Peter Davison, Orwell Scholar on a Monumental Scale, Dies at 95

Peter Davison, an indefatigable literary sleuth who, beginning in his mid-50s, devoted 35 years to revealing the unvarnished George Orwell, including curating, editing and annotating 20 volumes of the author’s complete works, died on Aug. 16 in Swindon, England. He was 95.

His death, in a hospital, was announced by the Orwell Society.

In 1999, he was appointed to the Order of the British Empire for services to English literature.

Professor Davison’s belletristic debut was as improbable as his academic baptism.

He had been a high school dropout whose early higher education consisted of correspondence courses, and when he took his first teaching job, at the University of Sydney in Australia, he acknowledged, “I had never given a lecture before, and, indeed, never even heard a university lecture.”

His entree into the world of Orwell was similarly implausible. He demonstrated his ability to accurately transcribe a barely-legible original manuscript of Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” by disporting his skills in paleography, the study of ancient and antiquated writing systems. Earlier in his career he deciphered Elizabethan manuscripts.

From then on he spent more time painstakingly studying and compiling his Orwelliana — novels, essays, journalism, letters, diaries, manuscripts, poems, plays and radio broadcasts — than Orwell had writing them.

“He was a super scholarly sleuth,” said Prof. Jean Seaton, director of the Orwell Foundation. “The scale of the intellectual mastery is breathtaking. Peter’s extraordinary contribution was to make the modern Orwell possible.”

Professor Davison told Publishers Weekly in 2012 that his 20-volume “The Complete Works of George Orwell” — apart from other books on Orwell that he edited — took 17 years to compile before it was finally published in 1998, having endured a series of obstacles and delays. Altogether, his publishers abandoned the project “no fewer than six times,” he said. At one point the first three volumes had to be pulped because the printers originally produced an uncorrected version of his text. The project was delayed again when, taking his doctors’ advice, he underwent sextuple heart bypass surgery in 1995.

But when the 20 volumes were finally in print, Michael Shelden, author of “Orwell: The Authorized Biography” (1991), wrote that Professor Davison’s work was “a great labor of love in a selfish age dominated by the greed and corruption that Orwell so eloquently warned against.”

“And the edition itself,” he added, “is a national treasure which somehow survived the burdens of indifference and neglect.”

Professor Davison discovered more than misplaced commas and other grammatical or typographical errors in the material. He found original versions of manuscripts and restored expurgated words and entire passages which had been subject to censorship because editors, publishers and reviewers deemed them to be obscene or tasteless.

As a result of his dogged research, publishers had to withdraw incomplete, incorrect or obsolete earlier editions of Orwell’s works.

In “Animal Farm,” Orwell, who died in 1950 at 46, had originally written that pigeons bombarded Mr. Jones and his men with their “dung” when they attacked the farm, but the text was amended to say more gracefully that the pigeons “muted on them.”

The annotated versions of Orwell’s diaries revealed an antisemitic and homophobic bent and evidence that during the 1940s he provided a list of suspected Communists to the British government.

Professor Davison also solved an enigma in later British editions of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (as the title was rendered in Britain) when Winston Smith, the novel’s protagonist, scrawls “2 + 2 =” without an answer, suggesting that his will had not been subjugated to Big Brother’s Orwellian formula for arithmetic. Professor Davison discovered, however, that the equation was a misprint and that what Orwell originally wrote was “2 + 2 = 5,” which comported with Big Brother’s Newspeak.

“Lack of the ‘5’ negates Orwell’s point that Winston has submitted without reservation to Big Brother and thus there can only be hope in the proles, not in the likes of Winston — the relative intellectual,” Professor Davison wrote.

Peter Hobley Davison was born on Sept. 10, 1926, in Newcastle upon Tyne, in northeast England. His father, Thomas, was a master mariner who contracted tuberculosis and pleurisy and died when Peter was 7. His mother, Doris (Hobley) Davison, was said to have been the first woman hired as a stage manager in London’s West End.

Peter was sent to boarding school when he was 6, dropped out when he was 15, volunteered for the Home Guard during the war and was drafted into the Royal Navy in 1944. He served as a radio mechanic in Singapore between jobs in the cutting room of the Crown Film Unit at Pinewood Studios, which was making propaganda movies in support of the war effort, and at MGM, where he worked on a film starring 16-year-old Elizabeth Taylor.

He edited a railway magazine and worked for the International Wool Secretariat, an industry group, while resuming his education through correspondence courses for a bachelor’s degree and master’s in bibliography and paleography.

After lecturing in Australia, where he wrote a doctoral thesis in modern drama, he returned to Britain and taught at the University of Birmingham, St. David’s University College, the University of Kent and De Montfort University.

In 1949, he married Sheila Bethel, with whom he would collaborate (along with Ian Angus, the deputy librarian at University College London) on Orwell’s “Collected Journalism, Essays and Letters.”

His wife died in 2017. He is survived by three sons, John, Simon and Hugh; seven grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

In 2003, Professor Davison was awarded the Gold Medal of the Bibliographical Society.

He later edited, among other books, “The Lost Orwell” (2006), “Orwell’s Diaries” (2009), “George Orwell: A Life in Letters” (2013) and “Seeing Things As They Are” (2014).

Professor Davison was nothing if not thorough. After he submitted the final manuscript for “The Complete Works,” he was still left with what he estimated was about 1,000 pounds of notes and other residue of his research.

The Guardian called him a “one-man Orwell industry.”

While Orwell and Professor Davison’s lives overlapped, they did not intersect.

“When I was born, Orwell was 23; when he died, I was that age,” Professor Davison wrote in a brief memoir on the Orwell Society website. “We never met but, curiously, in some minor aspects our lives shadowed each other.”