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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.
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A Certain Style

A Certain Style: Beatrice Davis – A Literary Life

A Certain StyleWomen have always been active in book publishing in Australia, although their contributions have often been hidden by history. Witness, for example, the absence of the following publishers and editors from mainstream Australian publishing histories: Violet Teague, Geraldine Rede, Hilda Esson, Joan Phipson, Bessie Mitchell, Barbara Ramsden, Nan McDonald, Mary Quick and Marjorie Pizer. Like her remarkable sisters in Australian publishing before the 1960s and 1970s, Beatrice Davis was unusual or ‘out of type’. Unlike most of them, she was a legend.

This longawaited biography of Beatrice Davis, considers the richly-layered and intertwined private and public worlds of one of Australia’s first professional book editors. Furthermore, it offers the cultural historian an insight into aspects of Australian publishing history that have been examined infrequently. Then, almost simultaneously with the publication of Jacqueline Kent’s A Certain Style: Beatrice Davis — A Literary Life, Hilary McPhee’s Other People’s Words was launched, significantly increasing the number of book-length portraits of women in Australian publishing history from one title (I am referring here to Brian Matthew’s Louisa) to three, within weeks.

Beatrice Davis worked for fifty years in the industry, thirtysix of them at Australia’s premier publishing house, Angus and Robertson (Aamp;R). For most of that time she was general editor at Aamp;R; this meant that she was responsible for an enormous number of non-fiction books as well as the fiction for which she is better known. Portrayed as ‘a small elegant woman’ who ‘lived during — indeed presided over — a time of great change in Australian publishing’ (6), she had passion for the careers of her authors and for Australian literature. She engaged with life and her authors fully, both inside and outside of ‘the firm’. Nonetheless, researching a biography on Beatrice Davis must have been a challenging task at times, especially as Beatrice intended for so little to be known about herself. By nature she was discreet, ‘even secretive’ (9), and she insisted that it was her role as an editor to remain invisible in order to highlight the talents of her authors.

A Certain Style is structured around Beatrice’s key relationships with a selection of her authors. Those selected give emphasis to literary authors and include Ernestine Hill, Eve Langley, Miles Franklin, Hal Porter, Xavier Herbert, Ion Idries, Hugh McCrae, Thea Astley, Ruth Park, D’Arcy Niland and Patricia Wrightson. This thematic structure, rather than a strictly chronological one, is a defining element of the book. Other significant aspects of the biography are its extensive research, its emphasis on the qualities of Beatrice’s relationships — loyalty, duration and intensity — with her authors, and its detailed descriptions — physical, personal and professional — of Beatrice and of the other key characters.

Beatrice Davis lived in an era in which most communication took place via letter. A wealth of correspondence from Beatrice to her authors, ‘all written with clarity, economy and precision’ (8), has allowed Kent to discover and convey Beatrice’s world view. Kent has also drawn upon her own considerable experience as a book editor in order to highlight some otherwise hidden but central aspects of the publishing world: we learn how books were acquired at Aamp;R, we almost feel ‘the prickle of excitement’ (89) that publishers and editors feel in the presence of an original new voice, and we become increasingly conscious of how editors salvage manuscripts, or reconstruct them and, sometimes, even neglect to fully consult with authors. We also learn how literary publishing became possible in Australia and how Aamp;R influenced national cultural priorities, at least until the early 1970s.

When Aamp;R was threatened by the dangers inherent in the challenge of ‘larrikin publishers’ in the 1960s, Beatrice influenced shareholders and authors behind the scenes to drive away commercially-motivated business interests. (Necessarily, she strategised behind the scenes because, as a woman, she was never to be invited onto the board). As a result, Aamp;R went on to enjoy a further decade of culture-led publishing and Beatrice continued to lunch her authors at Queen’s and to entertain in her studio, reinforcing some of the now established myths about her stylish career. Then, not so surprisingly, commercial interests intruded a second time in the early 1970s — this time in the form of Gordon Barton and Richard Walsh — but there was to be no recovery on this occasion. Inevitably, Beatrice and her loyal editorial staff were dismissed, yet in her inimitable style, Beatrice continued to work with many of her authors at Thomas Nelson.

She selected Nelson above other offers, she told publisher, Anne Godden, ‘because I thought you needed me most’. (278) Clearly, her self-esteem had survived. Early in the biography, we learn of Beatrice’s upbringing and of the significant role played by her maternal relatives in shaping her vocational interests and attitudes, particularly her lifelong love of music. Her beloved father, absent from much of her childhood due to the first world war and then a premature death, was also a strong influence in the formation of her literary interests and, Kent observes, her close relationships. During a valuable seven-year apprenticeship with a medical journal, Beatrice acquired many of the skills she would later utilise at Aamp;R. While this thorough study of Beatrice’s childhood and early career makes for a slow start, the importance of these early influences is apparent as one reads on. Beatrice always demonstrated loyalty to her authors; she even assisted some to survive financially, others she gave ‘the astute sympathy and acceptance they needed in developing their own voices, and she did it with…tact’ (301). She had an eye for detail and offered feedback that was sometimes firm in order to make a manuscript into the best book it could be.

Beatrice discovered many important authors, including the fresh voice of Eve Langley and she launched Hal Porter’s successful career. She particularly admired the work of Christina Stead, Katharine Susannah Prichard and later discovered the unique voice of Thea Astley. Her commitment to Australian authors was also evidenced by an initiative early in her career, when she established two anthologies that were to annually showcase Australian writers and poets for the next three decades: Poetry Australia and a short story anthology, Coast to Coast. Each year a different editor was appointed for each and when Beatrice herself edited an edition of Coast to Coast, she showed no favouritism, even risking her friendship with Henrietta Drake-Brockman by advising her that her work ‘did not belong in the anthology’ (147). Her ‘professionalism and critical sense’ nearly always overrode a desire to not offend an author’s sensibilities; this was again apparent in her comments on Xavier Herbert’s enormous Soldier’s Women which she edited over a five year period. (190) However, in keeping with the ethos of her times, Beatrice did not ever see that it was her place to commission books: ‘We could, of course, never approach you because this is just not done’ she said to Dymphna Cusack whose bestselling Come in Spinner (written with Florence James) was lost to an overseas publisher (153). Eventually, Aamp;R did buy the paperback rights from Heinemann (UK) and in 1965, published the novel in Australia.

However, Beatrice’s earlier decision not to pursue Come in Spinner incurred an unfortunate cost to its authors — for some years they received a lesser colonial royalty, netting them ‘relatively little’ for a book that was set in Sydney (152). Kent has written a biography that is engaging and illuminating though I was also hoping for some insights into Beatrice’s relationships with her editorial team, especially Nan McDonald, her loyal ‘lieutenant’ at Aamp;R for over thirty years, for whom Beatrice reserved the accolade of ‘Australia’s best editor’, and Elisabeth Hughes. While the inclusion of a photo of Nan McDonald suggests prominence, it is surprising that little new information about their working relationship or friendship emerges. Even when the book reaches the year of Nan’s premature death, there is no reference to the impact of her passing out of Beatrice’s life. The structure of this biography (by author) may well have contributed to such an omission. A Certain Style successfully reveals an extraordinary woman and highlights the important role of one of Australia’s most significant and dynamic cultural gate-keepers. Even though Beatrice Davis may not have approved of Jacqueline Kent stepping outside of the traditional editor’s role constraints to write a biography — Beatrice Davis once censured Kent with the bald statement, ‘Editors do not write books’ (4) — there can be little doubt that Beatrice would have been very tempted to make exception for this adroitly written, well-structured and entertaining portrait of herself. Who knows, she may even have given it her publisher’s stamp of approval.


Louise Poland. ‘Review: A Certain Style: Beatrice Davis – A Literary Life by Jacqueline Kent’ [online]. Network Review of Books (Perth, Australian Public Intellectual Network), Dec 2001-Jan 2002.
Availability: ISSN 1833-0932.
[accessed 03 September 2009].

Back Cover Blurb

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.