Blog #204: Reaching “Time Passes” by way of Ditchling and Father Vincent McNabb













Stone the crows, I’m back to names again. More specifically, I’m back to Mrs. McNabb. Lord love a duck! Five years ago, when I first indulged in what I then called “wild and tendentious” speculations about Mrs. McNabb, I was led on by thoughts about Marie Carmichael. This time, I come to Mrs. McNabb by way of Ditchling and Eric Gill. The epigraph material from five years ago shows that this approach was already available to me back then, only I was too blind to make connections. It took a hike to Ditchling to properly open my eyes.

For five magical days this summer, I stayed in the quaint, near-feudal village of Iford, just two kilometres away from Rodmell and Monk’s House by way of local footpaths through head-high corn fields and scraggly chest-high rapeseed. Living in Iford was like stepping back in time, with so much of the town’s existence dominated by the mixed farm activities—ranging from grain crops, cattle raising, pheasant shooting and fishing ponds—of the Iford Estate. For me, Iford was a perfect jumping off place for Virginia Woolf country and the South Downs Trail, as far away as Alfriston to the south and Ditchling to the north.

The hike to Ditchling was particularly memorable, perhaps because we set out on a windy day, and as our boots ground their way over the chalk marl ground of the “blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs,” we were buffeted and scuffed about by strong gusts. The wind fed our exhilaration as we wandered along the ridge above Kingston, muddled our way through the north-west corner of Llewes, continued on past the sheep and the dew ponds and the reforested areas near Blackcap, and then puzzled out a descent onto the Ditchling plain, only to then have to ferret out the overgrown and mazy public footpaths which led into town, and later on to the train station at Hassock.

Ditchling was a delightful surprise. Quaint and picturesque, with outstanding features such as Anne of Cleves house and the Church of St. Margaret, not to mention a very traditional feeling high street, it fully deserves the tourist accolades it gets. The real prize, though, was the Ditchling Museum of Arts + Craft. Before visiting it, I knew absolutely nothing about Eric Gill and ‘The Third Order of St. Dominic’, or the Guild of SS Joseph and Dominic and the Distributists. Much of what I learned in Ditchling was disturbing and deeply unsettling, as the museum openly addresses Gill’s incestuous abuse of his sisters and his daughters. Pity those in London or Oxford who have to decide on how to approach such cultural icons as the Stations of the Cross at Westminster Cathedral, or the BBC Broadcasting House statues, or John the Baptist at St. John’s College. Use of Gill Sans and Perpetua type, too, now requires moral stocktaking and the weighing of personal boundaries. Serene and classical as many of his pieces are, my response to his work is tainted by the revulsion which I feel towards the man.

Particularly troubling is that this child molester was befriended and supported by Virginia and her circle. The horror! The horror! They met as neighbours and artists, not as female victim of sexual abuse in childhood and man sexually abusing his daughters, yet the juxtaposition of their sexual histories, no matter how retrospective, is deeply troubling. What would Virginia have felt or done had she known? Gill was likely not yet abusing the five year old Petra when Virginia and Leonard stayed with the Gill family in 1912, nor is likely that Virginia and Leonard–or others in their circle such as Vanessa and Clive Bell, Roger Fry or Jacques Raverat–ever had any suspicion about Gill’s sexual predations. If they had, Leonard would never have commissioned the statue of a naked, even if chaste and modest, Chloe in 1928. The statue is now part of the Harvard Art Museum collection.

While Eric Gill had not yet met Father Vincent McNabb in 1912, Virginia and Leonard almost certainly would have come to know of him through Gill and the Ditchling community. From 1914 to 1924, Father McNabb’s religious beliefs and his Distributist theories were central to the Ditchling experiment; and, as Fiona MacCarthy has written, with his “galvanic energy” he “was at this time the prime influence, the chief architect of the developing community at Ditchling.” The religious lay community at Ditchling was a concrete manifestation of his Thomist and Distributist ideals, and accordingly he became the spiritual director of the craftsmen’s Guild of SS Joseph and Dominic, established in 1921. For several years he was a frequent visitor and occasional resident in Ditchling, highly visible and distinctive, dressed as he was in his black and white Dominican robes and his trademark hobnailed boots.

Of course it is very likely that Virginia also knew about Father McNabb through his 1926 collection of essays The Church and the Land, through his London activities, through Hyde Park Speaker’s corner, through Leonard and the Webbs, through McNabb disciples or supporters such as Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton and Maurice Baring, and through his vigorous anti-abortion campaigning and his attacks on Marie Carmichael Stopes. Though in my earlier blog I connected Father McNabb primarily to Marie Carmichael Stopes, his championing of the poor and his Ditchling activities, along with his vigorous support for social justice provide further reasons why Virginia might have chosen to give his surname to one of her characters, a character, moreover, who is a poor, working-class woman.

Kate Flint, Anne Fernald and, more recently, Charles Ferrall and Dougal McNeill in Writing the 1926 General Strike (1915) have all suggested that the “horror”of the General Strike of 1926 affected the composition of To the Lighthouse. Identifying Mrs. McNabb’s name as an allusion to Father Vincent McNabb supports and enriches this argument. Father McNabb was deeply influenced by Pope Leo XIII’s famous De Rerum Novarum encyclical (1891), which called attention to the exploitation of the working class, and supported unions as a way of opposing the worst excesses of unrestrained capitalism. Father McNabb likely, though I have yet to find direct proof of this, was a strongly vocal and visible London presence during the 1926 strike. The McNabb name, accordingly, has strong connections to social reform and the conditions of the working poor in London. By way of reinforcement, Manning, the name of Mrs. Ramsay’s friends in Marlow, also has labour and social reform connections. London’s famous Cardinal Manning was an important figure in helping to resolve the Great London Dock Strike of 1889, a strike seen as a major event in the development of the modern labour and union movement. Partly because of his social activism, Cardinal Manning is also credited with having influenced De Rerum Novarum.

Father McNabb’s name takes us deep into several areas of English life in the first quarter of the 20th century. Names are such a powerful tool for firmly attaching, even if ever so lightly, fiction to life. By way of proof, one last, whimsical, yet totally plausible observation. Father McNabb’s Christian name was Joseph; Vincent was his priest name, a name given to him upon his ordination to the Dominicans in 1891. Given Virginia’s playfulness and sly humour, it is possible, even likely, that the To the Lighthouse lines, “They were actually fighting. Joseph and Mary were fighting,” spring from Father Vincent (née Joseph) McNabb’s indirect presence in the novel, and refer to his fierce conflict with Marie Carmichael Stopes.

Lord stone the crows! I’ll have more to say about that conflict in a future blog when I also look at the Macalister and Beckwith names, as well as Prue’s death “in some illness connected with childbirth.”


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