Beatrice Davis: Backroom Girl of Modern Literature
On a cold July evening in 1980 a small elegant woman climbed the wooden staircase to the first floor of the Kirribilli Neighbourhood Centre on the north side of Sydney Harbour, almost under the bridge. She moved slowly, clutching the rail – the stairs were steep, she was seventy-one and a lifetime of cigarette smoking had made her wheezy – pausing for breath only when she reached the top landing. From behind a half-open door she heard the murmuring voices of about forty young women who were waiting for her to speak to them. Most were in their twenties or thirties, young enough to be her daughters. In one sense that is exactly who we were.
We were book editors. Most of us worked for the Australian branches of the American- and British-based publishers who had dominated the local publishing scene since the early 1970s. Like book editors the world over, we were mainly middle-class women with university degrees. Almost none of us had started our working lives as editors – we were former teachers, librarians, university tutors, researchers – and we all knew we would have been much better paid if we had stayed in our original jobs.
Yet we had turned our backs on other, more lucrative jobs because we wanted to work with books. Most of us found seductive the idea of engaging with the minds and imaginations of writers. And whatever our problems with schedules or costs, ridiculous deadlines, impossible authors or execrably written texts flung together to catch a market, we still enjoyed turning a manuscript from a pile of paper to a finished book, and seeing ‘our’ books in bookshops and on library shelves, knowing that – maybe – they would not have been as good without us.
We had come out on this midwinter night because the speaker we were about to hear knew more about the craft of editing than anyone else in Australia. She was legendary, and for many of us she had been a role model from the day we started in publishing. It was this woman, Beatrice Davis, who had written: ‘Nothing quite equals the surprised by joy feeling when an editor comes upon a writer, previously unknown, who shows signs of the creative imagination that is so rare, so hard to define, so immediately recognisable.’
We knew that Beatrice Davis was the bridge spanning modern Australian literature from Miles Franklin to Tim Winton. She had been with Angus and Robertson for thirty-six years, from 1937 until 1973, and was now the Sydney editor for Thomas Nelson. She had been much more than a polisher of other people’s prose. In the early 1940s, with Douglas Stewart, she had founded Australian Poetry and Coast to Coast, ground-breaking anthologies which presented the work of an emerging generation of Australian writers, among them Judith Wright, A.D. Hope, Dal Stivens and Judah Waten, and which continued to publish outstanding poetry and prose for more than thirty years.
She had been a friend to dozens of Australian poets and novelists, including Thea Astley, Hal Porter, Xavier Herbert, Douglas Stewart and Ruth Park. As a judge of the Miles Franklin Award from its inception in 1957 she had influenced public perception of what was best in Australian fiction. She had trained a generation of editors to follow her. Douglas Stewart had written about her: ‘As much as anyone else, and more than most, she kept Australian literature alive for more than a quarter of a century.’ She had been made an MBE in 1965, Bookman of the Year in 1976, and was shortly to be made an AM. We also knew that Beatrice Davis had been dismissed from Angus and Robertson in 1973, at the age of sixty-four, a casualty of the company’s takeover by Gordon Barton’s IPEC. Richard Walsh, who had fired the bullet, was still excoriated seven years later. Some of us were eagerly indignant on Beatrice’s behalf, ready to consider her a martyr to the feminist cause.
In her dress of fine blue wool, stockings and black high-heeled shoes, with immaculately waved grey hair, discreet makeup and elegant jewellery, Beatrice seemed to belong in the old Queen’s Club, a place of antique furniture and gleaming mirrors. Barbara Ker Wilson, a former colleague of Beatrice’s at Angus and Robertson, introduced her, speaking with enthusiasm of Beatrice’s achievements and honours. Some of us noticed Beatrice give her a swift, quizzical glance: Darling, let’s not overdo it. A minute later she began to speak. Her hands, we noticed, were empty: her skill and experience in public speaking evidently transcended the use of notes. ‘I have been asked to speak to you about the role of the editor,’ she began in a low-pitched voice, her vowels rounded in the cultivated Australian speech of an earlier era. ‘And although I can see that this audience consists mainly of women, I shall throughout refer to the editor as he.’ She paused and looked around the room, her chin raised.
The few editors who had worked with Beatrice smiled at each other. They knew her dislike of inclusive language, her distaste for the distortions she considered feminism had imposed on the language of Fowler and the Oxford English Dictionary. But others frowned and folded their arms. If Beatrice noticed this evidence of resistance, she gave no sign. ‘I shall begin by saying that editing should never be obvious,’ she continued evenly. ‘The author’s voice is sacrosanct, and the editor must always remember that the book does not belong to him, but to the author.’
Beatrice was echoing the words of Maxwell Perkins – the legendary US editor of Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway – who had once observed that in the end an editor can get out of an author only what that author has in him. Yet as Beatrice continued – ‘The editor should …’ ‘The editor must …’ ‘It is the editor’s responsibility to …’ – some of us felt uneasy. We knew Beatrice was condensing almost fifty years of her professional life into half an hour, but she seemed to be speaking to us not as colleagues but as students, laying down the law: in effect, ordering us to be submissive. We found difficulty in believing that a woman with such a strong personality, someone so much in control, even bossy, was quite as deferential to her authors as she was telling us to be.
When the time came for questions from the audience, an editor in her early thirties challenged Beatrice on her attitude to inclusive language. Looking irritated, Beatrice invoked traditional English grammar in support of her position, her snappy tone making it clear that she considered the subject closed. The editor was ready to continue the argument, but the feeling of the meeting was against her: it seemed the height of bad manners to wrangle with such a distinguished guest.
For some years after this, I met Beatrice Davis at various literary events; we acknowledged each other, but never really had a conversation. Then in 1983 my first book, a history of Australian radio, was published. Not long afterwards Beatrice greeted me with: ‘I believe you’ve written a book, dear.’ When I admitted this, gratified that she had noticed, her reply was: ‘You are an editor. Editors do not write books.’ I felt that I had been slapped on the wrist.
A few years afterwards we had a more interesting encounter. It was October 1987 and I was coming to the end of a dreadful year. Kenneth Cook, the author of Wake in Fright whom I had married in January, had died of a heart attack three months later and I was still raw. Beatrice came up to me and said crisply, ‘I’m sorry about your husband, dear.’ I was touched and thanked her. ‘Yes,’ she added, ‘it’s really difficult when you have to bury them, isn’t it?’
Them? How many men did she mean, for heaven’s sake? There was something about the blunt tactlessness of her comment that I found, and still do, oddly endearing, perhaps because it was so unexpected. For the first time I realised that Beatrice’s genteel, ladylike persona was only part of her story. Later I discovered that she was famous for her forthright comments to, and about, authors. ‘Go to bed with Xavier Herbert?’ she said to his biographer. ‘No. He never stopped talking long enough.’ (She was lying.) I also learned that Beatrice had cut quite a swathe through the male literary community, though her comment to me suggested that she considered men expendable.
When Beatrice left Angus and Robertson, about eighty of her authors – some of whom had been the subject of her blunt remarks – put together a book of tributes to her. Their words give a softer picture of the acerbic woman I was beginning to know. Thea Astley, whom Beatrice had discovered and whose first novel, Girl With a Monkey, A&R published in 1958, said that her first editor had always been ‘a helpful friend who has the capacity to advise without hurt, to correct without making the author feel ashamed or inadequate’. Others commented on Beatrice’s elegant appearance, the time and care she put into training a new generation of editors, her thoughtfulness, the sensitive sympathy and practical help she gave to many writers. Granted that critical comment is unlikely to be found in this kind of informal Festschrift, the genuine affection that Beatrice inspired among writers of poetry, fiction, children’s books and non-fiction was still striking.
After Beatrice retired in the late 1980s, several people suggested she write her memoirs. She refused, adding revealingly, ‘Most of the authors are (or have been when alive) my friends. How could I expose them?’
It was a tease on her part, but Beatrice would never have written a tell-all memoir: such a book would destroy the unspoken compact between author and editor. Neither tells the other’s secrets. Authors often give their editors information they do not want to be made public; editors don’t gossip about their authors to the wider world – or usually not until the author is dead (as in the case of Xavier Herbert). Beatrice might also have been reluctant to tell readers what their favourite authors were ‘really’ like, having long since learned to shrug off appalling authorial behaviour as the price to be paid for a good book.
But she was not entirely indifferent to the claims of posterity. In 1977 she allowed herself to be interviewed for the archives of the National Library of Australia, the tape of which is entirely without revealing comment about her authors or herself. She also co-operated with Anthony Barker, a friend and former colleague at Angus and Robertson, in a 47-page biographical study published by The Victorian Society of Editors. One of the First and One of the Finest: Beatrice Davis, Book Editor, which appeared in 1991, is full of fascinating glimpses into Beatrice’s life at Angus and Robertson. Former prime minister Billy Hughes struggles up the stairs to her attic office crying, ‘Where is she? Where’s the woman I’d leave home for?’ Beatrice drinks with her authors in her studio in lower George Street, throws herself into her job after the death of her husband Frederick Bridges. It’s an admirable study, undoubtedly constrained by the fact that Beatrice was still alive and that she and Anthony Barker were friends.
Beatrice Davis died on 24 May 1992, aged eighty-three. ‘A publisher’s editor,’ wrote Kylie Tennant in 1973, ‘has to be a cross between Man O’ War and Pardon the Son of Regret, with a heart that nothing can break.’ Beatrice might not have enjoyed being compared to a couple of racehorses, but she might have liked Tennant’s assertion that she had stamina and staying power. She lived during – indeed, presided over – a time of great change in Australian publishing, guiding the careers of many of our best-known authors. Her position as a literary taste-maker remained unchallenged for many years. She was a ‘career woman’ at a time when such a creature was relatively rare. She was also a complex and contradictory character.
Beatrice spent most of her time editing non-fiction and other work she called ‘roast and boil prose’, but she always preferred to work on fiction. Most of the authors whose stories are told here are writers of novels or short stories. These are also the writers with whom she had most empathy, and her relationship with them often illuminates their personalities as well as Beatrice’s own. Beatrice also had long-standing and close friendships with imaginative writers in other categories – poets, writers of literary non-fiction, children’s authors – and where their stories illustrate Beatrice’s work practice or give fresh insight into writing and publishing, they too have been included. A strictly chronological approach to the writing of this book proved problematic: like all professional editors, Beatrice worked on several manuscripts at once, and her relationships with authors varied in duration and intensity. To avoid confusion, A Certain Style has been organised by theme along broadly chronological lines – tracing the whole history of Beatrice’s involvement with a particular author, for example. A list giving the dates and major works of key writers will be found at the end of this book.
In one way, researching the life and times of Beatrice Davis has been relatively easy because she lived in Sydney and was known to so many people who still live there. But it has been unexpectedly difficult to enter her world, to see things as she did, because so much of her Sydney no longer exists. Especially since the early 1960s, most of the solidly Victorian maritime city she knew has been pulled down and smashed. Number 89 Castlereagh Street, the former livery stables where the wonderfully cavernous Angus and Robertson bookshop stood for eighty years and where Beatrice edited manuscripts in an attic office the size of a sentry box, is now the site of the Centrepoint Tower; at the former entrance stands an automatic teller machine. At 213B George Street, the raffish and tumbledown terrace where as a young woman Beatrice flouted family convention by renting a room on her own, is a blank-faced office block. There are many other differences: trams have vanished from the city’s streets to be replaced by bellowing traffic; most of the old arcades with their hatters, dressmakers, palmists and beauticians have gone; people walk faster, unimpeded by melting asphalt pavements, potholes, street photographers. Look up from Circular Quay as Beatrice did and you see not the Eiffel-like AWA Tower, once the tallest building in the city, but massively looming and largely anonymous office buildings. The winds off the harbour dodge round canyons and pinnacles of glass and concrete.
The publishing industry has greatly changed, too. In Beatrice’s day many employees of the bookshop, publishing company and printery that comprised Angus and Robertson began work with ‘the auld Firm’ as boys and stayed until they were in their eighties. (Men only, of course: for many years women were expected to leave when they married.) Systems established at the turn of the century were unchanged sixty years later; estimates of print runs were sometimes given by production staff or printers likely to remember how many copies of a similar book had been printed ten, twenty, even forty years before. This kind of ‘race memory’ is almost incredible in these days of accountants and computer projections. The idea of attending regular lunchtime lectures on printing techniques by a craftsman typographer, as Beatrice’s staff did during the 1950s, is unknown to today’s book editors, wrestling with too many manuscripts and too little time. Back then ‘deadline’ still had its original 1868 meaning of ‘a line drawn round a military prison, beyond which a prisoner may be shot down’ (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1947 edition). It now seems almost beyond belief that in Beatrice’s heyday a manuscript was given all the time, care and attention the editor thought it required. In its lack of urgency about scheduling, its painstaking and careful devotion to the written word, Angus and Robertson was more like an old-fashioned university arts department than a modern commercial publishing company.
Most of Beatrice’s career coincided with a time when people kept in touch by letter; the telephone was used for essential communication only. (Beatrice was notorious for abruptly ending telephone conversations.) Tucked away in manila folders in various Australian libraries are hundreds of pages with ‘BD’ in the top left-hand corner – copies of letters Beatrice wrote to her authors over almost forty years. Some are formal, others friendly, irritated, waspish, thoughtful or delighted: all are written with clarity, economy and precision. It is in these letters, as well as in comments, explanations and anecdotes given by her family, friends, authors and colleagues, that Beatrice is to be found.
A richly layered, sometimes contradictory picture emerges. A petite woman in her thirties sits in her tiny office calmly making tiny red-ink marks on a manuscript, her handwriting so delicate that Miles Franklin once told her it should be played on a piano. At an Admiralty House reception held by the governor-general Sir Paul Hasluck, she grows impatient with the company of the other women after dinner and, fortified by a couple of red wines, begins playing classical music on the piano in the corner. At a meeting of the English Association she quietly steers one belligerent writer away from another. Long known as a hostess, she is so nervous on hearing Douglas Stewart describe the virtues of wild duck that she drops her main course – roast duck – on the floor. Horrified to hear the children’s writer Joan Phipson announce that she doesn’t possess a copy of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, she sends her one immediately. She makes love on the flat roof of her house; she appears in a Norman Lindsay engraving wearing nothing but an exotic headdress.
There are some surprising glimpses of authors, too. A fascinated Hal Porter, driving Eve Langley around Gippsland, hears her address a young boy as Oscar Wilde. At lunch with Beatrice at the Australia Hotel, Xavier Herbert talks so long and loudly about himself that it is too late to eat. Ernestine Hill sends exotic shells discovered by deep-sea divers near Broome. Douglas Stewart has a long and joky correspondence with her (‘Dear Miss Davis, Are you fond of poetry?’ … ‘PS: I had a tooth out last week. Would you like it?’).
Though there is no shortage of material by and about her, in another way Beatrice is not easy to find. By temperament and upbringing she was a reserved, even secretive person, giving very little of herself away. Sometimes her sense of privacy and gentlewoman’s manners exasperated her more rumbustious authors. ‘Have you ever seen her spitting?’ Xavier Herbert once asked Hal Porter. ‘I guess not. She has wonderful self-control. I think she smashes things only after one is out of earshot.’ If Beatrice ever indulged in smashing plates, glasses or furniture, she undoubtedly waited until she was alone. Her frustrations with authors and colleagues at Angus and Robertson, her griefs, bereavements, disappointments – these she rarely confided to anyone. ‘It’s all too boring,’ she would say. An A&R colleague observed that there were times when she didn’t think Beatrice had tear ducts.
But like most people, Beatrice found it impossible to behave with perfect restraint all the time. Particularly after what she called ‘a tiny piece of whisky’, or a larger piece of red wine, she was apt to let her guard drop and become quite outspoken, sometimes with disconcerting results. She wasn’t alone in this, of course – Australian literary life has always more or less floated on a sea of alcohol – but the change that drink made to Beatrice’s usually calm and discreet behaviour was dramatic. She could switch from being charming and attentive to grumpy, sarcastic, even downright rude, capable of telling certain writers that in her opinion they couldn’t write for nuts.
Fortunately, she had a more valuable, consoling means of emotional release than alcohol. ‘Music has always been the art to which I have been most devoted and most disinterestedly dedicated – an art in which I should have loved to excel, but an art in which I could never have made a living,’ she wrote to one of her authors. In her childhood she had wanted to be a composer or a concert pianist. For years she studied the piano, giving up only when she knew her ambitions would never be realised. But she continued to play for her own pleasure and that of her friends.
Beatrice Davis was a very attractive woman, small with a trim figure, clear classical features, a delicate complexion and deep-blue eyes. She always dressed well – for many years a dressmaker made most of her clothes – and was particularly admired for her stylish, audacious hats. Her combination of elegance, charm, intelligence, wit, professionalism and beauty made many men go weak at the knees. And an influential woman with these qualities is certain to be gossiped about.
There were many rumours about Beatrice’s private life. Until she was well into her seventies she knew how to make herself appealing to men, and undoubtedly had many lovers. (The journalist Elizabeth Riddell once commented that she invariably saw Beatrice on the arm of some well-preserved military gentleman or other.) It was said that a male author stood no chance of having his novel accepted by A&R unless he went to bed with Beatrice. She was also said to be bisexual. Australian literary circles have always compensated for being small by the intensity of their gossip, and the reason these stories flourished – because Beatrice was enigmatic as well as influential – is at least as interesting as the stories themselves.
Beatrice’s friend Hal Porter once shrewdly remarked that ‘the Lady Beatrice has always been attracted to the devil in the basement’. All her life Beatrice, no slave to convention herself, was drawn to people who lived on the edge, including many writers. Though she had a gracious house on the fringe of Sydney Harbour and was apparently the epitome of middle-class respectability, Beatrice was a complex person, sometimes displaying Anglophile gentility, even pretension, at other times uninhibitedly doing as she pleased without apparently giving a damn for anyone’s opinion. The novelist D’Arcy Niland summed her up the first time he met her, saying to his wife Ruth Park, ‘There goes a gentlewoman … and she’s a little beaut, too!’ And so she was.
Beatrice Davis, 1902-1992, was Australia’s most acclaimed book editor, the ‘backroom girl of Australian literature’.
As general editor at Angus and Robertson from the late thirties to the early seventies, she nurtured the talents of a host of well known writers, including Thea Astley, Miles Franklin, Xavier Herbert, Ruth Park, Hal Porter and Patricia Wrightson. Her position as a judge of several major prizes, including the prestigious Miles Franklin Award, reinforced her pivotal role in Australia’s literary culture – a role that saw her by turns respected, feared, courted and berated.
Jacqueline Kent’s compulsively readable, erudite and witty biography portrays a woman whose passion for living was as great as her passion for Australian literature.
WINNER – 2002 National Biography Award
‘A sharp-eyed, warm-hearted portrayal .. this book succeeds on every level’ – The Age
‘Adroitly written, well structured and entertaining’ – Network Review of Books
‘A lucid, well researched and essential literary biography’ – National Library of Australia
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Jacqueline Kent is a writer of non-fiction and biography, fiction, general articles and literary journalism. Her working background includes radio interviewing, print journalism, radio and TV scriptwriting, editing books, ghostwriting, teaching editing and creative writing, and arts administration. She most recently wrote the bestseller The Making of Julia Gillard.