hymnal, 1940 (with others)
  • Nazi and Nazarene, 1940
  • The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ According to Matthew, 1941 (translator)  
  • In Soft Garments, a Collection of Oxford Conferences, 1942
  • Manual of Prayers, 1942 (edigtor and translator, with others)
  • I Believe, 1944
  • The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, 1944 (translator)
  • God and the Atom, 1945
  • A Retreat for Priests, 1946
  • The Epistles and Gospels for Sunday and Holydays, 1946 (translation and commentary)
  • The Book of Psalms in Latin and English, with the Canticles Used in the Divine Office, 1947 (translator, edited by H. Richards)
  • The Epistles of Gospels for Sundays and Holidays, 1946 (translator)
  • The Mass in Slow Motion, 1948
  •  The Old Testament, 1948-50 (2 vols., translated from the Vulgate Latin)
  • The Creed in Slow Motion, 1949
  • A Selection from the Occasional Sermons of the Right Reverend Monsignor Ronald Arbuthnott Knox, 1949 (edited by Evelyn Waugh)
  • The Trials of a Translator, 1949
  • On Englishing the Bible, 1949
  • The Missal in Latin and English, 1949 (translator, with J. O'Connell and H.P.R. Finberg)
  • Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion: With Special Reference to the XVII and XVIII Centuries, 1950
  • Encyclocal Letter - Humani Genesis - of His Holiness Pius XII, 1950 (translator)
  • The Gospel in Slow Motion, 1950
  • St. Paul's Gospel, 1950
  • Holy Week, 1951 (translator)
  • Stimuli, 1951
  • The Hidden Stream, 1952
  • A New Testament Commentary for English Readers, 1952-56 (3 vols.)
  • Off the Record, 1953
  • A Retreat for Lay People, 1955
  • The Holy Bible, 1955 (translation from the Latin Vulgate in the light of the Hebrew and Greek originals)
  • Father Brown: Selected Stories by G.K. Chesterton, 1955 (ed.)
  • The Window in the Wall and Other Sermons on the Holy Eucharist, 1956
  • Bridegroom and Bride, 1957
  • On English Translation, 1957
  • Autobiography of a Saint: Thérèse of Lisieux, 1958 (translator)
  • Literary Distractions, 1958
  • The Priestly Life: A Retreat, 1958
  • In Three Tongues, 1959 (edited by Laurence Eyres)
  • Proving God, 1959
  • The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis, 1959 (translator, with M. Oakley)
  • Lightning Meditations, 1959
  • Retreat for Beginners, 1960
  • Occasional Sermons, 1960-63 (edited by Philip Caraman)
  • The Layman and His Conscience: A Retreat, 1961
  • The Pastoral Sermons, 1981 (edited by P. Caraman)
  • The Scoop, and Behind the Screen, 1983 (with others)
  • The Quotable Knox: A Topical Compendium of the Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Knox, 1996 (edited by George J. Marlin, Richard P. Rabatin, and John L. Swan, introduction by Eugene V. Clark)

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