About Jacquie

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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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Jacqueline Kent speaks to Sally Blakeney about Beatrice Davis

As a young editor I was told that if you were a good person and ate all your green vegetables, you too could be Beatrice Davis when you grew up. Being the grande dame, Beatrice came along a couple times to talk to our fledgling society of editors. She seemed rather foreign because she was really a gentlewoman of the 1930s and ’40s. She was always a little bit too gracious for the likes of us.

Some time after the death of my husband (Ken Cook, author of Wake in Fright) in 1987, I met Beatrice at a function. She said: “I’m sorry about your husband, dear.” And I said, “Thank you, Beatrice” because it was nice of her.

And then she said: “Yes, it’s really hard when you have to bury them, isn’t it?” It was blunt and went right against the gentlewoman stereotype, and that’s when I realised there was a lot more to this woman than we had been led to believe.

Earlier than that, when I published my first book, a history of Australian radio, she came up to me and said: “I believe you’ve written a book, dear. You are an editor and editors don’t write books.” Beatrice followed the view of Maxwell Perkins, the great American editor of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. When he was asked why he wasn’t a writer, he said: “Because I’m an editor.” Beatrice believed that if you were an editor you were trying to make the writer, as Perkins said, get the best out of their work. There’s no parallel with Perkins, though. He was a commissioning editor, someone who also went out and found books for the company. In Australia that was left to other people and Beatrice gently burnished their work. She didn’t see her role as entrepreneurial.

She was influential partly because she was the first full-time book editor in Australia. Before that it was all blokes at Angus&Robertson. They would get someone who was a professor and say, “Why don’t you edit this Lawson?” It was not a career; it was something people did on the side. She was the first person to make a career of it. Also, she ran the editorial department at Angus&Robertson when it was the only significant publishing company in Australia. She was on all the committees — the Miles Franklin from the beginning, because she knew Franklin, and was there for 30 years. That made her an important taste-maker.

She had an unshakeable view of her worth. She had a strong set of standards and a traditional idea of how the language should work. That doesn’t mean she was a terrible purist and didn’t split an infinitive. She often allowed
“language” in manuscripts; profanities if she thought it was part of the writer’s style or if it was a war novel and you had to have blokes swearing.

She had fastidious and eclectic tastes. She did not disdain children’s writing. She never thought it was less important than adult writing, which is pretty rare. She was a thorough, professional editor who could have a go at anything, from diseases in sheep to children’s books. I decided to write this because I always thought she was unfinished business, having known her for such a long time, and the legend of Angus&Robertson, which was in fact a legend that isn’t necessarily true. I discovered she was extremely kind, but could also be a complete bitch.

People had interesting views on her. She was not universally beloved. There was a lot of gossip about her. She was pretty when she was young and some said you had to sleep with Beatrice in order to get published — standard stuff for women in that position. She had a code of ethics; she didn’t kiss and tell.

Weekend Australian, Wednesday 6 September 2006