Devanny, Jean 1894–1962
Devanny, Jean 1894–1962
PERSONAL: Surname is pronounced "De-van-ee"; born, 1894, in Ferntown, New Zealand; immigrated to Australia, 1929; died, 1962; daughter of William C. (a boilermaker) and Jane (Appleyard) Crook; married Harold Francis (a miner), 1911; children: two daughters, one son. Politics: Communist Party of Australia.
CAREER: Political activist, novelist, and short-story writer.
Lenore Devine, Duckworth (London, England), 1926.
Old Savage and Other Stories, Duckworth (London, England), 1928.
Dawn Beloved, Macaulay (New York, NY), 1928.
Riven, Duckworth (London, England), 1929, published as Unchastened Youth, Maccaulay (New York, NY), 1930.
Devil Made Saint, Duckworth (London, England), 1930.
Bushman Burke, Macaulay (New York, NY), 1930, abridged edition published as Taipo (also published as Wages of Desire), Frank Johnson (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia), 1944.
Poor Swine, Duckworth (London, England), 1932.
All for Love, Macaulay (New York, NY), 1932.
Out of Such Fires, Macaulay (New York, NY), 1934.
The Ghost Wife, Duckworth (London, England), 1935.
The Virtuous Courtesan (novel), Macaulay (New York, NY), 1935.
Sugar Heaven (novel), Modern Publishers (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia), 1936, abridged edition, Frank Johnson (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia), 1942, new scholarly edition, Vulgar Press (Carlton North, Victoria, Australia), 2002.
Paradise Flow (play), edited by Carole Ferrier, Duckworth (London, England), 1938, Hecate Press (Brisbane, Queensland, Australia), 1985.
The Killing of Jacqueline Love, Frank Johnson (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia), 1942.
By Tropic Sea and Jungle: Adventures in North Queensland (travel), Angus & Robertson (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia), 1944.
Roll back the Night, Robert Hale (London, England), 1945.
Bird of Paradise, Frank Johnson (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia), 1945.
Cindie: A Chronicle of the Canefields (novel), Robert Hale (London, England), 1949, reprinted, Penguin Books (New York, NY), 1986.
Travels in North Queensland (travel), Jarolds (London, England), 1951.
Point of Departure: The Autobiography, edited by Carole Ferrier, University of Queensland Press (St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia), 1986.
Also author of unpublished novel One Can't Have Everything. Contributor to books, including A Woman's Life: Writing by Women about Female Experience in New Zealand, edited by Anne Else and Heather Roberts; As Good as a Yarn with You: Letters between Miles Franklin, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Jean Devanny, Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw, Eleanor Dark, edited by Carole Ferrier, 1992; and The Oxford Book of New Zealand Short Stories, edited by Vincent O'Sullivan, 1992.
Devanny's books have been published in foreign languages, including German and Russian.
SIDELIGHTS: New Zealand-born writer Jean Devanny immigrated to Australia in 1929, and there earned a reputation as a prolific author, fiery communist orator, and controversial public figure. She is remembered as much for her leftist political activism in Australia during the economic depression of the 1930s as for her voluminous literary output, which includes more than twenty published novels, two books of travel writing, a play, and an autobiography. Writing in her book Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers 1925–45, literary scholar Drusilla Modjeska observed: "Most of Jean Devanny's novels are thinly disguised political tracts with stagey plots, flimsy characters, and plenty of proletarian heroics. Even so, they are important for their feminism, which was fierce and uncompromising." Devanny possessed striking looks and an aristocratic bearing; that, and her militant advocacy of sexual liberation for women and of gender equality, put her at odds with many of her puritanical male comrades in the Australian Com-munist Party (ACP). Her unabashed love affair with party general secretary John Bramwell Miles also set tongues wagging, even beyond party ranks. Having denounced her for such "bourgeois" behavior, the patriarchal leadership expelled Devanny from the ACP in the years 1940 to 1944. The move did nothing to bring her to heel, however. She was a strong-minded, independent person, not someone who was easily intimidated or swayed.
Devanny was born into a working-class family at Ferntown, a village on New Zealand's south island. She married miner and radical labor organizer Hal Devanny in 1911. Primarily self-educated, she began writing in the early 1920s, using her fiction as a platform to espouse leftist political causes. By the time Devanny and her family immigrated to Australia in 1929, she had already written three novels and a book of short stories, and from the first she sparked controversy with her writing. Her first novel, The Butcher Shop, was banned in New Zealand, Australia, the city of Boston, Massachusetts, and Nazi Germany because of its feminist viewpoint, socialist politics, and explicit sexual content.
The Great Depression was under way when the Devanny family arrived in Sydney from New Zealand. Times were tough: Economic hardship, unemployment, and poverty were devastating the country. Convinced that the great spontaneous revolution of workers Karl Marx had predicted was at hand, Devanny joined the socialist Australian Labour Party. Two years later, as economic conditions continued to worsen, Devanny became a member of the ACP. Although her relationship to the party was always stormy, she remained a card-carrying member until 1950 and was a sympathizer all her life. In the years 1931 to 1950, Devanny earned a well-deserved reputation as a tireless proponent of communism and feminist ideals. A dynamic public speaker, she had a knack for firing up crowds and for getting under the skin of her political opponents and the police.
Like many other liberal and leftist intellectuals, in 1930 and 1931 Devanny traveled in the Soviet Union to see for herself Stalin's "great Socialist experiment." By the time she returned home, she was convinced of the need to use literature and other creative arts as tools for educating and politicizing the masses. She was utterly convinced that doing so would bring about the worldwide workers' revolution that Devanny and other communists believed was just around the corner. In the first four years she was in the party, Devanny wrote six novels. Prominent among them is The Virtuous Courtesan, a sexually charged tale of Sydney's artistic bohemians that was published in New York in 1934 but banned in Australia until 1958. Also noteworthy is her "socialist-realist" novel Sugar Heaven. This is one of Devanny's best known works, although the first edition was not published until the author herself borrowed the money to underwrite the costs.
Sugar Heaven is the story of a strike by sugarcane field workers in the Australian state of Queensland. The workers stopped work over concerns about Weil's disease, a plague-like affliction spread by rats. Devanny herself was involved in organizing the strike; her experiences are at the heart of the story, which describes the political coming-of-age of a heroic young woman named Dulcie. At the beginning of the book Dulcie is naïve and passive. However, as she witnesses injustices and experiences escalating hatred, her political awareness grows until she finally becomes politicized.
Writing in Hecate, Devanny biographer Carole Ferrier reported that Devanny had told an interviewer in 1942, "letters came to me from workers scattered nationwide, acquainting me with discussions held … in the industries, on the track, on farms and stations." As Ferrier continued, Devanny "would claim … that Sugar Heaven was 'the first really proletarian novel in Australia.'" In assessing the book, Ferrier pointed out that Devanny once said "that her central intention was not to produce an aesthetically pleasing work, but an 'authentic' and "agitational' one for the working class audience."
In addition to arguing the cause of the sugarcane field workers, Sugar Heaven chided those ACP members who displayed racist attitudes toward immigrant workers. Devanny recalled in her posthumously published Point of Departure: The Autobiography how one male comrade from Queensland had taken her to task for writing about a love affair between Eileen, an Australian, and an Italian worker. "No Australian woman would have an affair with an Italian," the ACP member had scoffed. Devanny's reply, unspoken at the time but later noted in her autobiography, was that she "could have told him that the prototype of the woman in the book was his own wife!"
Such discretion in the face of a challenge was the exception rather than the rule for Devanny. Her usual stubborn refusal to back down in confrontations with male comrades, her outspoken advocacy of birth control and gender equality, and her well-publicized sexual affairs made her many enemies within the ACP. As a result, in 1940 she was expelled for four years. While she continued to support left-wing causes, the experience left her bitter and resentful. Writing in the Journal of Australian Studies, Ferrier noted that "Devanny's preoccupation with writing her autobiography in the late 1940s and early 1950s came largely from her desire to rectify a dominant impression that her expulsion had been justified, which Devanny considered still persisted in the party."
Devanny revisited themes related to the hardships of the lives of workers in the Queensland sugarcane fields when she wrote her novel Cindie: A Chronicle of the Canefields. That ambitious, and at times sexually explicit book was to have been the first volume in an intended trilogy. (A second volume, One Can't Have Everything, was never published.) The main character, the Cindie of the title, is a maidservant who travels in the 1890s with her mistress and family to Queensland, where they establish a sugarcane plantation. Devanny's narrative recounts the growth of the sugar industry and deals with the transition of the industry, from the time when the plantation owners used pressganged Kanaka labor to the time when these aboriginal workers were repatriated to their original island homelands as a result of racist government policies.
"Devanny could be seen as a pioneer of oral history in her method of assembling material for this novel," Ferrier wrote. "She discussed with local people the way they saw their lives and how they remembered the past." Agnes Toth, writing in Hungarian Studies in English, concluded, "Cindie follows the tradition of the bush legend and the pioneer legend combined with traditions of the romance. When putting a highly successful and active female character in the focus of the narrative traditionally reflecting frontier life as that of men's, Jean Devanny secured room for women among the nation builders in the Australian national mystique."
Cindie was Devanny's last published novel. In the wake of the hostile reception given the book by ACP members, she resigned her membership. She rejoined in 1957 and remained a member until she died in 1962, but her days as an activist were over. Ferrier reported that Devanny told a friend who urged her to stay involved in politics: "The only job I would consider worth breaking myself entirely for is one on behalf of the Aborigines. You could call me for that any time."
In addition to her prose books, Devanny also wrote one stage play. Published posthumously, Paradise Flow deals with the struggles of sugarcane workers in the 1930s. Summarizing Devanny's body of writing, Dale Spender commented in Writing a New World: Two Centuries of Australian Woman Writers that reading Devanny's political novels is "a salutary introduction to the political/social/racial—and misogynist—history of Australia." Spender added: "I would recommend Jean Devanny's fiction to all alert, intellectually active individuals who cherish the dream of a just world."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Devanny, Jean, Point of Departure: The Autobiography, University of Queensland Press (St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia), 1986.
Ferrier, Carole, editor, Gender, Politics, and Fiction: Twentieth-Century Australian Women's Novels, University of Queensland Press (St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia), 1985.
Ferrier, Carole, Jean Devanny: Romantic Revolutionary, Melbourne University Press (Carleton, Victoria, Australia), 1999.
Modjeska, Drusilla, Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers 1925–45, Angus & Robertson (North Ryde, New South Wales, Australia), 1981.
Robinson, Lillian S., editor, Modern Women Writers, Continuum (New York, NY), 1996.
Spender, Dale, Writing a New World: Two Centuries of Australian Woman Writers, Pandora (London, England), 1988.
Antipodes, June, 2004, Ceryl Taylor, "Threshold to Fulfillment: The Barrier Reef Writings of E.J. Banfield and Jean Devanny," p. 18.
Australian Library Studies, May, 2004, Nicole Moore, "Remember Love and Struggle? Reading Jean Devanny's Sugar Heaven in Contemporary Australian Contexts," p. 251.
Hecate, May, 1994, Kay Ferres, "Written on the Body," pp. 123-134; November, 1998, Carole Ferrier, "A 'Red' Revolutionary and Ranter," pp. 121-122.
Hungarian Studies in English, Volume 23, 1992, Agnes Toth, "A Bush Cinderella: Cindie by Jean Devanny," pp. 113-117.
Journal of Australian Studies, September-December, 1997, Carole Ferrier, "Jean Devanny: Romantic Revolutionary," pp. 30-38.
Journal of Social Change and Critical Inquiry, August, 2000, Carole Ferrier, "'One of the Greatest of Our Women'—Jean Devanny's Revolutionary Marxism."
Southern Review (Adelaide, South Australia, Australia), March, 1993, Ian Syson, "Towards a Poetics of Working-Class Writing," pp. 86-100.
People's Voice, May 23, 1962.