Obituary: Winnie Davin
Tuesday 18 April 1995
Winnie Davin was for many years a distinguished editor at Oxford University Press; the editor and literary executor for Joyce Cary; a writer of great promise; and the affectionate centre of a huge circle of friends and family that she created in Oxford with her husband, the writer and publisher Dan Davin.
She was born Winifred Kathleen Gonley, of Irish immigrant stock, in Otautau, a small town in the New Zealand province of Southland, where her father, formerly a merchant seaman and boxer, kept a village store. Her grandmother on her mother's side, Ellen Silke, whose toughness and family example were a great influence on Winnie as a girl, had come to New Zealand from Co Galway as a solo migrant at the age of 18 in 1864.
Winnie was educated at St Dominic's Catholic School in Dunedin, where she acquired her skill in Latin and French, and went from there to Otago University in 1927 to study languages and literature. Her education was interrupted by family illness, but she completed her MA in 1932. Her ambition, stimulated by a passionate interest in Katherine Mansfield, was to be a writer, an ambition fostered at university where she won various literary prizes. Early poems published in the Otago University Review show originality and economy of expression.
Her first career was as a schoolteacher during the Depression. Throughout this time she forged a deep personal relationship with Dan Davin, another Southlander of Irish extraction, who had come up to Otago in 1931. She recognised the promise of this then shy freshman, and throughout their sometimes turbulent love affair helped to shape his abilities, which were great. He took up a Rhodes Scholarship at Balliol in 1936, and she followed him to Europe a year later.
Her own hopes of being a writer were wrecked by the Second World War, which precipitated her decision with Dan to marry and start a family. He departed to fight with the New Zealand Division, and in his absence she embarked on a wartime career as solo mother, and social worker with the Bristol Settlement. After the war they moved into a house at 103 Southmoor Road in Oxford, where Dan had joined the University Press. Winnie liked to say that the 1 was Dan, the 0 herself, and the 3 were their three girls. For the next 49 years this house was a place of open invitation for succeeding generations of family and friends from all over the world.
Friends from Bohemian literary and broadcasting circles in London were drawn by the warmth of her personality (where there was fire as well as grace) and her intellectual power. Dylan Thomas's early morning bellows of hepatic despair could be dispelled by her oyster fritters, a Southland speciality he craved. Julian Maclaren-Ross she fed and nursed, as his ego and health required. John Davenport, an occasionally irascible visitor, she kept in his place. Men as different as the poets Itzik Manger and Louis MacNeice, the producer Reggie Smith, and the brilliant linguist Paddy Costello, all sought her company and conversation.
And two generations of her children's friends, many themselves now prominent in different areas of intellectual life, and of New Zealand writers and academics too numerous to count, knew they could depend on her hospitality: a fact attested to by Dan in dedicating his volume of memoirs, Closing Times (1975), "to W.K.D. without whom there would have been neither friends nor book".
It was, however, with the novelist Joyce Cary that Winnie Davin formed the closest and most important relationship; a deep friendship of mutual understanding. After the tragedy of his final, slow illness (he died in 1957) she was his literary executor for 30 years, edited and saw through the press his last novel and numerous other manuscripts, and was instrumental in ensuring that his papers, through the generosity of an American friend and bibliophile, went to the Bodleian Library.
Winnie embarked on another career in the mid-Fifties, when she joined OUP and became an editor of the Oxford Junior Encyclopaedia, work that occupied her professional energy for much of the next 16 years. Throughout this time she still entertained visitors from all over the world, and maintained a close and affectionate relationship with her own expanding family. After Dan's retirement in 1978 she nursed him selflessly through his long and painful last illness. Her devotion to him never faltered.
Winnie Davin's generosity and intelligence were probably only matched by her toughness. There was not an ounce of self-pity in her, and she surmounted the loss of friends and the health difficulties of her own final years with serenity. To within a week of her last, brief illness she was hard at work commenting on the manuscript of a biography of her husband which OUP is to publish in 1996, and she celebrated its completion with the author, and her family, at a dinner party at 103 just four days before she died. Her love of language, poetry, conversation and literary gossip were alive to the end.
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