A most unusual place : Dartington Hall and its role in children’s literature

University wasn’t meant to be like this. I’d come to this place, possibly the furthest away place I could have chosen, and here I was in a room – a studio! – with thirty other individuals and I was creating a collaborative theatre piece.  Devising. Group. Theatre.

I was a most shell-shocked individual. My first week at university saw massive, immense periods of free time, coupled with breathless moments of incredulity. It was not easy to comprehend. I had come here (to write! I write! I do not contemplate my inner tree!) and I’d not come anywhere near a pen yet. I hadn’t even found anybody else who was doing my course!  It eventually turned out that there were others, mythical others, but I was the only one in my Halls of Residence.

This, then, was my university. This was Dartington College of Arts. Nestled in the greenest of Devonian hills, it was most definitely another world. I had come here for an interview (after finding the prospectus on the floor of my Careers room at school) and fallen in love. There was a Henry Moore statue in the gardens! There. Were. GARDENS. (A University? With GARDENS?) And a cinema on site! And listed buildings! And countryside – great swathes of lush countryside – that were perfect for a country mouse such as myself .

Dartington was, is, amazing. My time there proved to be life-changing. I have no bones about saying that, it truly was. I learnt confidence. I learnt that what I do can be good. I learnt about art, and the construction of words and language and I learnt how to master my talents and make them my own.  The university itself is now merged with Falmouth, and based there, but I’ll never forget my time at Dartington Hall.

I loved it. Is that obvious? I would go back there in a heartbeat. In a way, I search to replicate that feeling everyday.

But then I started to discover Dartington in children’s literature. The site itself has an illustrious history. Established as an artistic colony – a safe harbour – during World War Two by the Elmhirsts – Dartington Hall played host to some of the finest creative minds in history. The estate also included a school which was both revolutionary and incendiary (famous, for example, for mixed sex nude swimming). There’s an excellent, albeit somewhat romanticised, history of the estate available here and a fascinating account of Dartington Hall school here written by an ex-pupil.

The first book that most definitely features Dartington Hall school is Michelle Magorian’s “Back Home

Michelle Magorian, perhaps most widely known for ‘Goodnight Mister Tom‘, is one of the most outstanding writers for children that we have.  Her bibliography is not huge and the gap between these is lengthy, but the quality of her work speaks for itself.  ‘Back Home‘, based just after the Second World War, tells the story of Rusty who is returning to the UK after being evacuated to the USA during the war.

I won’t spoil what happens in the book, but Dartington Hall school makes a definite appearance. It’s identifiable through the local geographical data – Magorian mentions the Plymouth train, Staverton bridge, the river Dart and there’s a town which I’d suspect to be Totnes.

Magorian has a near tangible-competency about her which is a delight to read. She handles growth superbly and in particularly female growth, the way women and girls interact. Back Home could be defined simply as a school story but there’s a wealth of social commentary here. It is a quietly brilliant book.

Upon checking the details for this post, I was really pleased to see that there have been recent reissues of Magorian’s titles. If you’ve not read any of her titles, I can’t reccomend them enough.

The second book I discovered that mentioned Dartington was “The Dragonfly Pool” by Eva Ibbotson.

I miss Eva Ibbotson. I really do. She died last year and the more I discover of her books, the more it saddens me that I discovered them so late. ‘The Dragonfly Pool’ is a particularly magical book which follows Tallie from her experiences at Delderton Hall, a somewhat “alternative” school,  through to when she arrives in the Ruritanian-esque kingdom of Bergania as part of a folk dance competition.

Delderton is Dartington. Ibbotson attended it herself and although it appears under a pseudonym, the connection is clear. She speaks of it in her introduction to the book, drawing the parallels between this school and the one she herself attended, and concludes: “I soon realized this was a school like no other.”

The Dragonfly Pool is fantastical, as many of Ibbotson’s titles are, and requires a suspension of disbelief in order to make it work. But this, I think, is what makes it so beguiling. There’s a lot of love in this story and a lot of innocence. It is childlike and it is beautiful and yet, when it calls for it to be, it turns into sharp social commentary. Tallie herself is one of those, perhaps somewhat Pollyanna-ish, heroines who might irritate if met in real life but, when met in this context, this magical and fantastical and dreamy (un)reality, she works beautifully.

These are the two most notable examples I’ve found, but in the process of researching this post I came across another – “Daniel and Esther” by Patrick Raymond. The only cover image I’ve found is this fairly dated effort. I’m trying to track down a copy of this and will do a review of it when / if I find it. (Update 11/2/2012 – It’s found and reviewed here!)

What is interesting in both the Ibbotson and Magorian books, Dartington seems recognised and accepted because of its difference. This is what makes it work. It is presented as a home for those children who have, or would be unhappy, anywhere else. It is the anti-establishment for those children who are, though they’re unable to verbalise or even recognise it, distinctly ‘agin the government’.

I love that. I love how Dartington, a place which was replete with creativity and inspiration, has this second life which perpetuates the ethos and ideals of the place. It wasn’t perfect. Nowhere is. But what it was was a place for people to discover what they could do.

And to memorialise that in literature seems a peculiarly graceful form of tribute.

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21 thoughts on “A most unusual place : Dartington Hall and its role in children’s literature

    • Isn’t it bad, the moment I finish my dissertation I forget *everything* about the Pennington series! From what I can recall, he’s originally at a fairly standard comp (hating the staff apart from the dude who ‘believes’ in him) before moving to London, working with the Professor and eventually going ‘independent’ in ordert to support himself and Ruth. There’s less focus on the bohemian Other-ness and more focus on the class / social aspects IIRC.

  1. Mary-Lou,
    Thanks for this article. I’m a soon-to-be published children’s author who was at Dartington Hall School, and saw a link to this post on a Dartington friend’s Facebook page, so of course had to read it. Like you, Dartington and that amazing Devonshire countryside made a deep and lasting impression on me. I loved it. Still do.

    Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I found ‘Daniel and Esther’ at Amazon.com in the States (where I live). I’ve ordered it, as well as the Eva Ibbotsen book – anything Dartington works for me – and also signed up for your blog (love its title!)
    Kit Grindstaff

  2. Just finished reading Daniel and Esther. It captures the ache of teen tongue-tied love beautifully, as well as the quiet head of Dartington summer days – so similar to when I was there, tho’ set in the pre-war 1930s. Fascinating that someone who seems to have followed a military path writes so evocatively. Clearly self-published (and probably POD) as there are some irritating errors (Dorothy Elmhirst spelled ‘Elmhurst’ and ‘Elmhirst’ on the same page, for e.g.) but over all, I found it compelling and very moving. If you still can’t find it in the UK and would like me to mail you a copy, give me your dets on my FB page and I’ll wing one off to you.

    • Thank you so much for letting me know! I’m very fascinated by it now, it sounds so intriguing. I’ve got it on order at the library, so I should have a copy within the next few weeks and will be able to have a read. Many thanks for sharing your thoughts on it 🙂

  3. Pingback: Daniel and Esther : Patrick Raymond | Did you ever stop to think and forget to start again?

  4. Fascinating post! Not quite on the same topic, but the Dragon/Grafton Edition of Fourth Year Triumphs at Trebizon by Anne Digby has an illustration that looks suspiciously like Fore Street in Totnes. Scarlett Thomas’s Bright Young Things, although not a children’s book, briefly features some Dartington graduates iirc (someone sent me a copy when I was in my first year at DCA, amazed that it was mentioned in a book!). I always wondered, too, whether Experiment House in The Silver Chair was modelled on DHS, but I imagine it was just Lewis having a dig at progressive education in general.

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  6. Pingback: Back Home : Michelle Magorian | Did you ever stop to think and forget to start again?

  7. Thank you so much for this post. I too am a Dartington alumni, also a Performance Writing graduate, sadly one of the last ones, as my year was the last ever Performance Writing class as the course was stopped when we graduated. You talk about Dartington in the exact way I feel about it, it’s amazing how profound an affect it has had on so many young artists, and how that affect is understood even among strangers whenever Dartington is mentioned.
    I am in the process of planning my own young adult fiction book heavily influenced by Dartington, it’s beautiful Devon location and it’s almost magical affect on those lucky enough to experience it. This amazingly in-depth post was exactly what I needed to read, and I now have all those books on order, so genuinely excited to visit that magical place again via beautiful prose.

    • Hi Natt! Lovely to hear your comment – and I’m so happy you found the post. I hope you enjoy the books as well. (I’m also greatly excited about the prospect of a YA novel set at Dartington.) All the best for everything! 🙂

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