Two illuminating lives, Juliet Rowe

Aunts and Windmills
Pauline O’Regan,
Bridget William Books, Wellington, 1991, $24.95

May Davis,
Crewenna, Nelson, 1990, $19.90

Pauline O’Regan has expanded those tantalising glimpses of life in a small rural community described in her first book A Changing Order, into a sensitively written series of memories divided into sections often under intriguing headings – ‘Democracy and Divine Right’, ‘Politics and Monsters’, ‘Biology and Sweetbreads’. Many conclude with a philosophical observation: ‘In my adult years I have come to realise that we country children were possessed of an earthy wisdom … we witnessed the process of birth and the violence of death. We had seen blood, smelt it, knew its texture. We were never far from the reality of things’. These reflections often include her retrospective feminist response to sexism in the past. Pauline O’Regan’s account of her experience of politics in the thirties when the whole family attended political meetings chaired always by her father regardless of which party was promoting itself, begins with a critical assessment of the prevailing prejudice against women. ‘The truth is that women were (and are) so strong that it was necessary for men to create a myth about their ineptitude and frailty, a myth which literature has reinforced for centuries’.

Everywhere the impression is of the freshness and innocence of a child’s view of life: ‘I soon learned for instance, that when someone died, you dropped everything you were doing and began to bake cakes’. In this case, the child is obviously possessed of a lively and intelligent curiosity. On visits with her father to the Inangahua County Council Offices she used to pass the time in the Reading Room catching up on the activities of the British upper classes in The Tatler and Queen, fascinated but anxious about the predominance of Protestant weddings and christenings.

Religion is the subject of the concluding chapters which deal with Pauline O’Regan’s spiritual progress, beginning with a none too restrictive education in the Catholic Church and ending with her joining the convent and becoming a nun. (A full account of her religious life in the church and of the winds of change which swept right through it after the Second Vatican Council of 1962 is the subject of A Changing Order)The style is straightforward, conversational, even chatty and most noticeably illuminated by a gentle ironical humour which makes these reminiscences particularly appealing.

The autobiography of May Davis is another valuable contribution to the documentation of women’s lives and the social history of our times. The fascinating record of a skilled and committed craftswoman, May’s story traces her life and work beginning in England and moving to Africa, South America and finally to Nelson, New Zealand, where she and her husband, Harry Davis, established the world famous pottery, Crewenna.

Hers was a very different life experience from that of Pauline O’Regan. May Davis was born in 1914 into an affluent family and her childhood was spent in typical comfort. But like Pauline O’Regan her awareness of the entrenched sexism in society began early. As an adult she continued to resent the difficulties faced by women who want to be recognised in their own right. ‘Marriage to me meant subservience and domesticity, babies and drudgery, bondage and annihilation … First I wanted to live my own life, find my own values, explore the world around me, be a potter. This is a hard choice which often faces women, but not men. A man chooses a career and simply adds a wife and family to it’. It was only when she became a mother that she was ‘finally reconciled to being a woman’ and even later after her daughters had grown up and she had become involved in the feminist movement that she felt ‘thankful for my life as a woman’.

On many occasions May Davis found distressing and difficult the balancing act all women seem to have to perform during their lives. In addition to her full contribution to the work of the pottery she still had to find the energy and time to care for her children and her domestic duties.

As well as pottery, music was another lifelong interest. ‘I realised that without music I was only half alive’, and she both performed and taught. Unfortunately, Harry did not share her great joy in music. But despite this and other difficulties during their marriage she never stopped loving her husband. They shared the same basic attitudes and values. Both were strong pacifists, joining the first CND peace marches in Britain, both deplored the cult of the personality which was becoming manifest in pottery, both were affiliated to the Quaker movement and on their first trip to Peru both were appalled at the conditions of villagers forced by poverty to move to the cities where they lived alienated in miserable slums. ‘It is an eternal tragedy … that with all the goodwill in the world (which isn’t always there) the West does not know how to put food into the mouths of these people except by assimilating them into our industrial‑capitalist system with all its exploitation of mankind and of the world of nature’.

So, in their sixties, May and Harry Davis returned to Peru to a remote village where they established a pottery to help the villagers become self-sufficient. The account of these eight frustrating and painful years is one of the more absorbing passages in the book.

May Davis is a strong and gifted woman – wife, mother, potter, musician, papermaker, writer, speechmaker, pacifist, traveller, anti-materialist, feminist. Her story is told with humour and is underpinned by a remarkable and disarming honesty.


Juliet Rowe is a mother and a booklover.


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Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction
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