Book review: ‘A certain style: Beatrice Davis – a literary life’ by Jacqueline Kent (February 2019)

by Renée Otmar HLM DE


When Beatrice Davis died in May 1992, I was a new mother, a fledgling editor and a newbie student in RMIT’s Graduate Diploma in Editing and Publishing. The course had commenced on the same day I gave birth to my son, and I had to start six weeks late. About a month later, one of our lecturers, Ruth Siems, convinced me to attend a meeting of the then-Society of Editors (Victoria), of which she was president. I’d never even heard of it before then, and assumed it was a kind of secret society.

Society of Editors (Victoria)

The dinner meeting was held at an Italian restaurant on Swanston Street in Carlton – before you get any ideas about lavish dining, let me state upfront that the food was dodgy, marginally Italian, to say the least, and certainly not a patch on the Italian cuisine we have come to know and love in Melbourne. The restaurant was housed in one of those run-down, two-storey terrace houses near the University of Melbourne. The ‘meeting room’ perched atop a set of rickety stairs so dank and dusty it triggered my hay fever immediately upon entry. Embarrassed, I sneezed uncontrollably for the first half hour and had to assure people I was not in fact sad, crying or upset in any way. Strangely enough, no one seemed put off. In fact, everyone was very friendly and chirpy and, well, bookish.

By the end of that night I was a signed-up member and on the committee of the society. Perhaps it was the heady combination of histamines, barely defrosted potato croquettes, cheap wine and the convivial welcome at my table that convinced me. In attendance were the tutti gli editori of Melbourne: Lisa Berryman, immediate past president; John Bangsund, newsletter editor; Janet Mackenzie; Basil Walby; Vane Lindsay; among many other luminaries, and they put stars in my eyes.

For reasons that would become clearer to me over the following 14 years on that committee, Ruth had somehow neglected to mention that this was, in fact, the annual general meeting of SocEdsVic. That I had been oblivious did not matter then, and still doesn’t; I had found my tribe without knowing I was looking, and I was there to stay.

An early biography of Beatrice Davis

The first thing I did after becoming a member of the not-so-secret society was to purchase a copy of its recently published One of the first and one of the finest: Beatrice Davis, book editor. This 47-page biography had been commissioned in 1989 by then-President Lisa Berryman, and published in 1991. Its author was Anthony Barker, recently retired, a friend of Beatrice Davis and one of her former colleagues at Angus and Robertson. Members of the society had been incredulous that a biography of Beatrice Davis had not yet been published, and the subject herself was unwilling to write a memoir, so the society decided to bite the bullet and commission one.

Being a recent immigrant and a greenhorn, I had not heard of Beatrice Davis, but took it on good faith that she was important to us as editors and that I needed to know about her. I read Barker’s monograph in a single sitting, astounded by what I was reading, and grateful that the society had taken this opportunity to document a first-hand account of interviews with the subject before she died.

One of the most astonishing things I read in Barker’s volume back then was that Beatrice Davis had needed to look for a new job at 64 years of age, a time when many professionals in the 1990s (and today) retired on handsome superannuation annuities. And for that reason I had wondered whether Barker’s claim that Beatrice Davis was ‘the doyen of Australian book editors’ (p. 3) was puffery and wishful thinking on the part of a friend.

Fast-forward more than 26 years. I decided to reread One of the first and one of the finest prior to embarking on Jacqueline Kent’s more substantial A certain style. This time around, the reading probably says more about my own maturing as an editor, writer and reader than Barker’s treatment of the subject. Beatrice Davis’s influence on the developing Australian publishing industry, and in many ways its cultural life, is palpable. I now know what the author means and why he and the society decided on the title of the biography.

Over the past three decades I have read the likes of Banjo Paterson, Norman Lindsay and the Medical Journal of Australia (and even submitted my own manuscripts there for publication). Hence, I now understand the significance of having produced the first-ever Australian encyclopaedia and having rejected Miles Franklin’s My brilliant career. More importantly, I am grateful for the foresight of the society in embarking on the project, and to Anthony Barker for taking the time to meet with Beatrice Davis in hospital and at her nursing home, providing us with a beautiful introduction to Australia’s very first publisher’s editor. It is a gentle, intimate account, accompanied by several remarkable photographs.

A certain style

Thus, I came to A certain style with high expectations. I was disappointed to find not a single photograph, even though this volume has 300 more pages than Barkers’. The same photo of Beatrice Davis that adorned the cover of One of the first and one of the finest is now also the cover photo on this revised edition of A certain style, albeit rendered as a close-up of the subject.

Photos aside, within the first two pages of Kent’s foreword to the new edition I was hooked. She describes the life and times of Beatrice Davis, in the context of the stories of the firm Angus and Robertson, Australian literary culture, publishing in general and the world at large from the early twentieth century until Beatrice’s death in the early 1990s.

Part 1 of A certain style covers the period 1909–37 and Beatrice Davis’s birth and early life, first in Bendigo and then later in Sydney. In 1916 her father, Charles Davis, commander of the 38th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), was dispatched to the battlefields in France and sent his wife Emily and their three children to live with Emily’s parents in Neutral Bay. The young Beatrice showed an aptitude for music and the piano, both of which remained lifelong interests. Indeed, she studied piano and violin at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and had thoughts of a career as a composer and later as a concert pianist.

Even if she had had the talent, after the death of Charles Davis in 1922, the family would have been unable to afford to pay for Beatrice to study music. Instead, she got a scholarship to take an arts degree and a diploma in teaching, with secondary school teaching to follow. Teaching was one of the main careers available to female arts graduates at the time, but Beatrice turned her back on it and the family was forced to repay the scholarship. Her first job after finishing university was as a stenographer at the French Trade Commission, transcribing letters in French. A few months later she left for a higher paying job. She became an assistant at the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA), under the tutelage of its editor, one Dr Mervyn Archdall.

Learning on the job

In Kent’s version, Beatrice first started as secretary to the editor and then later became editorial assistant to Archdall (p. 31), but Anthony Barker’s account describes her first role as stenographer (p. 6). In any event, the MJA and Archdall provided Beatrice with an intensive seven years of training in all aspects of the journal’s publication.

When you’re in the trade, it’s often fascinating to hear or read about what inspires people to become editors and how they get there. On the IPEd members’ Facebook page Secret Editors Business, from time to time people post vignettes about their own journeys to an editing career. These days most have either completed a university degree in editing and publishing or a related field, or they have switched careers from another profession and have taken courses or workshops to learn about the nuts and bolts of editing. Very few have the benefit of ‘learning on the job’ as Beatrice Davis did.

In addition to his busy schedule of work at the MJA, Dr Archdall did some freelance editing for the publishing manager at Angus and Robertson, an old friend of his. Soon enough, Archdall began passing on some of this work to Beatrice. And that’s how the estimable Miss Davis became a book editor, by moonlighting.

It’s also where Beatrice’s story begins to intersect with that of Angus and Robertson. Part 2 (1937–45) of A certain style explores how ‘Our Miss Davis’ developed into her role as editor and became indispensable at Angus and Robertson, then Australia’s pre-eminent publisher – the business encompassed a bookshop, publishing company and Halstead Press, the printery. The chapters in this section provide a rich and fascinating account of the book trade in Australia in the early to mid-twentieth century.

A boom in poetry publishing

It seems publishing had been essentially a sideline business for Angus and Robertson owner George Robertson – until 1895–96, that is, when he published The man from Snowy River and other verses (AB ‘Banjo’ Paterson) and In the days when the world was wide and other verses (Henry Lawson), which became wildly popular.

It’s hard to comprehend today that ‘… poetry was a strong and steady seller’ (p. 43), but CJ Dennis’s The sentimental bloke sold 125,000 copies ‘very quickly’. Author Ion ‘Jack’ Idriess, who wrote in excess of 50 books over a 30-year period, sold on average 35,000 copies of each title, including during the Great Depression years of the 1930s. At a time when Australia’s population numbered about seven million, Angus and Robertson maintained a mailing list – in the true sense of the word – of some 200,000.

Australians were reading more poetry back then than they do today, and novels and illustrated children’s books were part of the mainstay. However, according to Kent (p. 45):

George Robertson’s greatest legacy as a publisher was probably his non-fiction. Here his pursuit of the profit motive was less keen: he believed that if a particular book was needed, it should be published, regardless of its money-making potential … In 1912 G.R. decided to publish Australia’s first encyclopaedia. The first volume, edited by Arthur W. Jose, was delayed by the war and other factors and did not appear until 1925; the second volume came out the following year. The whole thing, originally budgeted at about £7000, finally cost £30,000.

Another astonishing thing about George Robertson was that he read every single proof before a book was published. He may have been fastidious, but to me this suggests that at Angus and Robertson the publishing, editorial and production processes were a joint responsibility and a team effort, which is admirable.

Davis’s career at Angus and Robertson

When Beatrice started work there in 1937, she was hired as a bookshop assistant and proofreader – in those days proofreaders were required to take on some of the tasks many editors today baulk at: fact-checking for dates, facts, style and references. And when she became staff editor – ‘Angus and Robertson’s first full-time book editor and almost certainly the first in Australia’ (p. 51), Beatrice’s role expanded to take on the full gamut of book editing and publishing, including reading unsolicited manuscripts. Both Kent and Barker comment on her ability to write precise summaries of those manuscripts, including giving ‘a brief summary of the writer’s literary skill’, and that ‘she had the almost forensic ability to pinpoint a manuscript’s faults in non-judgemental, logical prose’ (p. 52).

Perhaps Beatrice’s most important attribute was her gift for developing and maintaining strong working relationships with her authors and colleagues, and there are a great many detailed accounts of her relationships with luminaries, including Miles Franklin, with whom she’d developed a warm friendship, Ernestine Hill, Norman Lindsay, former Prime Minister Billy Hughes and a great many more. I’m certainly not the first to point out that author–editor relationships can be especially sensitive and need to be handled with care, and in many ways this book could be said to be a study of how to balance a warm friendship with a workable professional relationship.

As with any book of this nature, there are many ways to read A certain style. As a reader, I was enthralled. As a former publisher’s editor, I read it with as much awe as envy, for the power and influence vested in Beatrice Davis as editor, publisher and nurturer of some of Australia’s most notable writers. It should be essential reading for aspiring and novice editors, especially those who are seeking to carve out a future career in publishing.

Not a feminist

In commending the book there is, of course, much to ponder and much to love, but it would be remiss of a reviewer to overlook such weaknesses as inevitably there are. For example, a feminist critique would point to Kent’s ‘softly-softly’ approach to Beatrice’s tolerance of what might be described as benevolent sexism.

Even after more than 30 years as Angus and Robertson's most important editor, Beatrice Davis continued to be overlooked for promotion. It was infuriating to read that even though the company ‘knew that Beatrice was better educated, better read and probably more intelligent than most of [the men], they did not treat her as a professional equal. Walter Cousins held regular meetings to discuss manuscripts and make publishing recommendations, attended by staff from the bookshop and Halstead Press, as well as one or two freelance editors. Beatrice was not invited’ (p.51).

It’s heartbreaking for this reader, then, to find that Beatrice disliked inclusive language and expressed ‘her distaste for the distortions she considered feminism had imposed on the language of Fowler and the Oxford English Dictionary’ (p. 3) [on which houses I declare a pox]. To whit (p. 3):

I have been asked to speak to you about the role of the editor … And although I can see that this audience consists mainly of women, I shall through-out refer to the editor as he. [italics in the original]

No doubt, Beatrice Davis was a woman of, and for, her time. I would have preferred to read that she had been a champion for women and for editors, as well as her authors, but alas. Kent describes her variously as at times ‘blunt’ and ‘tactless’, but also as ‘a complex and contradictory character’ (p. 6) – in other words, like all of us, a flawed human being,  albeit fascinating in her case.

A certain style won the 2002 National Biography award and, in my view, rightly so. Beatrice Davis and her long and distinguished career in editing and publishing both deserve the care with which Jacqueline Kent has crafted a traditional biography and a history of what was Australia’s premier publishing house for the better part of a century.

A certain style: Beatrice Davis – a literary life, 2nd edition, Jacqueline Kent, NewSouth, 2018, 9871742236025 (paperback), RRP $34.99.

Renée Otmar is a consultant researcher, writer and editor whose career and everyday working life are excitingly diverse. Some weeks will see her travelling vast distances to work with teams of researchers and/or women, facilitating workshops on transformational leadership or research methods in public health; other weeks will find her ensconced in her home office on the Surf Coast, a canine editorial assistant her only company as she wrestles with a writing or editing project. Renée is convenor of the 9th IPEd national editors conference, Beyond the Page, to be held in May 2019.