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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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An Editor who Ruled with a Certain Style

An Editor who Ruled with a Certain Style

Christopher Bantick interviews the biographer of Beatrice Davis, who held the editor’s chair at Angus and Robertson for 36 years.

There is a scene in the first few pages of A Certain Style, Jacqueline Kent’s study of Beatrice Davis, which establishes the tone of the book. Kent recalls an evening in Sydney in 1980 when Davis, the doyen of Australian literary editors, was to give an address to young female editors. There was an air of expectation, and then frustration, as Davis spoke to her audience, Kent says, ‘not as colleagues but as students’. It is a revealing comment.

Beatrice Davis was a redoubtable editor with Angus and Robertson from 1937 until 1973. In the 36 years she was in the editor’s chair, she bridged the period of modern Australian literature from Miles Franklin to Tim Winton. After she was sacked from Angus and Robertson – over her manner and attitude towards Richard Walsh, her new employer, in 1973 – she then went to work for Thomas Nelson. By then her best was behind her.

Davis had written, when at Angus and Robertson, ‘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.’ Kent says that it was something which Davis held to all her life and it was a view which drew Kent to her as a subject for biography.

‘I didn’t expect to feel any affinity for Davis as a woman. Professionally I did. I always thought she was a cool character andaloof. When I fread her correspondence, she appeared otherwise to me. Most women who came of age in the 70s understood what the previous generation of women had gone through. I quickly began to admire her as a gentlewoman.She was the kind of person who got on with the job and didn’t whinge.’ Davis had a well deserved reputation for being feisty and crusty – often at the same time. She did not tolerate fools easily or glady and had certain views. She was a friend and confidant to a generation of Australian writers establishing themselves after World War II. These included Thea Astley, Hal Porter, Xavier Herbert, Douglas Stewart and Ruth Park. She was a lover to some. Kent as biographer is also a highly successful book editor. In a way she brings a level of insight and empathy to Davis’s life. It is perhaps a mark of the understated way Davis conducted her influential role in Australian literature that Kent is still uncertain just how good she was as an editor.

‘Judging by what I have seen on her manuscripts, she was meticulous. In terms of her significance for Australian writing, then this was profound. She cared about Australian literature and writers. She was committed to good writing.

‘The difference between her and a modern editor is that Davis was the lodestar of good writing. Editors today are much less inclined to be a standard by which good wrtiting is judged. There are so many other gatekeepers today.

In her day, she was largely the only one.’ Davis held sway over the literary community at a time when Australian writing was emerging strongly. Her home for over 50 years at Folly Point on Sydney’s North Shore, was a favouritge address with writers. Kent says that Davis was conscious of her role and yet she would just as likely say ‘nonsense, darling’.

Even so, the apocryphal stories circulated at the time suggested that should men want to be published by Davis, then they needed to sleep with her. Davis was, kent says, part of a bohemian society whose behaviour was ‘sexually free’. A later generation, she says, ‘likes to think that this kind of behaviour was an invention of the sixties.’ For Kent, Davis was well ahead of her time in several ways.

‘I think she was hugely influential in the development of Australian writing. She was, regrettabvly, just a little too early to see the Australian writers being accepted internationally. She came from a generation which thought Australian literature was not real literature. This came from the British Isles. Davis challenged this, and she was the editor at Australia’s premier publishing house.

‘Ruth Park, who knew her as a friend and editor, said to me that Davis could be incredibly frank and brutal. She was also very guarded and alcohol was her safety valve.’ This elegant biography is perhaps of most interest to the Australian literary community who remember Davis and those who want to know, but Kent is able to stand back from her subject. We get to know Davis intimately and this is through either her own words, the words of her friends or Kent’s suggestions of a personality both carefully reticent and almost coy about revealing too much.

Kent puts it this way: ‘The editor’s job is a secret one. I think Davis regretted this to a point. I feel she would have liked to be a writer. When she was asked this aqt one point in her life she said she would not want to expose her friends. She was not a lonely or dissatisfied woman, though. It was more she was like a cat – self-sufficient.’ The loss of her job at Angus and Robertgson was, Kent believes, a severe blow to Davis. The consequences were, she says, quickly evident.

‘She began to lose confidence at Thomas nelson. Her sacking from Angus and Robertson came at a time when book publishing was changing. Editing was becoming less important than marketing. Editing standards were, she felt, being eroded. The problems she had with Richard Walsh were really the clash of two generations.

‘Davis had her own way of approaching her craft. She said you had to enter into the mindset of the author, and you might not even like the writer. In a strange kind of way Davis, through her self-effacement, elevated the role of the editor. I think her legacy is in the book’s title.’

Christopher Bantick, Canberra Times, 12 August 2001