Jacqueline Kent, A Certain Style: Beatrice Davis, A Literary Life (Second Edition)

NewSouth Books, 347 pp., ISBN: 9781742236025, p/bk, AUS$34.99

Award-winning writer Jacqueline Kent’s highly-acclaimed work A Certain Style: Beatrice Davis, A Literary Life (2018) is now available in an updated second edition from NewSouth Books.

Beatrice Deloitte Davis (1909-1992) was a formidable force in Australian publishing in the mid-twentieth century. The general editor for the nation’s oldest publishing house, Angus & Robertson, Davis curated and edited literary culture for decades, supporting writers as diverse as Thea Astley, Xavier Herbert, Miles Franklin, Hal Porter and Patricia Wrightson. The striking influence of Davis can still be seen on bookstore and library shelves across the country.

In many ways, reading Kent’s work, first published in 2001, is like having dinner with old friends (and the odd, slightly-awkward colleague). There’s the “quiet, dark-haired Queenslander”, Thea Astley (pp. 158-59). The forever complicated and slightly contradictory Miles Franklin who is, as always, in fine (and outspoken) form, declaring: “I may not be a great genius … but nevertheless my tonnage cannot be ignored” (p. 117). With Xavier Herbert, “a bantam rooster of a man with a grating voice” (p. 181), also there vying for attention. Dominating conversation from the head of the table is, of course, Davis. The fabulously talented editor could be bossy, intimate, stubborn. A pianist who was fond of the odd glass of whisky, Davis’ fierce intelligence was always on display. Davis was, too, a gracious and generous mentor but also a stickler for her own construction of literary traditions: she quickly shunned pieces that included too much sex or too much vulgar language. A running theme, underneath the dull roar of conversations and differences of opinion, is the history of Angus & Robertson. The extraordinary story of an iconic Australian publisher with all of its glories and its many failures (the company, founded in 1886, exists today only as an online store owned by Booktopia and as an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers).

Much has already been said of Kent and her telling of Davis’ story, with the first edition claiming both the National Biography Prize and the Nita B. Kibble Literary Award in 2002. What is critical to reiterate in this review, is that women are too often forgotten by biographers and historians. To have Beatrice Davis here again, front and centre, is a wonderful achievement for both author and publisher; it is terrific to be reminded of Davis’ contributions to Australian cultural life and of how she “was the kind of woman who hardly seems to exist in Australia anymore” (p. viii). Beatrice Davis made a difference.

It is a pity that the work is not illustrated. There is, however, a new introduction and a very useful index.

A Certain Style is a striking narrative. For students and scholars of Australian literature this biography is essential reading and, for those who do not own the first edition, it is destined to be a favourite volume in many personal libraries.

 

Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, September 2018

Visit the publisher’s website here: https://www.newsouthbooks.com.au/books/certain-style-2nd/

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