Winifred (Winnie) Kathleen Joan Gonley was born in Otautau, Southland, on 27 July 1909, the daughter of Winifred Cecilia Crowe and her husband, Michael Gonley. She grew up in the house behind her parents’ main-street businesses: Michael Gonley’s barber shop and billiard hall, and Winifred Gonley’s newspaper and fancy-goods shop. The family belonged to the Southland Irish Catholic community. Her formidable maternal grandmother, Ellen Crowe, was an important early influence on Winnie.
At St Dominic’s College in Dunedin Winnie received a solid educational grounding, in Latin and French especially. Between 1927 and 1932 (with interruptions because of her grandmother’s illness and death and her mother’s ill health) she studied languages and literature at the University of Otago. Her MA thesis (1932), ‘NZ life in contemporary literature’, was unusual in its concentration on contemporary New Zealand writers. Her chapter on Katherine Mansfield’s New Zealand prose work revealed an original critical talent.
During her student years Winnie Gonley wrote reviews, poetry and stories. She was a member of the Literary and Dramatic Society, and in 1931 her story ‘And no more turn aside’ won first prize in the society’s short-story competition. As editor and contributor she was closely involved with the annual Otago University Review. But her influence, contemporaries recall, was wider than her own writing, because she also gave unstinting support and encouragement to other writers. The young Dan Davin, another Irish Southlander whom she met in 1931, was one of these. She guided his reading, introducing him to modern European writers such as Proust and Joyce and to the Russians. Their letters show the rapid growth of passion alongside intellectual exchange, and although their relationship was stormy at first, it was to endure.
In 1932 Winnie Gonley trained as a teacher at Dunedin Training College. From 1933 she worked in a succession of temporary jobs in Otago and Southland schools (possibly blocked from full-time employment by official disapproval of her relationship with Davin), returning at times to Otautau to run house and shop or work in a local library. Her parents died in 1932 and 1933, and after two close friends and her brother Mick all died in 1934 she spent a desolate year of near breakdown in Otautau.
Dan continued his studies and in 1935 won a Rhodes Scholarship. Winnie followed him to Europe in June 1937 and they spent the summer in Italy and Paris. Winnie stayed on in Paris when Dan returned to Oxford: she studied at the Alliance française and looked for free-lance work. In 1938 she took a job teaching English and Latin at a Surrey convent school, and they spent vacations together travelling or in Paris. Dan took a first in Classics and philosophy in 1939; they married in Oxford on 22 July that year, then savoured a final summer in Paris before the outbreak of war. Back in England, Winnie looked for more teaching. Dan joined up. Then, pregnant with the first of three daughters, and aware how little time together might be left, she became a camp follower.
Dan sailed with the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force early in 1941, and by the autumn Winnie was established at the Bristol University Settlement, which for three years gave her a ready-made community as well as useful work and a supplement to her stipend as a soldier’s dependant. She was responsible for setting up a hostel to provide respite for mothers and small children from the difficulties and emergencies of wartime daily life. It took considerable energy, charm and ingenuity to equip, fund and run it, in a country house near Monmouth, but the project was successful and the work satisfying.
After the war Dan was recruited by the Oxford University Press. As their daughters grew older Winnie took seasonal work marking exam papers and occasionally did indexes for OUP books. This was followed by editorial work on three short-story collections (with Dan), on the Oxford junior encyclopaedia and in the educational department of the press; then, later, part-time work on dictionaries.
In Oxford the Davins kept open house. Closing times , Dan’s collection of memoirs of friends, was appropriately dedicated ‘to W. K. D. (without whom there would have been neither friends nor book)’. Visitors came from far and wide to 103 Southmoor Road (and its extension in the local pub), and through Winnie’s labour and skills family life was enriched rather than jeopardised by the endless hospitality. What suffered, perhaps, was her own creative writing. Dan’s work, his needs and those of children and visitors always came before hers. She produced little after a sonnet sequence written when he was first back from the war.
If Dan, as published writer and as publisher, was the better-known figure, intimates recognised the quality of Winnie’s intellect, as well as her warmth and wit. The poet Louis MacNeice was an especially close friend, as was the novelist Joyce Cary, who made Winnie his literary executor: after his death, in 1957, Winnie supervised the transfer of his papers and books to the Bodleian Library, brought unfinished work to posthumous publication, and for many years supported and advised scholars consulting the Cary papers. Her essay on him for the Dictionary of national biography is exemplary.
Dan Davin retired in 1978, and Winnie nursed him through a series of illnesses until his death in 1990. She died at Oxford on 26 March 1995, survived by her daughters. Winnie Davin always saw herself as a New Zealander, identifying her amazing resourcefulness as ‘pioneer spirit’. A cosmopolitan rather than an exile, she loved visitors from New Zealand, and remained eager to the last for news of friends, family, events and developments there.
As students Winnie and her Dunedin friends looked longingly to Europe for intellectual, artistic and spiritual freedom. If war did not wholly extinguish that vision, marriage and motherhood limited the possibilities of living it. Yet something survived in the domestic microcosm she created. Over four decades Winnie glowed unquenched, her eager intellect, her passion for poetry, people and life drawing others as once Europe had beckoned her. And none left empty-handed.