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BOOK REVIEW: A Certain Style: Beatrice Davis, a literary life, 2nd Edition by Jacqueline Kent

| 13 February 2019 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: A Certain Style: Beatrice Davis, a literary life, 2nd Edition by Jacqueline Kent

NewSouth Publishing
September 2018
Paperback, $34.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / Biographies & True Stories

90% Rocking

Beatrice Davis always knew that someone would write a book about her. This formidable woman was Australia’s most acclaimed book editor. An individual born before her time, she was also the first person to have this role in Australia. It was a job she grabbed by the horns and made her own. A Certain Style was first published in 2001. Davis wasn’t alive to read the finished work but it is heartening to see that this won a National Biography Award upon publication. A Certain Style is a fitting and colourful literary work by a fellow book editor. It has now been re-released with some changes and a new introduction, which will ensure that a new generation of readers know about Davis’s finery.

Beatrice Davis, born in 1901, was very much of her class and time. She always dressed beautifully and conservatively…In her work, she usually maintained a smooth, professional demeanour to colleagues and authors alike; she was very much in control. Her editorial memos and the letters she wrote that dealt with her working life are calm, clear and logical…
Fortunately, this calm, somewhat chilly persona was not Beatrice’s whole story. She had a wild side, though she rarely spoke about it. She had a happy but comparatively short-lived marriage to a much older man, and many close friendships with both men and women throughout her life. Especially in her later years, after a ‘teeny piece’ of whisky or a somewhat larger piece of red wine, she was apt to declare how much she enjoyed sex. Possibly because of this, there were many rumours about her private life.

Jacqueline Kent is a published author, broadcaster, and book editor. Perhaps thanks to wearing so many different hats, she brings a knowing perspective and an empathy to the proceedings here. Kent has meticulously-researched Davis’s life and the history of Angus & Robertson, an institution that was once our nation’s premiere publishing house. This makes this book a rich chronicle of Davis’s life and times and it feels factual and authentic rather than a hagiography of a predecessor. It is thanks to Davis that Australia can boast published authors like: Miles Franklin, Thea Astley, Hal Porter, Ruth Park, and more. She was integral to discovering and developing new voices.

Beatrice parcelled out the manuscripts from the editorial cupboard; she read the most promising ones herself, but all the editors were expected to read and report on some and to write individual letters of rejection. The rule was to try to say something pleasant, or at least not too discouraging about the manuscript, although Beatrice did not always follow this herself. Every manuscript received was reported on, and the reports were typed and filed by one of the typists downstairs in case the author submitted the same manuscript under a different title. Editors sometimes read manuscripts while they ate lunch at their desks; according to legend someone’s ham sandwich once disappeared into a rejected manuscript.

You couldn’t create a character like Davis if you tried. She seems a true original and a legendary lady. On the one hand she was an elegant and proper woman who was praised for her intricate penmanship, who encouraged young writers and was meticulous in her editing. But on the flipside she could be wild. Beatrice had a penchant for cigarettes, whisky, and sex and she would chastise any person that tried to call her Bea.

But she had iron determination and every intention of continuing to do exactly as she wished for as long as possible. She smuggled cigarettes into hospital and continued to smoke even when she had to use an oxygen mask for her emphysema; a horrified doctor took away her cigarettes before she caused an explosion. She kept whisky in the hospital locker, telling her visitors what the hospital staff didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. They weren’t always so blind: a Sottish nurses’ aide told her severely that he could smell the water of Scotland in her room. Her supplies were confiscated and she was lectured like a naughty little girl, but she managed to con people into bringing her more.

The work of an editor can be quite invisible. The relationship exists solely between them and the author, and the goal is to make the best possible book out of a manuscript. Readers generally only get to see the finished product. This biography will give all self-respecting readers and word lovers a greater appreciation of the editorial process and the machinations of our local publishers. The publishing industry has undergone fundamental changes since Beatrice’s time but it’s clear that her legacy is still felt.

Beatrice was unique in Australian letters in being able to create her own niche, to invent her job. Before she joined Angus and Robertson, editing had been a schoolteacher’s skill, done on a book-by-book basis without much attempt at consistency. By her own practice and the training of her staff she brought it to the status of a craft, with its own exacting standards. Part of her legacy was the question asked by a generation of editors, ‘What would Beatrice have done?’

Davis was passionate about Australian literature at a time when it was internationally scorned. Kent captures Davis’s love for our local industry. This book begins with Davis’s childhood and as a recent university graduate with her apprenticeship-of-sorts at the Medical Journal of Australia. From there, Davis moved to Angus & Robertson, working first as a proofreader and book-seller, and eventually as a full-time editor. It is a post she would maintain for around four decades. This book shows that Davis was often the glue in many people’s lives; she got involved and had authors over for dinner, she supported and cajoled. It’s clear that Australian culture would not have been the same without her.

Beatrice believed that a good book would find its readers with minimal effort, and she would have scoffed at the role that marketing and publicity play in today’s book trade. The growth of book clubs, literary festivals, the increasing number of prizes, exposure on mass media – all of these things, which hardly existed in Beatrice’s time, are now essential tools in promoting books. And editors, though less powerful than she was, have paradoxically become more prominent. They lecture in book publishing and creative writing courses and they have their names on the books they edited, a practice Beatrice considered nothing short of reprehensible.

A Certain Style is a delightful slice of her-story that is beautifully-written and constructed. It shows the pivotal role that Davis and A&R played in Australian books and publishing in the 20th century. A Certain Style provides readers with an intriguing and informative look at a publishing doyen and editor who didn’t always play by the book. Amen to that.

Natalie Salvo

Category: Book Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at: http://nataliesalvo.wordpress.com

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