We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Davin, Daniel Marcus (1913–1990), writer and publisher, was born on 1 September 1913 in Invercargill, New Zealand, the fourth of the six children of Patrick Davin (1877–1958), railwayman and smallholder, and his wife, Mary Magdalen, née Sullivan (1878–1944), daughter of Daniel Sullivan and his wife, Nora. The Davins were Irish Catholic smallholders in Galway, their name coming from either the Gaelic damh, meaning an ox or a stag, or from dáhm, a poet. Young Dan always favoured the author over the animal. Although his father and his maternal grandparents had fled the poverty and superstition of the ‘old country’ at the turn of the century, he would always remain an Irish New Zealander rather than a British subject. This inheritance underlay his lifelong love of the soil and its produce—the five-year-old's delight in his mother's nasturtiums, the seventy-five-year-old's in his own potatoes. It underlay also an unswerving sympathy for the underdog, the underpaid and underprivileged, manual workers, authors, and soldiers.

From the age of five, when Dan Davin taught himself to read, he was aware of all these occupations. The First World War took its toll of the menfolk of Gore, the small town to which the family had moved in 1914. Those who survived brought death home to that and many other households in the form of the flu virus whose victims included Daniel and Nora Sullivan and their younger daughter, Nora. These and other deaths—among them, those of a favourite dog and bull calves routinely slaughtered by his father—may have exacerbated a tendency to depression, inherited from his mother, that began to manifest itself in Davin's adolescence.

In 1920 the family moved again, this time to Invercargill, where the following year Davin began as a pupil at the Marist Brothers' School. The conventional Catholic Irish education he received there was supplemented by the myths and legends of an itinerant Irish story-teller, and by the discovery of a cache of books (many of them literary) discarded by a retired schoolteacher.

Matriculating in 1929, Davin came first in Southland and fifteenth in New Zealand overall ‘with special distinction in English, French and Latin’ (Brother Egbert's testimonial, 2 Aug 1933, Davin papers). He won scholarships to Sacred Heart College in Auckland and, later, to Otago University, whose Presbyterian traditions he frequently challenged, emerging with formidable debating skills, a first-class degree in English, another in Latin, and—after a prolonged battle with the custodians of respectability—a Rhodes scholarship. He was by then in love with a lively fellow student. Winifred (always known as Winnie) Gonley [see below] was the daughter of Irish Catholic parents, with ambitions as a writer, and more widely read than her Rhodes scholar fiancé with the ‘wonderful dark-brown voice’ (Denys Hawthorne, quoted in Wilson, 205) to whom she waved farewell from an Auckland wharf in August 1936.

Davin's introduction to England was London's Cable Street riot of 4 October, which he witnessed: an early flickering of the conflagration soon to engulf Spain and, eventually, the world. A natural republican and freethinker, he was dismayed by the Catholic church's support for Franco, and during his years at Oxford finally lost the faith that had begun to fray in Otago. Its loss and the bitterness of Adam unparadised found eloquent expression in his poem ‘Knowledge’ that begins:
God blazed in every gorsebush
When I was a child.
Forbidden fruits were orchards,
And flowers grew wild.

God is a shadow now.
The gorse blooms pale.
Branches in the orchard bow
With fruits grown stale.
For his first term or two at Oxford, a depressed Davin ‘hated Balliol and hated everybody’ (Davin papers) but a first visit to Ireland made a deep impression on him, and with Winnie's arrival in Europe in summer 1937 his spirits rose. He enjoyed the classical texts he was reading for the honour school of literae humaniores; drafted his first novel; was at the centre of a circle of scintillating friends; and learned to love Paris, which nourished his bohemian instincts. In July 1939 he was awarded a first-class degree and, aware that they might soon be separated by war, he and Winnie were married in Oxford on 22 July 1939.

Hitler invaded Poland on Davin's twenty-sixth birthday. A recruitment board assigned him to the infantry and, in May 1940, he emerged from an officer cadet training unit as a second lieutenant in the 2nd New Zealand expeditionary force, the principal fighting component of which, 2nd New Zealand division, was known as ‘the Div’. He saw action as a platoon commander in Greece and as battalion intelligence officer in Crete, where he was wounded. Released from hospital, he was transferred to the intelligence staff of army headquarters in Cairo, there revelling in the effervescent company of such other poets and scholars as Paddy Costello, Lawrence Durrell, G. S. Fraser, Bernard Spencer, Bill Williams, and Reggie Smith. Many would play a part in his post-war life, as would a young German woman, Elisabeth Berndt, with whom he also revelled.

In autumn 1942 Davin served with an intelligence unit from the battle of Alamein to the fall of Tripoli; then, after three months at staff college and three on leave, in January 1944 rejoined the Div. as its intelligence officer at the siege of Monte Cassino. He worked closely with General Freyberg in the battle for Monastery Hill and the more successful assault on Monte Lignano. On Freyberg's recommendation, he was then transferred to the War Office in London as a New Zealand representative on the Allied Control Commission for Germany, set up to administer the dismantling of Nazi institutions.

Reunited with Winnie and two daughters, Anna and Delia, born while he was on active service, he was able to balance an administrative with a literary career, a difficult balance to be maintained—at some cost to the latter—for the rest of his working life. A darkly Dostoyevskian, long-delayed novel, Cliffs of Fall, was published in 1945 and, at the war's end, he was appointed an editor at the Clarendon Press and returned with his family to Oxford.

There he was greeted with the dismaying news that in 1943 Elisabeth Berndt had given birth to his child, a daughter to be known as Patty, and now wanted him to help them settle in England. Nothing better illustrates the loyalty characteristic of both Dan and Winnie Davin than their solution to this problem: Elisabeth would join their household, ostensibly as housekeeper, and the four unwitting half-sisters (Brigid Davin was born in 1945) would be brought up together. They lived in commendable harmony for almost four years, their Southmoor Road house becoming a famous oasis for writers and scholars from ‘the round earth's imagined corners’ (John Donne, ‘Holy Sonnet’, 7).

Under the tutelage of Kenneth Sisam, a distinguished medievalist and secretary to the delegates of Oxford University Press, Davin became by day an expert editor. His evenings and weekends he would spend as a writer, at his own desk or a bar in Fitzrovia, then the failing heart of literary London. Both by day and in the evenings he was extraordinarily productive. A volume of his short stories, The Gorse Blooms Pale (1947), was followed over the years by six novels: For the Rest of our Lives (1947), Roads from Home (1949), The Sullen Bell (1956), No Remittance (1959), Not Here, Not Now (1970), and Brides of Price (1972). There were three other collections of his short stories: Breathing Spaces (1975), Selected Stories (1981), and the Salamander and the Fire: Collected War Stories (1986). Davin's fiction has its strengths—evidenced, most notably, in his autobiographical war novel, For the Rest of our Lives, and in his short stories—but technical innovation is not one of them, and his most lasting contribution as a writer may prove to be two non-fiction works in which the novelist's eye for detail and ear for dialogue assist the historian trained in the school of Thucydides: his volume, Crete, in the Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War (1953); and the biographer modelling a memoir on Johnson's Lives of the Poets. Davin once wrote: ‘In my arrogant youth, I had wanted to be a “universal writer”—poet, historian, novelist. It was only gradually that I realized that, after one's twenties, life is a fighting withdrawal’ (Davin, ‘My language and myself’, Round Table, 262, 1976, 22). His memoir, Closing Times (1975), chronicles the fighting withdrawals of seven of his friends: the writers Julian Maclaren-Ross, Bertie Rodgers, Louis MacNeice, Enid Starkie, Joyce Cary, Dylan Thomas, and Itzik Manger. The most memorable presence, however, in this gallery of ebullient, funny, tender portraits is that of the artist himself, cigarette-holder in hand, eyes half closed against the smoke.

When Sisam retired from Oxford University Press in 1948, to be succeeded as secretary by Arthur Norrington, Davin had become assistant secretary with special responsibility for the Clarendon Press. Over the next thirty years his mastery of the arts of friendship, as much as his intellectual attainments, made him the greatest academic publisher of his time. DMD (as he was always known at the press) could read five languages; knew everyone the press needed to know; knew the book that needed to be written or edited—and knew how it should be done—often before its eventual author or editor. His support was absolute, his workload legendary: eighty letters dictated at a sitting. No editorial pencil moved so swiftly or with such surgical precision, and no academic publisher before him initiated and saw to completion so many major projects. He had his eccentricities: ‘an uncommon gift for enjoying his own aversions—parties, dining out, travel, committees, formal social occasions, other people's problems. No man who longed so much for the quiet of his own fireside has been so often out’ (Peter Sutcliffe, quoted in Wilson, 156).

DMD had his weaknesses, some that would have an impact on the history of Oxford University Press. In 1967 Oxford University's hebdomadal council instituted a committee, under the chairmanship of Sir Humphrey Waldock, to report on the structure and operations of the university press. Davin was much involved with this. In 1970 his designation changed from assistant secretary to deputy secretary and academic publisher. The Waldock report was published that year, and as a consequence of its recommendations and the press's poor financial results in 1971 and 1972, management consultants were called in. Davin had already seen the writing on the wall, which he correctly translated as ‘Management, Marketing, Money’, and did not like what he saw. Last of the scholar-publishers, he was not prepared to lower his standards. He was not a good manager, and disliked delegating and supervising. He was a good officer, a natural leader, generating a loyalty in his staff as absolute as his to them. The handsome lieutenant had become a stocky veteran, wary-eyed and bulldog-jawed, who continued to think, and speak, in military terms—of tactics, strategy, lines of communication—and never lost his own tactical sense: in crowded rooms, always taking up a defensive position, backed into a corner with good sight-lines to warn him of the approach of ‘difficult’ authors. He himself warned the delegates of the press of the qualitative consequences of management decisions taken in the light of the Waldock report, but once they were adopted, he worked to make a success of them.

The professional disappointments of those years helped prepare Davin for retirement in 1978, the five-hundredth anniversary of printing in Oxford, but he was not prepared for the personal disappointments that followed. Dreams of novels, essays, and stories to be written in a Dorchester-on-Thames cottage—long his refuge from the world ‘of telegrams and anger’ (E. M. Forster, Howards End, chap. 19)—were wrecked by bad health and ‘writer's block’. He fought them bravely, but was worn out by hard work and hard drinking. The creative capital that might have supported his own writings he had spent too generously refining the writings of others. Failing to make progress with a second volume of memoirs, to be called Soldiers and Scholars, he managed nevertheless to write a few stories and more than 100 reviews for the Times Literary Supplement. He was created CBE in 1987 and died at his home, 103 Southmoor Road, Oxford, on 28 September 1990. He was cremated at Oxford on 1 October, and his ashes were scattered in Port Meadow, Oxford, with his wife's, in 1996.

Davin's last book, The Salamander and the Fire (1986), a collection of his war stories, opened with a characteristic dedication: ‘To those who, out of principle, refused to fight, and suffered for it. And to those who fought so that, among much else, that principle should be safeguarded’. This, in its humanity as in its style, expresses the essence of a man worthy to dine at journey's end, as he would have wished, with Boswell and with Johnson.

Davin's wife, Winifred Kathleen Joan Davin [née Gonley] (1909–1995), writer and editor, was born on 27 July 1909, in Otautau, New Zealand, the third of the five children of Michael Gonley (1869–1935), merchant seaman and later shopkeeper, and his wife, Winifred, née Crowe (1878–1934). She was educated at St Dominic's, a Dominican convent in Dunedin, and at Otago University, where in 1931 she met her future husband and introduced him to works of Joyce, Proust, Mansfield, Lawrence, and other writers who became important to them both. Winnie followed Dan to Europe and they were married on 22 July 1939, at the end of his Rhodes scholarship. She spent the war in Britain, while he served overseas, and later wrote a memoir of that time, ‘A soldier's wife’, published in Women in Wartime: New Zealand Women Tell their Story, edited by Lauris Edmond and Carolyn Milward (Wellington, 1986).

Although busy with her three daughters in the post-war years, she was involved in everything Davin wrote and in making the choices for his World's Classics editions of Katherine Mansfield's Short Stories, New Zealand Stories (both 1953), and English Short Stories of Today (1958). She was volume editor of the ‘Home and health’ volume of The Oxford Junior Encyclopaedia (1955) and worked on many of its other volumes. Later she took a full-time job with the education department of Oxford University Press.

Winnie Davin had a genius for friendship. She nursed the novelist Joyce Cary (1888–1957) through his long last illness and, as his literary executor, edited his incomplete final novel, The Captive and the Free (1959). Friends of the family—among them writers, artists, teachers, students, many from overseas—thronged the Davins' house. Winnie was always ready to feed, entertain, listen, and advise. Dan's dedication of Closing Times (his memoir of some important friends) ‘to W.K.D. without whom there would have been neither friends nor book’ acknowledges this important aspect of their partnership. Winnie made her last visit to New Zealand at eighty-two for Christmas 1991. She remained the centre of an increasingly large family, much loved, respected, and visited by daughters, grandchildren, and friends until her death at the Churchill Hospital, Headington, Oxford, on 26 March 1995; she was cremated on 30 March at Oxford.

Jon Stallworthy

Sources  

K. Ovenden, A fighting withdrawal: the life of Dan Davin (1996) · J. Wilson, ed., Intimate stranger: reminiscences of Dan Davin (2001) · personal knowledge (2004) · NL NZ, Davin MSS

Archives  

NL NZ, Turnbull L. · priv. coll. |  U. St Andr. L., letters to Sir Thomas Malcolm Knox

 

SOUND

 

IWM, tape of Davin talking about the battle of Crete


Likenesses  

A. Stones, bust, priv. coll. · A. Stones, bust, Invercargill Public Library, New Zealand · G. Sutherland, drawing, priv. coll.

Wealth at death  

£197,630: probate, 1990, CGPLA Eng. & Wales