Academic journal article Hecate

Written on the Body: Jean Devanny, Sexuality and Censorship

Academic journal article Hecate

Written on the Body: Jean Devanny, Sexuality and Censorship

Article excerpt

Jean Devanny's uncertain status as a woman and a writer in the Communist Party of Australia from the 1930s through to the 1950s is figured dramatically in her account of her expulsion in her autobiography, Point of Departure. As Devanny tells it, the allegations of sexual misdemeanours which prompted the Party's action against her were never specified, nor defended. In these circumstances, and given the Party's situation of illegal status (from 1940-42), it may be doubted whether she was "expelled" at all. What this episode does confirm is the problematic presence of the body--and particularly unruly female bodies--in the political domain. I want to pursue this point by looking at Devanny's political and literary career in the 1940s, a period which began with her public defence of the Party against threatened prohibition, saw her expulsion and reinstatement and ended with her resignation. That resignation was precipitated by the Tribune's refusal to review her novel, Cindie: A Chronicle of the Canefields (1949),(1) effectively circumscribing her participation in debate. Devanny saw this as a further denial of her status as a political subject, and was only further enraged by "jibes of a personal nature" in the "sneering, hostile" response to the book of J. B. Miles, the Party leader at the time and her lover for some years.(2)

My argument is that both Devanny's expulsion and her resignation are not to be understood in terms of the operation of some simplistic double standard, but as part of her attempt to shift the terms of political debate to take account of those matters usually dismissed as private--those of bodies and sexuality. Her political analysis in Cindie constructs labour as a sexed and racialised, as well as classed, category. The Party's rejection of that analysis can be read as symptomatic of a definition of the civil and political domain which is predicated upon its separation from the realm of nature and the erasure of bodily specificities.(3) This is not, however, a story about the victimisation of Jean Devanny. In addressing the Party's discipline, and the role played in its administration by J. B. Miles, I want to look at the interaction of formal authority with the informal, private and virtually invisible forms of regulation which produce a gendered political subject. In the discussion that follows, Devanny's fictional and theoretical writing will be read as an exercise of the sometimes ambiguous power available to her as a writer and activist to reform and redefine the political relations of sex, gender, race and class.

My interest in this paper is not to go over the ground of heirarchising oppressions. Nor do I wish to suggest that oppressions of class, race and gender are congruent, and that therefore the colonised or working class woman's oppression can be usefully spoken of as "doubled." Rather, I see sexuality as one of the points of intersection of relations of social, economic and cultural power. Class, gender and race are systems of difference which take hold of, and produce, particular kinds of sexualised bodies. I want to use the example of Devanny's career to reconsider definitions of the political, and especially to think about the terms upon which it is possible to include the sexual in an analysis of power relations.

Critical accounts of Devanny's writing generally accept the unease of the alliance of sex and class politics in her work. Carole Ferrier discusses the project as the production of the "really proletarian" novel, and outlines a shift from "psychological romances, incorporating, often rather uncomfortably, some socialist and feminist ideas"(4) to a socialist realism unfortunately too sympathetic, for CPA literary taste, to the owning class. In approaching sexual questions, Devanny had to negotiate a Party line which "was authoritarian, puritan and dogmatic on sexual matters, particularly towards women."(5) Drusilla Modjeska has also commented on Devanny's career as illustrating the difficulties of maintaining a position within the Party as both a woman and a writer. …

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