Without the efforts of Peter Davison, who has died aged 95, our knowledge of the life and works of George Orwell would be immeasurably the poorer. In an editorial engagement that extended for nearly three-and-a-half decades, Davison turned himself into a one-man Orwell industry: his 20-volume George Orwell: The Complete Works (1998) is rightly regarded as one of the triumphs of late 20th-century publishing.
This achievement is all the more remarkable in that Davison’s career as an Orwell scholar did not begin until he was in his mid-50s. At an age when most academics are settling into comfortable retirement, he was working eight hours a day on the voluminous output of a man whom he regarded as the greatest writer of his age.
Davison’s enlistment as an Orwell scholar came out of the blue. He had spent a quarter of a century teaching literature at Birmingham, Lampeter and Kent universities, specialising in Elizabethan textual scholarship and gaining a reputation for indefatigable hard work: his one-time colleague the novelist David Lodge remembered that his departure from Birmingham left 17 committee posts to fill.
In September 1981, shortly before he took early retirement, he was telephoned by the publisher Tom Rosenthal of Secker & Warburg and asked if he would be prepared to “look over” a forthcoming edition of the six novels and three works of non-fiction Orwell had published in his lifetime. Publication was set for 1984.
Rosenthal assured him that little was needed in the way of amendment. Davison, on the other hand, found himself having to check the books against nearly 50 extant editions and manuscripts. Out of this initial contract – Davison was initially paid at the princely rate of £100 a volume – grew the altogether mammoth undertaking of George Orwell: The Complete Works.
In the mid-1980s Orwell studies barely existed. Bernard Crick had written his pioneering biography George Orwell: A Life (1980) and Ian Angus and Orwell’s widow, Sonia, had co-edited the four-volume Collected Journalism, Essays and Letters (1968), but vast amounts of uncollected articles and lost correspondence awaited rediscovery in ancient files.
Assisted by Angus and Davison’s wife, Sheila – who devoted herself to the project – and eking out his pension by taking on the additional burden of the secretaryship of the Albany building in Piccadilly, Davison set to work.
The 17 years it took to get all 20 volumes into print were marked by a series of disasters. The first three books did not appear until 1986 and had to be pulped as the printers had used an uncorrected version of Davison’s texts. Subsequently the edition was abandoned six times by its publishers (Secker in London, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in New York); after each abandonment Davison carried on regardless. There was a further setback in 1995 when his doctors advised him to have a sextuple heart bypass.
It was not until 1998 that the books finally appeared on both sides of the Atlantic, to a chorus of praise in which Davison sometimes seemed to achieve equal billing with his subject. As another of Orwell’s biographers, Michael Shelden, put it: “In America such an enormous undertaking would be likely to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars of government funding … But Davison has had to get by on a few thousand pounds advanced to him by his British and American publishers … One can only marvel at the devoted service one British scholar has given to that genius [Orwell].”
The amount of paper that remained after Davison had sent the final versions off to the printer weighed half a ton. His editions were swiftly issued as Penguin Modern Classics, and a stream of other Orwell-related volumes followed: these included expertly footnoted compilations of Orwell’s Diaries (2009) and his letters (A Life in Letters, 2010) as well as The Lost Orwell (2006), a supplement to the Complete Works, and Seeing Things As They Are (2014), a bumper selection of Orwell’s journalism and other writings.
The sum total of Davison’s work is thought to have exceeded 100 volumes. He was appointed OBE for services to English literature in 1999 and was awarded the Gold medal of the Bibliographical Society four years later.
Little in Peter’s early life gave much indication of the path he was ultimately to follow. His father, Thomas, was a master mariner from Newcastle, where Peter was born, invalided out of the service with a combination of TB and pleurisy and forced to spend the rest of his short life in a nursing home; his mother, Doris (nee Hobley), had theatrical connections and became the West End’s first female stage manager.
A year before Thomas’s death in 1933, his six-year-old son was sent to board at the Royal Masonic school in Bushey, Hertfordshire. A place awaited him in the sixth form, but Davison, keen to see something of the wider world, left at 15 and took a job in the cutting room of the Crown Film Unit at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, making propaganda and information films in support of the war effort.
Conscripted into the navy in 1944, he spent much of his time as a radio mechanic on HMS Suara at the Singapore naval base. The work was laborious – 72-hour weeks were not uncommon – but Davison was sustained by a correspondence with Sheila Bethel, whom he had met while attending a training course at the University of Manchester. The couple were eventually married in 1949 and had three sons, John, Simon and Hugh.
Returning to the Crown Film Unit after the war, he discovered that the work had dried up and transferred to a similar job at the MGM cutting rooms at Borehamwood, Hertfordshire. The second of the two films on which he was involved at MGM starred the 16-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, with whom Davison worked and, as he put it, “came to know quite well … she brought the chocolates”.
By the early 1950s, the Davisons, then living in a tiny London flat, were in lowish water. Made redundant by MGM, Davison ended up editing a railway magazine before securing a job with the International Wool Secretariat. Meanwhile, he had caught the scent of a different kind of life.
Three A-levels were followed by a correspondence course BA and a master’s in bibliography and palaeography, after which he was offered a lecturing job at the University of Sydney. He returned to the UK to a post at the University of Birmingham in 1965, moving to St David’s University College, Lampeter, as professor of English in 1973 and then to the University of Kent (1979-82). He later became a research professor at De Montfort University, Leicester (1992-2001).
A kind, effusive and unassuming man, he was much esteemed by other Orwellians for his readiness to offer help and encouragement, and never happier than when telephoned by a fellow “Orwell-nut” bearing news of some fresh discovery.
Sheila died in 2017, after which Davison, who bore his increasing frailty with great stoicism, was looked after by members of his family and, come the pandemic, by a team of resourceful local carers. One of his last public appearances was at the unveiling of the Orwell statue outside Broadcasting House in London in 2017.
He is survived by his sons, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
• Peter Hobley Davison, literary scholar, born 10 September 1926; died 16 August 2022