The literary giant of Cerne Abbas
Frederick Harvey Darton fell in love with Dorset when a young man and eventually made Cerne Abbas his home. He is famous the world over for his work on children’s literature, but his writings on Dorset are second to none. Colin Trueman is convinced he should be better known in our county.
Published in December ’14
Cerne Abbas’s most famous resident is without doubt the Giant. He has looked over the village for four hundred years (or more, depending on which theory of his origin you subscribe to). He has inspired many people to write about him, although there is no written record of him before 1694 – a lacuna which leads many to doubt the longevity with which he is often attributed. The Giant himself is understandably reticent on the subject.
But it was one of Cerne’s less well-known inhabitants who wrote one of the most remarkable books to focus on the Giant. This was Frederick Joseph Harvey Darton, whose 1935 book English Fabric is subtitled ‘A Study of Village Life’ and uses Cerne Abbas as its paragon, the Giant being its leading character. It is a remarkable work, for its author first defines an English village and then penetratingly analyses what makes it so, by examining the inhabitants, their work and their leisure.
It is very much of its time – the eighty-year period between then and now carves a statistical chasm – but Darton’s human observation is timeless. He has an immense sympathy for the lot of the agricultural labourer and a passionate but unsentimental love of rural England, Dorset in particular. And Cerne Abbas and its Giant are the unifying factors. He uses the Giant as an apologue or fable: ‘he stands for the principle of life eternally renewed but constant in one place from century to century.’ He refers to it frequently, casting it in the role of an observer of the past and a watchman over the village.
At the time of the book’s publication Darton was lodging in Cerne’s Red Lion pub, having forsaken his native London for Dorset. He had got to know the county when, as a student at St John’s, Oxford, he went with Sidney Ball, the philosophy tutor and Fellow of St John’s, to Bridport on one of his reading parties. It was love at first sight, and Dorset became the part of the world to which he was most attached: he was to spend more and more of his time there.
Darton came from a family with connections in the publishing business dating back to 1787, when his great-great-grandfather William began business as a printer, engraver and book publisher in the City of London. Five generations later the business had mutated into Wells Gardner, Darton and Co., and Frederick took it over in 1904 at the age of 26.
Little is known about his early life other than that he was born in London, spending his formative years there and in Kent, and that, despite gaining a scholarship in Classics to St John’s, Oxford, he had an unexceptional career there, taking a second class degree in classical moderations in 1899 and in literae humaniores in 1901.
However, there are biographical clues in a novel written by Darton called My Father’s Son: a Faithful Record, which was so autobiographical that he published it under the name ‘W.W. Penn’. It paints an unflattering picture of his life with his family, in particular his father’s determination to get him working for the family firm. It is the only one of his writings which leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
Perhaps there was an underlying unhappiness in Darton’s later life. His marriage was annulled in 1920 – he had married the daughter of the headmaster of his public school in sunnier pre-war times – and he sank into a lonely life in which his sole consolations were the Dorset countryside and, alas, alcohol. He buried himself in his work: he seems to have written almost continuously from 1920 until his death in Cerne Abbas sixteen years later. He was able to turn his hand to anything; he wrote museum guides, book reviews, introductions to reprints of classics, and he edited magazines and books of essays. Today he is chiefly remembered for his great work Children’s Books in England, first published in 1932 but still in print today and regarded as the standard reference book on the subject.
He drew on his collection of books, games and other material which the family’s firms had amassed over the years. Kathleen Lines, who prepared the second edition in 1958, stated that ‘it is probably safe to say that Darton will never be supplanted.’ A third edition appeared in 1982, and every two years the Children’s Books History Society presents the Harvey Darton Award ‘for a distinguished contribution to the history of English children’s literature’.
However, it is his writings on Dorset which are of particular interest to lovers of the county. The first of these, The Marches of Wessex, was published in 1922 but written over a period of twenty years ‘as a pleasure to myself…in the intervals of a busy life’, as his preface explains. The book began as an attempt to describe ‘the admirable fitness of Dorset for walking tours’, but he discovered that the more he walked there, the more he learnt of England.
He therefore modified his plan so that each chapter includes a sketch of English history (starting from ‘Before the Flood’), which he then applies to ‘its local exhibition in Dorset’, concluding the chapter with a walk covering the places mentioned in it. In his preface he strenuously denies being a historian, which is perhaps a good thing, as he has a sense of perspective which many historians lack. Writing of the countryside near Badbury Rings, he says: ‘The old tracks are the very vehicle of time: this grassy way has been trodden for a millennium and a half, and every blade of grass in it, every twig, even the very worm-cast mould, is of an ancestry as splendid as man’s. If it be preserved only by so little as one wayfarer’s steps in a year, it is still the authentic and undiminished chronicle of stories that have become our minds.’
Treves’s Highways and Byways cannot match this. Here is no ramblers’ guide. Of Eggardon Hill Darton says: ‘Here, on this glorious headland, is all the happiness and peace I can ever desire….I can look down on life hence, as I look down on the lane below, and say “I am on the heights: I have lost the whole world and gained my own soul.”’
Early in the book he writes that Dorset is a county of which he loves every inch, but it is evident that Cerne Abbas had a special place in his heart. He spends four pages on the village, and loved it enough to make a point of being present at the notorious sale of a large part of it in 1919 by its owners, the Pitt-Rivers family, who had massive death duties to pay off.
The last book he wrote before he died was Alibi Pilgrimage, in which he traces the footsteps of the Squires, a gypsy family which was accused in 1753 of abducting Elizabeth Canning, a London housemaid – their alibi being that they were travelling from Dorset at the time. It teems with joyous descriptions of the Dorset countryside. The Spectator review said: ‘One cannot imagine a better way of getting to know Dorset and its neighbouring counties than to use this book as a guide and go on the same pilgrimage.’
Darton had written English Fabric the year before, and it serves as his hymn of praise to Cerne Abbas. In the second chapter he gives an affectionate description of the village. He is especially fond of the Abbey Gateway: ‘it is lovely enough to make one troubled at what England has lost: not, I would say, in any particular religious faith, but in the power to express, in stones, a wonder, a pride that is not arrogance, a love of making life lovely.’ He enthuses about ‘the glorious tithe barn’: ‘older than any remnant, and, through careful restoration, today more perfect.’
But he is equally fond of ordinary village life: he describes conversations in the tap-room of the inn, he extols the virtues of the shepherd, the value of the Women’s Institute, the benefit of the local shops (although he laments the disappearance of them elsewhere), and the genuine rustic speech he heard in the village.
The last section of the book describes a walk along the old track from Cerne Abbas to Maiden Castle, with descriptions of the countryside it traverses which become more and more ecstatic as he approaches the end. This is a book which every lover of Dorset will relish – and one which deserves a place on the shelf of every resident of Cerne Abbas.
Drawn as he was to Cerne, it was almost inevitable that he should end up there. But while lodging at the Red Lion in July 1936, he died of cirrhosis of the liver brought on by his alcoholism. The Times obituary benevolently sought a different culprit and put it down to ‘heart-strain, largely caused by his long walks through his beloved Dorset.’ He is buried in a secluded corner of the graveyard of the village that had finally become his home. ◗