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Davison, Frank Dalby (1893–1970)

by Robert Darby

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Frank Dalby Davison (1893-1970), by S. J.  Hood, 1930-33

Frank Dalby Davison (1893-1970), by S. J. Hood, 1930-33

State Library of New South Wales, Original : P1/D (BM)

Frank Dalby Davison (1893-1970), writer, was born on 23 June 1893 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, and registered as Frederick Douglas, eldest child of Victorian-born parents Frederick Davison (1868-1942), printer, and his wife Amelia, née Watterson. Frederick senior was raised at Sandhurst (Bendigo) where he was apprenticed to a printer. In 1890 he opened a printing business in Melbourne and subsequently joined the Australian Natives' Association whose journal, Advance Australia, he edited and published in 1897-99. He was a dynamic and opinionated 'Progressive' with a fervent belief in the White Australia policy, the British Empire, national development and private enterprise. During the 1920s he set up as a real-estate agent in Sydney and published two short-lived magazines in which he championed 'men, money and markets' and expounded his militantly entrepreneurial ideology. In the 1930s he published several didactic novels.

Frederick junior grew up at Gardenvale, Melbourne, and attended Caulfield State School, but left in 1905 to work as a farm labourer. In 1909 his father took the family to the United States of America where young Frederick was apprenticed to a Chicago printer and published the ephemeral broadsheet, Roo Thuds. He served in a Caribbean cargo ship in 1914—and was to publish a reminiscence as Caribbean Interlude (Sydney, 1936)—then went to New York shortly after the outbreak of World War I. Travelling via Canada to England, Davison enlisted as a trooper in the 2nd Dragoon Guards. He served on the Western Front from October 1915. Commissioned on 25 September 1918, he transferred to the Hertfordshire Regiment before returning to England in April 1919. While doing his initial training at Aldershot, he had met Agnes (later known as 'Kitty' or 'Kay') Ede whom he married on 7 August 1915 at the register office, Farnham, Surrey.

In May 1919 Davison brought Kitty and their son and daughter to Australia where he took up a selection on a soldier-settlement subdivision near Injune, Queensland. The selection failed disastrously, and in 1923 a penniless Davison moved to Sydney. He joined his father's real-estate business (though he later set up on his own) and became advertising manager for Frederick's latest venture in magazine publishing, the Australian. In 1920-21, while labouring on his selection, Davison had written a number of poems, sketches and short stories for the Australian Post. He now produced a torrent of such material, most of it to illustrate and promote his father's views.

The Depression destroyed his real-estate business and forced him towards writing as a means of survival. He recovered two sets of related stories he had written for the Australian, revised them, and in 1931 published them as two novels—Man-Shy and Forever Morning—which he bound in wallpaper and hawked from door to door. Next year Man-Shy won the Australian Literature Society's gold medal for the best novel of 1931. Its literary success encouraged Davison to consider himself a professional writer and to think that he might make a living by his pen. He took the forenames Frank Dalby and produced a mass of short stories, plays and a novel, little of which was published or survives. The only significant work from this period was The Wells Of Beersheba, a short 'prose epic' commissioned by Angus & Robertson for Christmas 1933. In the early 1930s Davison was extremely poor, working at several casual jobs and accepting the dole until finally achieving precarious security as a regular reviewer for the Bulletin.

A decisive change in Davison's life and outlook began in 1934. Desperate for cash, he planned to write a conventional travel book and made a trip to Queensland with an amateur naturalist. Instead of scenic beauties, he discovered soil erosion, deforestation and man-made ugliness, and realized that the sort of entrepreneurship he had championed in the 1920s was ruining Australia's environment. He suffered a nervous breakdown when he returned to Sydney. His book, Blue Coast Caravan (1935), was a scathing critique of national development policies. Davison worked successfully at short stories after this catharsis, but never recovered his complacency and continued to regard his society with increasingly critical eyes. His first mature short story, 'The Wasteland' (1935), and his next important published work, Children of the Dark People (1936), were explicitly conservationist replies to the scenes he had criticized in Blue Coast Caravan.

Davison's 'political awakening' (as he referred to it) was further advanced by his concern with authoritarian trends in Australia and the spread of fascism abroad. Active in the increasingly left-wing Fellowship of Australian Writers since the Egon Kisch affair and president in 1936-37, he formed a close working relationship with Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw whose 'salon' became a forum in which debates about politics and literature could be thrashed out. They worked together to turn the F.A.W. into a trade union of professional writers and to ensure that it adopted progressive positions on political questions. Within literary circles the three were known as 'the triumvirate'. Davison himself took strong public stands on numerous issues, especially literary and political censorship, the integrity of Australian literature, the policy of appeasement and local threats to civil liberties. For his services to literature he was appointed M.B.E. in 1938. The most striking fruit of this phase was his anti-fascist pamphlet, While Freedom Lives, which he wrote that year in order to clarify his political ideas as a prelude to writing a working-class play in the agitprop genre. The play did not eventuate, but his concern with democratic values was patent in many of the short stories collected in his next publication, The Woman at the Mill (1940), a volume which contains some of his finest work.

From the mid-1930s Davison's marriage had been breaking up. He had brief affairs with a number of women in Sydney's social and literary circles, and a more enduring, though secret, liaison with Marjorie Barnard. World War II brought them particularly close. Both became pacifists, largely through fear that war would occasion an authoritarian crackdown which would destroy civil liberties. Davison's short story, 'Fathers and Sons', dramatizes some of the issues then at stake. Although he was never a communist, he found himself closely aligned with the Communist Party of Australia—particularly when it was banned (1940-42) under wartime emergency powers—and made several public appearances in defence of its right to operate legally. With the successive entry of Russia and Japan into the war, Davison's pacifism softened, but he refused to seek work as a war correspondent or as a publicist for the war effort.

Earning a living remained a problem. In 1939-40 Davison was awarded a Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship. He found work as a clerk at the Commonwealth Aircraft Factory, Mascot, and next as a journalist in the publications section of the Department of Labour and National Service, a position which removed him to Melbourne in 1943. A year earlier he had met Edna Marie McNab; they decided that they wanted to live together; once the divorce from Kay was secured, they were married on 8 December 1944 at the district registrar's office, Paddington, Sydney. By this time Davison was living in Melbourne and hard at work on his next book, Dusty (1946), which won first prize in the Argus competition for novels. At one level the story of a half-kelpie, half-dingo sheepdog which becomes in turn a champion worker, a killer and a wild dog, Dusty has also been read as a meditation on many of the political issues which animated Davison in the early 1940s, among them his fascination with the rebel and his ambivalent attitude towards the promised new social order following victory over fascism.

Davison continued to work for the Department of Labour and National Service. With their savings and the proceeds of the Argus prize, he and Marie bought a 61-acre (25 ha) farm at Arthur's Creek which they named Folding Hills and on which they worked at weekends. In 1951 Frank resigned from the department so that they could move there and make a living from mixed farming. He had written a rural column in the Argus for a few months in 1950, and in 1964 revised a number of his short stories for a new collection, The Road to Yesterday. Most of his creative energy, however, was reserved for a book which he had been trying to write since the late 1930s: a study of human relationships, particularly sexual behaviour, among the generation he had known in Sydney between the wars, and of the harmful effects which repression and guilt could have on sexual and emotional desires. The work grew far beyond the length of anything Davison had previously written and was eventually completed in 1967 and published as The White Thorntree (1968). It drew widely divergent assessments from critics and the novel's status remains controversial.

In 1960 John Hetherington described Davison as having grey hair fringing a high-domed, bald head, a clipped moustache, a strong voice, and eyes which, behind his glasses, were still bright and young. Despite failing health, he retained a mental alertness that was evident in the lengthy interviews conducted by Owen Webster for the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1969. Davison died on 24 May 1970 at Greensborough, Melbourne; a lifelong atheist, he was cremated after a secular funeral. His wife, and the two children of his first marriage, survived him.

A man of broad tolerance, Davison mistrusted authority and particularly despised that which perverted or blocked natural human tendencies. In his writings he sought to tell the truth as he saw it, to reveal the Australian situation and to promote liberal, democratic values. He saw literature as a means by which people might be helped to know themselves and their society as a necessary prelude to reform. If any symbol sums up his life and character, it is his beloved dingo: an animal which can snap viciously when threatened, but which can also be playful and loving.

Select Bibliography

  • J. A. Hetherington, Forty-Two Faces (Melb, 1962)
  • H. Dow, Frank Dalby Davison (Melb, 1971)
  • O. Webster, The Outward Journey (Canb, 1978)
  • L. E. Rorabacher, Frank Dalby Davison (Boston, US, 1979)
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 27, no 3, 1968
  • R. Darby, While Freedom Lives: Political Preoccupations in the Writing of Marjorie Barnard and Frank Dalby Davison, 1935-1947 (Ph.D. thesis, University of New South Wales, 1989)
  • Angus & Robertson papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Fellowship of Australian Writers papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • F. D. Davison papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Palmer papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Owen Webster papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Robert Darby, 'Davison, Frank Dalby (1893–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/davison-frank-dalby-9923/text17571, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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