Blog #54: From Names and Lighthouses to Leslie Stephen walking with Father Vincent McNabb

“Buy boots you can walk in. Walk in them. Even if you lessen the income of the General Omnibus Company, or your family doctor; you will discover the human foot. On discovering it, your joy will be as great as if you had invented it. But this joy is the greatest, because no human invention even of Mr. Ford or Mr. Marconi is within a mile of a foot.”
-Vincent McNabb

“It is evident that Father McNabb is hardly known amongst Catholics today. Even amongst those who concern themselves with Tradition many may know his name but little more. Some may be aware that he is associated with that set of ideas known as Distributism (for which he was the principal inspiration); some that he was a well-known Dominican friar who frequently spoke at Parliament Hill and at Speakers Corner to the motley London throng; some that he was at one time a friend of Eric Gill and was connected with his community at Ditchling; perhaps most of those who have heard of him stumbled across his name while reading about Hilaire Belloc or G K Chesterton. All these mental associations are indeed aspects of the man, of the priest; yet he would, I think, like best to have been known for championing Rerum Novarum.

Father McNabb was – with some notable exceptions, principally within his own Order – held in high esteem by his contemporaries, even by those such as George Bernard Shaw or the Webbs, founders of the socialist Fabian Society, who could have most been expected to dislike him.”

“Father Vincent McNabb: a Voice of Contradiction”
by Michael Hennessy

Names and Lighthouses

Wild and tendentious as some of my name and lighthouse speculations sometimes are, they are valuable in building a remarkably detailed and complex picture of London in my head. I follow one person down a historical lane, meet another, follow that person, and often am lead into an entirely new corner of London and London life. Consider Mary Stopes. Mary Carmichael Stopes is implicated in my next lighthouse piece, and in skimming through Ruth Hall’s biography of her, I bumped into Sir John MacAlister and Father Vincent McNabb. Naturally my mind flashed to To the Lighthouse—indeed, these days my mind never leaves it—and even though I already had a Macalister in mind (teaser for a future blog), and even though McNabb (like Macalister, come to that) is too common a name to pin much intent upon, I couldn’t resist following them.

Part of what they led to was a sense Marie’s impact on the London of her day. Married Love (1918) was a bombshell which sent shrapnel through all segments of society, and the Stopes vs Sutherland trials (1923) were front page news, almost as sensational and notorious as the earlier Wilde vs Queensbury trials (1895). Interesting to think about Stopes and Wilde as parallel figures, both pursuing trials against their own self-interest, both relishing publicity, both appearing well in court, both losing, yet both helping to transform society through their losses. Marie’s later friendship with Lord Alfred Douglas, a friendship deviously achieved, probably owed some of its impetus to a sense of trials shared.

Back to MacAlister and McNabb or rather to McNabb, as MacAlister’s traces are less strong, less dramatic. McNabb’s, on the contrary, are vivid. The man who attacked the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial progress for “its advocacy of unsocial and unnatural sin,” “the well-known Dominican friar who frequently spoke at Parliament Hill and at Speakers Corner to the motley London throng,” the man who “wore a homespun habit – he only had the one at any one time – and marched around London in the same heavy hob-nailed boots from year to year,” that man walked through the streets of Fabian London, the underside of Bloomsbury. His London, like Virginia’s, includes the London of the working poor, the slums, tenements, factories and sweatshops. He, too, was changing that London, even if his ways were very different from those of Virginia, those of Leonard. Did Virginia know about him and his pedestrian habits? If she did, perhaps in whimsy she might have set him walking beside her father–Father Vincent McNabb and Leslie Stephen side by side, two tough booted walkers, one talking, the other silent.

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