Jean Devanny, romantic revolutionary

by

Jean Devanney, Romantic Revolutionary, by Carol Ferrier, Melbourne University Press, 1999

Jenny Haines

Jean Devanney is  a fascinating figure in Australian literary and radical history, often forgotten now despite her prodigous contribution, probably because of her association with the Communist Party. Carole Ferrier has more than done her justice in this comprehensive biography.

Devanney was a writer in Australia in the 1920s through to the 1960s, a member of the Communist Party on and off, and way ahead of her time on issues such as race, gender and sexuality. It was interesting to think where Jean would have been placed in the social spectrum if she lived today, but that is speculation because although her attitudes led the way for many of our current social attitudes, she was also a woman who was much needed in her time.

Jean Devanney was born in New Zealand, the eighth of 10 children. Her mother was an Irish aristocrat, the daughter of a British Army colonel who fought in the Indian Mutiny. He had then gone to New Zealand to fight in the war against the Maori.

Jane, Jean’s mother, recalled of her early days in New Zealand seeing a missionary killed and eaten by Maori. Jean’s father was a mineworker who later became an alcoholic and died of the miner’s diesase, phthisis, commonly known as dusted lung. Jean left school at 13, but she was fostered after her departure by former teachers, who supplied her with books.

At the age of 17, in 1911, she married a dashing stranger Hal Devanney, a coal miner and trade unionist. Their first child, Karl, was born in 1912.  Hal and Jean were actively involved in the United Miners Federation and were involved in setting up the Social Democratic Party in 1913, and the United Federation of Labor.

Jean and Hal’s preferred politics were to the left, and they participated in a Marxist study circle. From this Marxist study circle they would attend conferences of the New Zealand Marxian Association, a forerunner of the Communist Party.

Despite their joint activities, there was a strain in the Devanney marriage, as Jean found Hal too quiet for her. However, their family expanded to three children, one of whom died a young death from blood poisioning after a pig bit her toe.

Jean first got into print in 1916 through a series of letters to the women’s column of the Maoriland Worker, with laments about the lack of a voice for working-class women and calls for working-class women to educate themselves. In 1921, Jean and her husband moved to Wellington.

Jean initially joined the Labour Party but she found it too reformist, and Jean and Hal joined the Communist Party. Balancing activism and family life, Jean also started to write novels. Her first works, Dawn Beloved and The Butcher Shop, were initially published by British publishing houses.

The Butcher Shop was banned in New Zealand without official explanation, after a letter from a London publisher to the Prime Minister’s secretary alerted him to an “alleged depiction of station life in New Zealand as disgusting, indecent and communistic”. Other books written by Jean in the 1920s in New Zealand included Lenore Divine, Old Savage and Riven.

Jean and Hal moved with their family to Sydney in 1929, then a hotbed of industrial battles. Jean was already well known as a writer, partly because one of her books had been banned in New Zealand.

Jean and Hal immersed themselves in political, industrial and literary activities of the time. Once again finding the Lang Labor Party too reformist, they joined the Communist Party.

Not long after arriving in Sydney, Jean took a job at a sheep station, the inspiration for her novel Out of Such Fires, which explored the exploitation of workers and women in the outback. The job only lasted six months due to a conflict with the station owner’s wife.

Back in Sydney, Jean became a speaker and agitator fot the Communist Party. Judah Waten said of her at this time, “she was on a charger and I am sure she was convinced that the revolution was just around the corner”.

Jean advocated sexual liberation, particulary for women, as a political issue. She was way ahead of the conservative sexual politics of the Communist Party at that time. She befriended leading members of the Communist Party, and met and became friends with many leading literary figures.

Through her leading role in the Worker’s International Relief, founded in 1929,  Jean met and later became the lover of the leading communist J.B. Miles. Her relationship with Miles lasted many years, and he was her protector and mentor as well as her lover.

Jean travelled widely for the Communist Party, to Melbourne, Adelaide, Queensland and rural Australia, organising and agitating. She visited Britain, Europe and the Soviet Union and was active in the Workers Art Club, and with Katharine Susannah Pritchard in the Writers League.

She worked herself to mental and emotional exhaustion and went to stay with friends in North Queensland, but even there she continued her agitation, which became the basis for her novels Sugar Heaven, Bird of Paradise and Paradise Flow.   In 1941, Jean was expelled from the Communist Party by the Central Control Commission, headed at that time by Wally Clayton.

The reason for her expulsion was not entirely clear, but it seems to have involved allegations of sexual impropriety among party members in Cairns. She appealed to JB Miles to help her, but he turned his back on her, and a deep rift grew between them.

Her husband, Hal, had moved into another relationship. Isolated, Jean returned to her writing and performing talks on the radio. In Cairns she developed a deep relationship with Dr Hugo Flecker, a member of a Naturalist Club, and she worked closely with him on what now would be called green and ecological campaigns.

Jean spent four years outside the party, and on readmission after threaetning the party leadership with public exposure, she had to deal with the developing Cold War and the witch-hunting of communists by the state. She also struggled with the conservative nature of Stalinism.

She was active in the Fellowship of Australian Writers, a non-party organisation, which Jean had helped found in 1929. Jean spent much of her later life in North Queensland, feeling more at home there than in Sydney, where the Communist Party tended to regard writers and artists as too anarchistic.

She wrote prodigiously, and works such as David and Iris in Crocodile Land, Gold is my Heart, The Pearlers, You Can’t Have Everything and Restaurant still had not found publishers at the time of her death.

She wrote an autobiograhy, Rushed Affair, which the Commonweatlh Literary Fund refused to sponsor and the Communist Party refused to support.

She wanted to die with her name clear of the scandal that surrounded her expulsion from the party but the party did nothing to help her clear her name.

In 1957, Jean was diagnosed with leukeamia, but despite her ill health she continued her party and literary activity until her death on International Women’s day in 1962.

Carole Ferrier spent 20 years writing this book. She says at the end: “In (re)telling and (re)constructing the story of Jean’s life, I hope that something may be learnt from it; about what might be true, about what is important and what is not, for the struggles for liberation that still continue every day.”

In Jean’s story we learn of a woman who was a leader, an activist, an early women’s liberationist, an early environmentalist and a prodigous writer. Activists of today have much to learn from her.

See also: One of the greatest of our women, A red-hot revolutionist and ranter

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