Academic journal article Hecate

Jean Devanny as an Australasian 'Woman of 1928'

Academic journal article Hecate

Jean Devanny as an Australasian 'Woman of 1928'

Article excerpt

When Jean Devanny (1894-1962) left her native land and with her family crossed the Tasman Sea from Wellington to Sydney in 1929, she intended this to be a stop on the way to England, in the days when they still called Britain 'Home'. In the event, she had migrated to Australia, and lived there for the remainder of her life, apart from one trip to Germany, the Soviet Union and England in the early 1930s. She seems to have had few literary contacts at her destinations, apart from publishers to visit in Berlin and London.1 She was travelling primarily in the capacity of a political figure2 and, on her return to Australia, was much in demand to give talks: this continued through the 1930s during which Devanny was one of the key public faces of the Communist Party of Australia, and found her time for producing fiction restricted.3 Involvement in various Party 'front' organizations and speaking tours for the Movement against War and Fascism took her travelling away from Sydney, especially North into Queensland where she spent much of the later 1930s and early 1940s, before moving to Townsville to live at the end of the latter decade.

It has been suggested by Susan Stanford Friedman that we might understand 'the geopolitical rhetoric of feminism' as operating 'according to a transnational grammar with a number of specific figurai formations'; in particular, five tropic patterns: 'the metaphorics of nation, borders, migration, "glocation" and conjuncture.'* These tropes recur and can be recognized in Devanny's fiction, and also in the story of her life.

Devanny, in travelling across the Tasman, had traversed the border between two nations that, although they had many similaritiesindeed, federation of New Zealand with the states of Australia had looked possible at the turn of the century- also had substantial differences. She arrived in Australia as a moderately established and successful writer, and Sydney appeared to offer more promising literary possibilities than had Wellington.

There was repeated border-crossing, both for the body and the psyche, in Devanny's own life- between places, communities, cultures and political associations. By the late 1920s, Alexandra Carter suggests, particular processes were underway:

The suffragette movement, the First World War, the "flapper" of the 1920s, the expansion of women's employment and engagement in public life were some of the many phenomena which rendered redundant the sexual categories of the later Victorian and early Edwardian age. 5

Carter is talking about Britain, but these could also be observed in Australasia, operating to much the same effect, with further significant historical conjunctures being the Depression, World War Two and the subsequent rise of conservative Cold War politics. These all contributed to Devann/s changing senses of her 'home in this world'.6 These various phenomena also impacted upon the content of Devann/s literary production but it retained a consistent concern with feminism and socialism, as did her life. Being aware of the relationship between the global and the local was familiar to her from her understanding of Marxist theory, especially its internationalist conception of the common struggle of the workers of the world under different conditions. Friedman argues that 'feminist rhetoric has an epistemological register that is responsive to changing historical and locational conditions,'? but this is also true of socialist critical frameworks, with which Devanny was extremely familiar.

The main themes of Devann/s fiction remained centrally to do with gender and sexuality, along with class, and racial and ethnic identities. Her earlier novels written in New Zealand focused upon the figure of the new woman, as well as relationships between Anglo Celtic women and Maori men (especially in The Butcher Shop, and Lenore Divine, both published in 1926). In Poor Swine (1932), the last-published of seven novels set in New Zealand, new woman Rose Stallard reads 'the frankest kind of fiction'8 and is annoyed with her doctor brother for making a fuss about sexuality; admonishing him with 'All this damn rot in the twentieth century! …

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