Devanny, Jean (1894–1962)

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Devanny, Jean (1894–1962)

Australian author and political activist whose career was marked by the conflict between her devotion to the Australian Communist Party and her strong affiliation with feminism. Name variations: Jane, Jenny. Pronunciation: De-VANE-ee. Born Jane Crook on January 7, 1894, in Ferntown, New Zealand; died of leukemia at Townsville, Queensland, Australia, on March 8, 1962; daughter of a coal miner; her mother was the daughter of a British colonel; attended state primary school, 1898–1907; married Hal Devanny, in 1911; children: Karl Devanny (d. 1934); Patricia Devanny; Erin Devanny (d. 1919).

Moved to New Zealand capital of Wellington (1919); published her first novel (1926); moved to Sydney, Australia (1929); arrested for the first time, joined Communist Party (1930); became National Secretary of WIR and traveled in Germany and the Soviet Union (1931); participated in the northern Queensland sugar strike (1935); learned of her expulsion from the Australian Communist Party (1941); readmitted to the Communist Party (1943); resigned from Communist Party (1950); rejoined the Communist Party (1957).

Selected works:

The Butcher Shop (1926); Sugar Heaven (1936); Cindie (1949); Travels in North Queensland (1951); (posthumously published autobiography) Point of Departure (1986).

Jean Devanny was a significant Australian writer during the first half of the 20th century. Committed to political radicalism, she moved from affiliation with the Labor Party in New Zealand to serve as an energetic organizer and agitator for the Communist Party in Australia. Committed as well to feminist ideals, Devanny found herself frequently at odds with the demands placed upon her by the party's structure and its directives. In the view of many of her fellow Australian Communists, her support for women's liberation combined with her public advocacy of birth control and devotion to children's welfare vitiated her political reliability. The conflict came to a head with her expulsion from party membership in the early 1940s.

Although Devanny was later exonerated and readmitted to the Communist Party, the incident helped crystallize her desire to write a candid autobiographical account of her life, her political activities, and her personal affairs. The book, Point of Departure, went through a number of very different drafts and remained in manuscript form until one draft, edited by Carole Ferrier , was finally published in Australia in 1986.

The future Jean Devanny was born Jane Crook on January 7, 1894, at Ferntown, located in a coastal region on New Zealand's South Island. She would not be known as Jean until the 1920s. The eighth of ten children, she came from a colorful and troubled family. She was the granddaughter of a British army colonel whose career brought him assignments throughout the British empire, leading to a final mission in New Zealand to fight the local Maori tribes. In a country with few eligible men, the colonel's daughter was only 17 when she married the man who would become Jean's father. The marriage brought her a pregnancy every other year and residence with a husband who had a frightening weakness for strong drink and violent behavior.

Young Jean's father worked as a blacksmith and in other skills connected with the local mining industry, and his alcoholism and explosive actions terrified the entire family. She attended public schools in New Zealand, starting when she was only four years old. She later recalled the harshness of conditions there, notably the use of corporal punishment. Although a gifted student in subjects like English, her weakness in arithmetic made her the target for fierce beatings. One teacher, however, became a close friend and provided her with information about sexuality that she could not receive from her own, prudish mother. Early in her troubled childhood, the future writer became an insatiable reader, and music lessons, which made her a skilled amateur pianist, likewise gave variety to her rural existence. She received little encouragement, however, with her mother taunting her for such interests as her collection of insects. "Books," she later wrote, "became my refuge from the harassments of domestic life."

Devanny quit school at age 13 and went to work in a number of menial occupations such as maid in a local boardinghouse. She nonetheless continued to educate herself with a self-directed reading program. It included both the literary works of the time, as well as such provocative writers as Charles Darwin. She later recalled that her initial interest in socialism came partly as a result of her reading, especially books provided to her by a mining engineer and his wife who had only recently arrived from England. Another set of events in her childhood—her father's lingering death from phthisis, a miner's disease—also contributed to her political radicalism.

In 1911, at age 17, she married a miner named Hal Devanny, four years her senior. She later claimed that his political views took shape under her guidance as she piled books upon him. The future feminist author had three children in four years. She also came to an early under-standing of the deep personality differences separating herself and her husband. She was mercurial and perpetually full of energy; despite his success as a labor organizer, he was a quiet and withdrawn figure at home.

An indication of Jean Devanny's growing interest in the ideas of Karl Marx came in 1912 when she named her first child Karl. As her husband became increasingly prominent in the miners' union, she soon found herself entertaining some of the most important figures in the New Zealand Labor Party, many of them headed for high posts in a future Labor government. She soon took on the role of Labor Party speaker herself.

A working class activist and agitator; a revolutionary socialist; a women's liberationist; a woman writer.

—Carole Ferrier

Devanny's restless energies, which many of her acquaintances remarked upon throughout her life, were not exhausted by her role of devoted mother and party activist. She studied music seriously, with lessons in the violin, piano, and singing. Her literary career also began in earnest, starting with a series of film scenarios. Mailed to Hollywood studios, they garnered only polite rejection letters. Her musical interests collapsed, however, in 1919 with the death of her youngest child and second daughter Erin. The girl was hospitalized for peritonitis; after seven weeks of lingering illness followed by apparent recovery, she died. Devanny was devastated. As she recovered emotionally, she turned her interests increasingly toward literature. Shortly thereafter, she sold her first piece, a description of the New Zealand countryside, to a local newspaper. She soon began to produce a flurry of short stories, although only a few of them got into print.

Devanny's first novel, The Butcher Shop, appeared in 1926, and three other novels and a book of short stories followed in short order. The Butcher Shop gave an early indication of how seriously Devanny would be criticized for her writing and the feminist posture it contained. Focusing on the role of women in the society of rural New Zealand, it was both sexually candid and graphic in describing the brutality to which females were subjected. In time, the book was to be banned in Boston as well as a number of countries, including Nazi Germany and Australia.

During the 1920s, husband and wife became increasingly involved with the labor movement in New Zealand. Hal's work as a skilled miner brought them a measure of prosperity, but their radical view of society remained unaffected. Sometimes they attended meetings of the New Zealand Communist Party, but they found it too snobbish and elitist. As she remembered the Communists of her birthplace, they "spoke and acted as if they were the intellectual chosen, and all others the despised beneath their feet." But the Devannys were uncomfortable with the Labor Party as well. It struck them as faction-ridden and dominated by its right wing.

In 1929, Hal and Jean Devanny moved to Sydney, Australia. Several years before, their son Karl had been diagnosed with heart disease, and the specialist they consulted recommended that the boy leave the cold climate of New Zealand for the more temperate weather of Australia. By now the full force of the Depression had struck Australia, and the family was reduced to desperate measures. Despite her slender stature, Jean sought and obtained a physically demanding position that was the only work readily available: cooking and cleaning at a sheep ranch deep in the Australian interior. Her experiences in this desolate region of New South Wales formed the background for her novel Out of Such Fires, which was published in 1934.

The Devannys continued their radical activities, and, in 1930, became members of the Australian Communist Party. Their children, Karl and Patricia, led the way. The precipitating event was a workers' march against the new Australian government. Even though the government was one composed of members of the Labor Party, it seemed nonetheless to be indifferent to workers' needs. Two of the Devanny children marched in a demonstration to get help for the unemployed and were arrested. Jean and Hal, although not physically present at the march, were nonetheless falsely identified by policemen as having been participants. At her trial, Jean Devanny proudly proclaimed to the journalists in attendance that she too was a writer, and that she would thereupon join the Communist Party partly in protest at the way marchers (and their sympathizers) were being treated. She refused on principle to pay a fine of £2, choosing instead to go to jail for four days.

When Devanny was released from prison, she began immediately to serve as a party activist. She was ordered to concentrate on public speaking, sometimes addressing as many as five meetings in a single day. In short order, she was put in charge of the Australian branch of the Workers International Relief (WIR) organization. This was a group supported by the Communist Party and intended to provide relief for workers in distress. Increasingly prominent in party circles, she was chosen in 1931 to travel to Europe to participate in the Berlin conference of the WIR. Following her stay in Germany, she went on to make a six-week tour of the Soviet Union.

Jean Devanny's role within the Australian Communist Party soon brought her feminist and individualistic personal views in conflict with her political loyalties. Determined to be a good, even well-disciplined member of the party, Devanny nonetheless became an outspoken critic of numerous party ideas and practices. On some of her tours, she gave lectures—for women only—on the issue of birth control. The party was an organization that permitted women to exercise only a minimum of power and influence, and Devanny was openly critical of such a situation. The party's political circumstances, in which it faced the likelihood it would be declared an illegal organization, made such internal criticism particularly unpopular. From her standpoint, although she was committed to accept party discipline, it was regrettable, she put it, that "the sanctity of leaders was an obsession." She noted that often untalented individuals, selected for leadership posts, thereby "were supposed to become magically invested with an immunity to make mistakes and therefore to stand above criticism." Although she accepted the party's strictures about writing in the style of socialist-realism, she also promoted cooperation between Communist and sympathetic writers in a broadly based organization. This contradicted the party policy of the time and led to a direct reprimand for her.

Meanwhile, Devanny continued her literary production in prolific fashion. In addition to several novels set in New Zealand but published only after she had settled in Australia, Devanny also produced 14 other novels and a number of works of nonfiction. Nonetheless, as a Communist writer, Devanny faced serious day-to-day difficulties. As Drusilla Modjeska has put it, writers like her "needed long hours of solitude and contemplation," and the party's claim to every hour of a member's day for activities like public speaking, or even selling newspapers, took precedence over other activities.

During the 1930s, Devanny's marriage went into a decline. While she continued to live with Hal, their sexual intimacy came to an end. In Point of Departure, Jean was notably reticent in describing this shift in her home life. She was far more explicit in her account of her longtime, intimate relationship with J.B. Miles, the Communist Party's general secretary. Although she referred to him in her autobiography only as "Leader," she provided a detailed description of how they conducted themselves. She noted for example that their love affair did nothing to change her role as his party subordinate. He was sometimes scathing in his public criticism when her political views deviated from his understanding of the party line.

Ferrier suggests that Devanny's devotion to sexual freedom went well beyond what the author was willing to reveal in print. Devanny had not only worked assiduously in Marian Piddington 's birth-control clinic since her arrival in Sydney, but she also apparently had a number of sexual liaisons apart from her affairs with "Leader." She was explicit in her autobiography in declaring that a double standard of sexual conduct was contrary to Marxist principles.

In 1934, Devanny lost a second child: her son Karl finally succumbed to the heart problems from which he had suffered for more than a decade. Devanny herself was increasingly troubled by ill-health, including pleurisy, starting in the mid-1930s. Nonetheless, she took on exhausting work as a party speaker, traveling at length through the more remote regions of Australia. She supplemented her meager diet with massive doses of cod liver oil to give her some relief from her ailments. Photographs taken during these years show her distressingly frail appearance. Nonetheless, one of her listeners described her as "the best agitational speaker I ever heard," and another recalled her "words at express speed" as well as her "tongue like an axe in a woodchopping contest." Sure of herself and her views, she tore into any member of her audience who tried to ask a probing question.

Devanny later recalled how her reputation as a party workhorse sometimes led to her exploitation by her superiors. Despite her physical problems, she was called upon to fill in for other speakers when they wanted to do nothing more than take a day at the beach. Nonetheless, her devotion to Communist Party affairs never faltered. She was willing to go to jail again, this time under hard labor conditions, in 1933. The self-sacrificing Devanny, who was living a pinched existence on state welfare payments, gave up the royalties from her books so that money could go into the Communist Party's funds. Nonetheless, she found herself continually at odds with her party superiors over her claim that writing literature was valuable as direct political work.

Devanny's travels to the northern state of Queensland led to the publication of her most renowned novel, Sugar Heaven, in 1936. Its background is the 1935 strike of sugar cane workers in North Queensland, and the editors of The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature consider it "one of the earliest and most significant of the socialist-realist Australian novels." The book features two strong women characters whom the Communist Party treats badly. Dulcie, a shy, newly married bride of a sugar worker, becomes a successful militant. Devanny used her to make the point that the party was ignoring such valuable recruits by insisting that an acceptance of abstract political theory, not the experiences of individuals in their dayto-day lives, was the road to political radicalization. A second character, Eileen, is a talented local woman; she is refused the right to join the Communist Party because of her candor in conducting a love affair with an Italian sugar worker. Devanny used Eileen's plight to criticize both the party's sexual hypocrisy and its anti-Italian ethnic prejudice.

The supreme crisis in Devanny's political career came in the early 1940s. With the start of World War II, she returned to her old, grueling schedule of public speaking. Gritting her teeth, she reluctantly defended the alliance between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that lasted from the fall of 1939 to the summer of 1941. Despite her unflagging party loyalty, Devanny was increasingly disturbed by the crude attitudes male party members displayed toward women. During a stay in northern Queensland, where she had gone to recover from her on-going health problems, she openly criticized local Communist men for their dissolute sexual behavior and exploitation of local women. In a time of war, with many men off on military service, such boorish behavior by party members was common and widely accepted. In revenge, they accused her of licentious behavior and managed to get her expelled from the party in 1941. To Devanny's dismay, her lover, "Leader," did nothing to assure her a fair hearing against such trumped up accusations.

Devanny's difficulties may have been heightened by the reaction of many close associates to her personality and what Modjeska calls "her strident, didactic, and abrasive manner." In any case, over a period of several years, Devanny found herself ostracized by her former party comrades. Her own loyalty to the party's historical role remained intact, however. As she put it, "the ideals of communism … came uppermost." She was subsequently exonerated in 1943 and offered reinstatement as a Communist Party member, but the episode rankled her so that it came to dominate the final third of the published version of her autobiography.

Devanny spent most of the World War II years working as a journalist and in what she cryptically described as "entertainment and educational work among the troops." After 1945, she returned to party work, but her relations with party leaders and members of the rank and file remained strained. In early 1950, she finally resigned from her once cherished membership in the Communist Party. The precipitating event was the harsh criticism she received for Cindie, her latest book. She then retired with her husband Hal to Townsville, a city located in Queensland that she had enjoyed visiting in the 1930s, after World War II. She spent the last years of her life writing radio scripts and short stories, and throwing herself energetically into gardening and the local musical scene. Her 1951 book, Travels in North Queensland, showed how far she had moved from her earlier political interests. In a revealing letter written in 1953, she looked back on her literary career with some bitterness. "I have not exploited the small measure of ability of writing I possess one whit," she complained. She had never really been able to think about her work: "Thought was reserved for politics." In fact, she had written her books either to make money for her struggling family or to promote the political causes to which she was so ardently attached.

In the aftermath of Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 denunciation of the crimes of Joseph Stalin, Devanny once again joined the Australian Communist Party. She died at Townsville on March 8, 1962, of leukemia. Her autobiography, which was published only in 1986, was a revealing account of the writeractivist's life. It described candidly such issues as her turbulent early years in a violent household, her sexual maturation, and the personality differences between her and her husband that burdened their marriage. But it also provided a vivid insight into the lifestyle of a self-proclaimed party activist and into the largely closed social and intellectual world in which such individuals functioned.


Ferrier, Carole, ed. Point of Departure: The Autobiography of Jean Devanny. St. Lucia; University of Queensland Press, 1986.

Modjeska, Drusilla. Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers, 1925–1945. London: Sirius Books, 1981.

Wilde, William H., Joy Hooton, and Barry Andrews, eds. The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature. 2nd ed. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994.

suggested reading:

Clancy, Laurie. A Reader's Guide to Australian Fiction. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Ferres, Kay. "Written on the Body: Jean Devanny, Sexuality and Censorship," in Hecate. Vol. 20. May 1994, pp. 123–134.

Ferrier, Carole, ed. Gender, Politics and Fiction: Twentieth Century Australian Women's Novels. St. Lucia: University of Queensland, Press, 1985.

Goodwin. A History of Australian Literature. Hound-mills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Macmillan, 1986.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California

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