Essays in Satire

Essays in Satire, Ronald Knox, 1928. AbeBooks.

Ronald Knox (1888-1957) was a priest who wrote devotional books, scholarly books, books of essays, detective stories (from which he made a substantial income), and novels. He was also a regular broadcaster in the early days of radio.

Some of the pieces reprinted in Essays in Satire have long since dried up and shrivelled. They would have been read politely to politely self-conscious after-dinner groups of Oxford undergraduates, and the scholarly sense of humour of those days is not ours today. But three or four of them are still very much alive and one of those is outstanding.

Absolute and Abitofhell is a review of a book, “Foundations”, on modern trends in theology. Knox had not read the book when he wrote the review, but he knew the nine authors and had a pretty good idea of what they would say. His review is in heroic couplets after the manner of Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, and is exactly done in the manner of a 17th-century polemical pamphlet. Everything fits: from the elaborate subtitle (“Or, Noah’s Ark put in Commission, and set adrift with no Walls or Roof…” etc, etc) to the typesetting, the spelling, and the grammar itself.

The book he was reviewing is long dead and so are its writers. We can admire the way that Knox/Dryden identifies them by symbolic Old Testament names even though we can’t any longer judge the aptness of the identifications. But it really doesn’t matter. The joy of this satire is the magnificent heroic couplet. The effect is like some gigantic laser drilling machine, its many tons wheeled into exact position and then with one single punch

Suave Politeneſs, temp’ring bigot Zeal,
Corrected, “I believe,” to “One does feel.”

a precise hole is drilled all the way through an inch-thick sheet of steel. Or again,

What difference, whether black be black or white,
If no officious Hand turn on the light?

One longs for a Drydenic satire on the present day; but alas, like laser drilling machines they are slow and costly to build.

Knox’s unerring feel for period marks another religious piece, Reunion All Round. Again the form is of a seventeenth-century pamphlet, but this time in prose, with the cynicism of modern ideas highlighted by being cast into the prose of the early 1600s. The theme is church unity starting with the Protestants and spreading outwards through Seventh-Day Adventists: “We shall have two days inſtead of one in every ſeven on which we can lie abed till Noon, and dine away from Home under colour of ſparing trouble to our Domesticks”. The Muslims present some difficulty, “Chriſtian men are accuſtomed to be content with one Wife, and even in America with one at a time ; Whereas in Turkey he would be thought a very chicken-hearted Husband who had not endow’d four Ladies ſimultaneouſly with his own Surname”, but fortunately the law of averages is brought into play and a solution is found in universal bigamy, “thereby avoiding at once the Expence of a Harem, and the Monotony of our preſent European Sysſtem. We shall obviate at one blow the difficulty of finding Wives in Baghdad, and the difficulty of finding Husbands in Balham.” At length, when everything else is sorted out, the Papists have been reduced to submission by exterminating the Irish and the cardinals are “diſperſed among the Common-rooms of Oxford and Cambridge, where they could exerciſe to the full their Talent for Intrigue without having any ſerious effect”, there remain only the atheists. “And here it is to be notic’d, that whereas the Sectaries of one Religion differ from thoſe of another over a whole Multitude of Points, in the caſe of the Atheiſts we have only one ſingle Quarrel to patch up, namely, as to whether any God exiſts, or not… let us reconcile ourſelves to the laſt final Antinomy, that God is both Exiſtent and Non-exiſtent. We, who are conſcious of the Supreme Being as Exiſtent, and thoſe others who are conſcious of Him as Non-exiſtent, are each of us looking only at one Half of the Truth, one Side, as it were, of the Shield…”

Of course this is serious satire on a serious subject, but one can enjoy the satire without caring much about the subject. Again the attention to detail is perfect: I have only just noticed that the page headings summarise the page beneath them in authentic period style – “Beer and Bacon very desirable”, “Pork forbidden by Rubrick”, “Necessity of Doormats”, and so on.

In Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes Knox is back in the twentieth century, satirizing the destructive tendencies of biblical scholars by applying their techniques to the Sherlock Holmes stories. The first thing is to distinguish the spurious stories from the genuine ones, which Knox does by listing the eleven distinct parts of which a true Holmes story should consist: the Prooimion, the Exegesis kata ton diakonta, the Ichneusis, and so on. A table lists the number of elements which each story contains, with stories such as the Gloria Scott, scoring only 4 out of 11, being clearly spurious and the work either of a separate “deutero-Watson” or of the real Watson, fallen into the alcoholic habits of his unfortunate brother and estranged from Holmes, trying to earn money for drink by writing more Holmes stories.

Knox intended the essay as a satire: no doubt it hit its target, and as a bonus it was also greatly enjoyed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. Entirely unintentionally, it sowed the seeds of a self-propagating Holmes literature, treating the great detective as he really existed, which continues to the present day. Scarcely a decade passes without a new biography of Sherlock Holmes by some reputable writer. Perhaps the whole secondary-literature craze was ignited by this essay: any big work that captures the popular imagination generates supposedly non-fiction books not about the work but about the world of the work itself. The Lord of the Rings, Star Trek and Doctor Who are just a few examples.

Materials for a Boswellian Problem uses accepted scholarly techniques to show that Dr Johnson didn’t exist, or at least did not say any of the things Boswell attributed to him; and The Authorship of “In Memoriam” uses the hidden-anagram techniques of the “Bacon wrote Shakespeare” brigade (or, nowadays, of The Bible Code) to prove that Tennyson’s In Memoriam was really written by Queen Victoria. But these, along with other pieces, are really of interest only to a specialist.

Contemporary news headlineThe best is saved until last. In 1926 Knox was an active broadcaster on the still very new medium of radio. One snowy Saturday evening in January, “listeners-in” hunched over their apparatus heard through the static the tail-end of a lecture on 18th-century literature given by an academic with a speech impediment. Then comes the news (starting, as ever, with the cricket) and the weather forecast (fine generally, with showers in the South and a continuous downpour in the North). Somewhere in the middle there is a not very exciting item: “The Unemployed Demonstration. The crowd in Trafalgar Square is now assuming threatening dimensions. Threatening dimensions are now being assumed by the crowd which has collected in Trafalgar Square to voice the grievances of the Unemployed”. [Saying things twice must have been a rule to help distant listeners to 2LO to piece together the news from under the interference]. The next programme, of dance music from the Savoy, is interrupted. “One moment, please… London calling; continuation of news bulletins from reports which have just come to hand. The crowd in Trafalgar Square is now proceeding, at the instigation of Mr Popplebury, Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues, to sack the National Gallery. The National Gallery was first erected in 1838… a new wing, designed by Mr E.M. Barry, R.A., was added in 1876. It contains many well-known pictures by Raphael, Titian, Murillo and other artists. It is now being sacked by the crowd, on the advice of Mr Popplebury, Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues. That concludes the news bulletin for the moment; you will now be connected with the band at the Savoy Hotel”.

And so it goes on. “The crowd is now pouring through the Admiralty Arch… the Admiralty Arch is being poured through by a crowd…” and then serious things start to happen.

“Sir Theophilus Gooch will now address you on the Housing of the Poor. A lecture on the Housing of the Poor will now be delivered by Sir… One moment, please. From reports which have just come to hand it appears that Sir Theophilus Gooch has been intercepted by the remnants of the crowd still collected in Trafalgar Square and is being roasted alive. Born in 1879, Sir Theophilus Gooch entered the service of Messrs. Goodbody, the well-known firm of brokers. [etc, etc]. He is now being roasted alive by a crowd in Trafalgar Square. He will, therefore, be unable to deliver his lecture to you on the Housing of the Poor”.

The Houses of Parliament are demolished by trench mortars (“Uncle Leslie’s repeating watch will be used for giving Greenwich time this evening, instead of Big Ben, which has just fallen to the ground, under the influence of trench mortars”). A minister is caught and hanged by the crowd (“The British Broadcasting Company regrets that one item in the news has been inaccurately given; the correction now follows. It was stated in our news bulletin that the Minister of Traffic had been hanged from a lamp-post in the Vauxhall Bridge Road. Subsequent and more accurate reports show that it was not a lamp-post but a tramway post that was used for this purpose. A tramway post, not a lamp-post was used…”).

The end is not long in coming. “…A threatening demeanour is being exhibited by the crowd which is now approaching the B.B.C.’s London station. One moment, please… Mr Popplebury, Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues, with several other members of the crowd, is now in the waiting room. They are reading copies of the Radio Times. Good-night everybody; good night.”

It was eight years after the Russian Revolution, seven years after revolution in Germany; there was widespread unrest in Britain and the General Strike was just round the corner. It was a snowy weekend and the newspapers could not get through; telephones were rare and trunk calls were expensive; so it was not until the snow melted and Monday’s papers arrived that the nation could breathe properly.

It would be an interesting footnote to the history of broadcasting to discover whether revolutionaries had previously known about seizing broadcasting stations; but if they didn’t before, they did now. What is certain is that John Reith (later Lord Reith), the famously high-minded director-general of the BBC, made the “burlesque” the highlight of his regular report to the directors and the whole script was reprinted in the Radio Times.

In America the New York Times was disparaging: it all showed the backward superstition of the benighted Old World and could never happen here.

Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds was broadcast twelve years later.


3 thoughts on “Essays in Satire

  1. How charming it is to read this insightful review of ‘Essays in Satire’ and to know that Knox has not been entirely forgotten. He was indeed a tremendous satirist and one of the great writers of prose of the 20th century. May I use a link to it from our website?
    Vicki McCaffrey
    Pres., Ronald Knox Society

  2. I read this book, which was in my father’s library, and although he was a Cambridge scholar, I didn’t have the same reference points as he. Nevertheless, I did appreciate the Sherlock Holmes spoof (as it might be described these days).

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