Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Davis, Beatrice Deloitte (1909–1992)

by Beverley Kingston

This article was published online in 2016

Beatric Davis, by Alec Bolton, 1985

Beatric Davis, by Alec Bolton, 1985

National Library of Australia, 14262010

Beatrice Deloitte Davis (1909–1992), editor, was born on 28 January 1909 at Bendigo, Victoria, second of three children of Victorian-born Charles Herbert Davis, solicitor, and his Sydney-born wife Emily Beatrice, née Deloitte. Her mother’s family was related to the English Deloittes of international accounting fame. While her father was on active service during World War I, the family moved to Sydney to live with the Deloittes. After the war they stayed in Sydney, but by the time Beatrice was fourteen her adored father had died.

Davis was educated at Neutral Bay Public and North Sydney Girls High schools. With the help of a Teachers’ College scholarship she graduated from the University of Sydney (BA, 1929), majoring in English and French with a sub-major in chemistry. She also studied at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, and her piano later accompanied her wherever she lived, coming to dominate the living room of the art deco house at Folly Point, Cammeray, acquired after her marriage.

Having decided she was not suited to teaching, Davis found work as a secretary with the Medical Journal of Australia, where the editor, Mervyn Archdall, taught her his job. Through the MJA she met Dr Frederick John Bridges, former medical superintendent of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, who was divorced. They were married on 6 July 1937 at the registrar general’s office in Sydney. He was twenty years her senior. Through Archdall she also met Walter Cousins, publishing director of Angus and Robertson Ltd (A&R). In 1937 she was offered a job mainly reading proofs. Before long she was the first full-time editor at A&R.

From her tiny office at the A&R building (89 Castlereagh St), Davis soon became a significant figure in Sydney literary circles. In 1941, at Douglas Stewart’s suggestion, she inaugurated the annual Australian Poetry and Coast to Coast story anthologies. She hosted functions and meetings so that A&R became a meeting place for authors. As a member of the Sydney branch of the English Association, the Fellowship of Australian Writers of New South Wales and the Sydney PEN Club, she knew every Sydney writer of consequence. She reviewed books and manuscripts and under her influence A&R took over publication of the literary magazine Southerly. Her membership from 1957—together with her A&R colleague, Colin Roderick—of the judging panel of the Miles Franklin literary award provided her with a splendid perspective on Australian fiction, though in the sixteen years before she left the company, A&R books won in only eight, three written by Thea Astley.

As important as Davis’s knowledge of what was happening in Australian writing was her encouragement of the work of writers she admired or thought worthwhile. Her preference was for developing the literary tradition begun in the nineteenth century, as outlined in Miles Franklin’s Laughter, Not for a Cage (1956). Increasingly she avoided the contemporary urban themes favoured by writers like Dymphna Cusack, Ruth Park, D’Arcy Niland, and Kylie Tennant, though the old bush tradition was fading and by 1983 she was wondering whether she had been right to accommodate Miles Franklin’s enthusiasm for ‘Brent of Bin Bin.’

During her time at A&R Davis was never paid as much as the men, who were also promoted over her, nor did she have any formal role in the firm’s management. She had some income from her husband’s estate, and therefore no reason to agitate for higher pay, but she was no feminist, preferring to flatter and cajole. She despised gender-neutral language. By the 1970s, however, her lack of status made her position vulnerable. Even so she had become a role model, especially for young women who aspired to work in publishing. Stylish, elegant, influential, and ubiquitous, she emphasised the need for an informed critical sense but advocated a self-effacing role for the editor as ‘invisible mender’ (McDonald 2012, 13). These qualities she tried to instil in the editors she trained. In practice, however, she could be high-handed and judgemental. In her pursuit of literary quality she would ignore such matters as design, production costs, and marketing. Though under her influence A&R had become synonymous with a particular kind of Australian literary publishing, in fact the firm’s value was sustained largely by its non-literary, technical, trade, and general backlist, much of it popular Australiana. Its old-fashioned management style made it vulnerable in an aggressive market. After one serious takeover attempt from 1958 to 1959, aimed at A&R’s valuable real estate as height restrictions on buildings in the Sydney central business district were lifted, there were others culminating with Gordon Bartons capture of the board in 1970 and his appointment of the youthful Richard Walsh to supervise and modernise the publishing department, which included Davis.

Davis was a heavy smoker, eventually developing emphysema, and never averse to a ‘teeny piece’ (Kent 2001, 175) of her favourite whisky, Vat 69, thus excusing all indiscretions. Shortly before Frederick Bridges died of tuberculosis in 1945, his old friend Edmund ‘Dick’ Jeune became her escort. He moved into a farmhouse she bought at Sackville on the Hawkesbury where, until he died in 1976, he grew oranges, raised chickens, and welcomed Davis at weekends. In 1960 she also met John Broadbent, a solicitor and former soldier, and began a relationship lasting thirty years. There were other admirers too. On paper she maintained intense friendships with several of her authors, most of them somewhat hapless, like Eve Langley and Ernestine Hill, or Hal Porter, Kenneth Mackenzie, and Xavier Herbert. Flirtatious and bossy, she was managing with the women, and more accommodating with the men, even taking them to bed after a few drinks—‘It's only sex, darling’ (Kent 2001, 210). However, she was almost prudishly protective of the reputation of A&R when it came to lurid language or too much sex in books. Tom Hungerford had a manuscript shelved for years because it was too explicit, and when asked to tone down the language in another was offered an alphabetical list of problems, ‘A is for arsehole, B is for balls,’ and so on (Kent 2001, 67). She clashed with Richard Walsh because he was keen to push the boundaries as he had done with Oz magazine and Nation Review, and to publish new writing, such as a lesbian novel by Kerryn Higgs and Dennis Altman’s ground-breaking Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation. But, as well, her highly personal, even idiosyncratic, way of managing the editorial process was no longer suited to modern publishing. It was time-consuming and far from transparent.

When Davis (and several of her editors) were sacked by ‘the boy publisher’ in 1973 (Kent 2001, 268), there was consternation. Eighty-two written tributes were gathered and bound, and are deposited in the Mitchell Library together with her papers. But she was soon offered other work, and chose to become Sydney editor for Thomas Nelson (Australia) Pty Ltd’s expanding operation. Several of her authors followed her. ‘Where Beatrice goes, I go too,’ Thea Astley declared (Astley, pers. comm.). Folly Point served as her office until changes at Nelson meant that by 1981 she was no longer needed. She continued freelancing, and serving as the last of the Franklin prize judges appointed by Miles personally. A fall in 1989 eventually drove her from Folly Point to a nursing home at Hunters Hill. Her judging of the 1992 Franklin prize was just finished when she died on 24 May at the home, two days before the winner was announced; she was cremated.

For her services to literature Davis was appointed MBE in 1967 and AM in 1981. The University of Sydney awarded her an honorary doctorate of letters in 1992. According to her biographer, Jacqueline Kent, her power was due to ‘her combination of high intelligence, critical acuity, wit and charm,’ and because ‘A&R was for a long time the only publishing company of any size in Australia.’ Book marketing ‘in the modern sense was in its infancy and editorial control was much greater’ (Kent 2006, 181–82). Her style added greatly to the legend of A&R, but notwithstanding the legend, developments she pioneered as an editor in Sydney were occurring concurrently elsewhere. As she became more influential, she was a restraining rather than a driving force in Australian publishing. The Beatrice Davis Editorial Fellowship was established in her honour.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Astley, Thea. Personal communication with author
  • Barker, Anthony. One of the First and One of the Finest: Beatrice Davis, Book Editor. Carlton, Vic.: The Society of Editors (Vic.) Inc., 1991
  • Kent, Jacqueline. A Certain Style: Beatrice Davis, A Literary Life. Ringwood, Vic.: Viking, 2001
  • Kent, Jacqueline. ‘Case Study: Beatrice Davis.’ In Paper Empires: A History of the Book in Australia 19462005, edited by Craig Munro and Robyn Sheahan-Bright, 17782. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2006
  • McDonald, Rowena. ‘Beatrice Davis and “The Sacredness of the Printed Word”.’ Australian Literary Studies 27, nos. 34 (OctoberNovember 2012): 1330
  • State Library of New South Wales. MLMSS 7638, Beatrice Davis papers, 19521989
  • Walsh, Richard. ‘Case Study: The New A&R.’ In Paper Empires: A History of the Book in Australia 19462005, edited by Craig Munro and Robyn Sheahan-Bright, 5763. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2006

Additional Resources

Citation details

Beverley Kingston, 'Davis, Beatrice Deloitte (1909–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/davis-beatrice-deloitte-17805/text29386, published online 2016, accessed online 24 October 2017.

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