“It would be dishonest of me not to feel pleasure and, indeed, pride, when I see the twenty volumes of The Complete Works and the facsimile of the manuscript of Nineteen Eighty-Four on my shelves.”
Peter Davison (1926-2022)
The late Professor Peter Hobley Davison’s academic labour enriched my life. I embarked on The Complete Works of George Orwell, the twenty-volumes he edited, in order read the writer’s work in chronological order. It became a source of fascination, obsession really, an intellectual adventure of the highest order which contextually transformed my understanding of Orwell and fuelled independent research.
Peter was already advanced in years when I contacted him about this research with a link to my Orwell collection. He politely responded (about five-minutes after I dispatched the email) with the enthusiasm of a bibliophile, saying he was “amazed” at my “wonderful, wonderful library”. For the next few years we emailed and discussed Orwell’s life and work. Even though he was battling illness, saddened by the loss of his wife, Sheila, and other friends, his intellectual curiosity and generosity of spirit would not be submerged. He provided feedback on papers and articles, “printing” them off to read “closely”.
I often told friends and colleagues of this remarkable man and thought it highly improbable my own powers of the intellect, as limited as they might be, would have anything like the longevity that Professor Davison had managed. D.J. Taylor, in his obituary for Peter, understandably described him as a “a one-man Orwell industry”.
A Life in Letters and Diaries, published by the Folio Society in 2017, was his thirty-first and final volume devoted to the work of George Orwell. The first, Nineteen Eighty-Four: The Facsimile of the Extant Manuscript, had been published in 1984. Peter was often self-effacing and philosophical in our correspondence but clearly felt a sense of fulfilment knowing how many readers benefited from his scholarship. He once wrote to me saying that:
“It really does cheer me that people enjoy and appreciate the edition. I can think of so much I could do better now — but that is life, well, it’s brevity.“
The Road to Orwell
Even though my interest was in Orwell, Peter’s own life and achievement became a great source of inspiration, especially as it dawned on me that his journey to becoming a phenomenal scholar was a circuitous one. This further enhanced my respect and appreciation of his intellectual achievement. The more I understood, the more it became evident that his life journey was an extraordinary preparation for the monumental task he was to undertake.
Peter left school at 15, during the Second World War, to work in the Crown Film Unit before joining the navy on turning 18. After the war, he returned to the film industry but was sacked by MGM, along with 600 other employees and needed to find alternative employment quickly. Sheila encouraged Peter to apply for a position as a magazine editor, at John Fowler & Co, for which he was unqualified. He gained the position and commenced his career as the editor for Railways and the in-house magazine, Ink. Peter gained skills which would be invaluable to his future academic career. In particular, a highly-skilled compositor taught him the art of typesetting.
Realising he was only “superficially qualified” for any job, Peter commenced a program of formal education. Sheila, who was a teacher, paid for her husband to take an intensive 10-day latin course at University College London. He successfully completed A Levels in English, History and Latin. This resulted in better-paid employment.
Between 1952-1960, Peter worked as the Assistant Secretary and Overseas Liaison Officer to the International Wool Secretariat. During this period he sought a degree in English Literature and studied a wide-range of subjects, including Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, European Drama (1850-1950) and Literary Criticism. John Davison recently told me that his father:
“… reached the Secretariat in Lower Regent Street at about 7.00–7.15 am and could study in peace and quiet in the warmth. for a couple of hours. On the train back home to Burnt Oak he learnt Anglo-Saxon vocabulary and studied the set texts – Beowulf, of course, and a wide range of poetry and prose. He continued to study each evening for a couple of hours and then each weekend.”
Peter continued his studies, taking an MA in Bibliography and Palaeography, at London University College. The skills he developed in deciphering, reading, and dating manuscripts would prove invaluable and lead to further career opportunities. He commenced his PhD, diligently deciphering Elizabethan manuscripts, while continuing to work at the Secretariat. In early 1960, Peter called in at the Marlborough Arms where, as expected, he met his supervisor who then unexpectedly asked if he would be interested in an appointment at Sydney University to teach what the department there called ‘Scholarship’ but was what he regarded as “Bibliography & Palaeography”. He accepted.
The University of Sydney
Peter told me that he was drafting “a longish piece” outlining his life for his children. He mentioned that his wife had written a memoir up until their marriage (which everyone had loved when excerpts were read at her memorial service). Peter shared drafts of his memoirs as he wrote them and it was only then that I realised his connection to Australia. He related some amusing anecdotes about his time in the antipodes and I discovered he had gained a PhD in English literature (Modern Drama), the first awarded by the University of Sydney, in 1963.
When he arrived in Sydney, Peter was expecting to have three months to settle-in and prepare lectures for an introductory course on drama he was to teach. To his “astonishment” it was expected he commence lecturing for that ‘Scholarship’ course in just four days’ time:
“Had I realised how formidable that class would be — amongst its number were Germaine Greer and Clive James, both far more intellectually distinguished than their alleged teacher – I might have like, their intended teacher, Philip Gaskell, turned tail and shipped the family back to England. But I agreed and I cobbled together what I could and started teaching as proposed.”
As Peter, who studied by correspondence, had never given or even attended a university lecture, it was suggested he “secrete” himself at the back of a theatre and observe one on poetry which should “provide adequate training”. I flippantly suggested that Greer and James skipped most lectures anyway to write inflammatory articles for Honi Soit to which he replied:
“I must leap to their defence. They attended well. I did act — well, say a few lines — with Germaine and James asked me to show him a set at Albany when I was Secretary. I did remind him he still owed me an essay! It went down quite well.”
Peter told me he still corresponded with a lifelong friend from this period, Professor John Bernard (1926-2020), a linguist and seminal figure in the publication of the Macquarie Dictionary. J.R.L. Bernard, who went on to become a general editor of the dictionary, wrote a detailed account of the pronunciation of Australian English in a prefatory essay for the first edition, published in 1981. This was the same year that Peter was to first become involved in the intellectual endeavour which was to occupy him for the rest of his life.
Peter’s formative academic experiences are extremely significant to understanding what lay at the core of his success as an Orwell scholar. Nineteen Eighty-Four: The Facsimile of the Extant Manuscript was the first work on Orwell he published and Peter’s explanation as to how this came about is insightful. It was his:
“ability to transcribe and elucidate the texts in their much over-written Elizabethan hands was what convinced the then owner of the manuscript drafts of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Daniel G. Siegel, that [he] could be trusted to transcribe them for publication in 1984.”
The Complete Works of George Orwell (CWGO)
In September 1981, Peter was approached by Tom Rosenthal, of Secker & Warburg, about editing new editions of Orwell’s books. Little did he realise at the time the many challenges, scholarly and financial, that he would face. John Davison, his son, puts it nicely:
“It was not meant to be a big task, just a tidying up of previous editions. But, as you know, it didn’t turn out like that.”
Peter laboured for seventeen years editing, assisted by Sheila Davison and Ian Angus, The Complete Works of George Orwell. His attention to detail and eschewment of financial recompense for his hard work, culminated in the publication of the twenty-volume edition, acknowledged by all as a magisterial work of scholarship, in August 1998.
Clive James, himself a wordsmith of repute, admired Peter’s achievement in editing The Complete Works and it is worth quoting from this former student’s review, ‘All of Orwell’, at length:
“… if we happened to forget that Orwell himself was a journalist. Here, to help us remember, are the twenty volumes of the new complete edition, cared for with awe-inspiring industry, dedication and judgement by Peter Davison, a scholar based in Leicester, who has spent the last two decades chasing down every single piece of paper his subject ever wrote on and then battling with publishers to persuade them that the accumulated result would supply a demand. The All of Orwell arrives in a cardboard box the size of a piece of check-in luggage: a man in a suitcase. As I write, the books are stacked on my desk, on a chair, on a side table, on the floor. A full, fat eleven of the twenty volumes consist largely of his collected journalism, reproduced in strict chronology along with his broadcasts, letters, memos, diaries, jottings, et exhaustively and fascinatingly al. The nine other volumes, over there near the stereo, were issued previously, in 1986–87, and comprise the individual works he published during his lifetime, including at least two books that directly and undeniably affected history. But, lest we run away with the idea that Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are the core of his achievement, here, finally, is all the incidental writing, to remind us that they were only the outer layer, and could not have existed without what lay inside. Those famous, world-changing novels are just the bark. The journalism is the tree.”
Even with this success, there were still challenges. John Carey, in a review of what was effectively the 21st volume in the CWGO, The Lost Orwell (2006), wrote that “admiration for Orwell quickly forms a bond between perfect strangers, assuring them of each other’s inner decency, and it is to this fellowship of loyal Orwellians that Peter Davison’s new book owes its existence”. Secker & Warburg, the original publishers of Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949, although paying handsome sums to celebrities for the rights to publish their experiences in the tv series Big Brother, could not afford to publish Davison’s book. In a letter in my possession, found in an inscribed copy of The Lost Orwell, Peter acknowledges to his friends, “John & Margaret”, the help of another Orwellian, David Taylor, to find a publisher, Timewell Press.
Vale Professor Davison
“When I think of my father it is not really as an Orwell scholar, but as a Shakespeare scholar with interests in Music Hall, bibliography and palaeography. Of course, I actually think of him, first and foremost, as a father and family man.”
Peter Davison MA, PhD, D. Litt, Hon. D. Arts died on the 16th August.
Professor Davison will be remembered, by most readers, for his work on George Orwell but was justifiably proud of his many years teaching scholarly editing and that the Shakespearean editions he prepared, especially Henry IV, stayed so continuously in print. It was only recently I realised that he prepared a critical edition of music-hall songs over half-a-century ago.
The Orwell Society highlighted a quote (in a tweet sent with a link to Professor Davison’s obituary) which sums up how we all feel:
“A kind, effusive and unassuming man, he was much esteemed by other Orwellians for his readiness to offer help and encouragement.”
There are many anecdotes of his intellectual and personal generosity. For example, Dione Venables explained earlier this year, when I visited, her heartfelt appreciation of Peter’s support when she was endeavouring to found The Orwell Society.
The last correspondence I received from Peter was on the 7th June while I was staying in Shropshire, at Ticklerton. He told me his eyesight was failing and that writing was near impossible but, as per usual, now 95 years of age, he had responded, indefatigable as ever, almost straight away to my email.
I will miss him.
Peter’s funeral will be held at St George’s Church, Marlborough on Wednesday 21st September. Donations, in stead of flowers, to Prospect Hospice.
I greatly appreciate John Davison’s assistance in answering my questions, providing photographs and generously sharing memories of his father. Thank you!
Butler, S. (2012) ‘The Macquarie Dictionary, its History and its Editorial Practices’, Lexikos
Carey, John, ‘Insights into a life of genius’, The Sunday Times, 28 May, 2006
Davison, John, Email correspondence (August-September), 2022
Davison, Peter, Memoirs: shared via email correspondence, 2018
Davison, Peter, ‘Editing Orwell: Eight Problems’, The Library, Volume s6-VI, Issue 3, September 1984, pp. 217–228.
Davison, Peter, ‘The Troubled History Behind George Orwell’s Complete Works’, The Publisher’s Weekly, 17 August, 2012
James, Clive (2001) ‘All of Orwell’, CliveJames.com
Orwell, George (1998) The Complete Works of George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison, London: Secker & Warburg
Orwell, George (2006) The Lost Orwell: Being a Supplement to the Complete Works of George Orwell, Davison, Peter (ed.) London: Timewell Press
Taylor, D.J., ‘Peter Davison obituary’, The Guardian, 4 September, 2022