Academic journal article Hecate

Points of Departure

Academic journal article Hecate

Points of Departure

Article excerpt


In her introduction to Point of Departure, Carole Ferrier suggests three factors which give the autobiography of Jean Devanny interest and relevance for modern readers. Covering the period between Devanny's birth in 1894 to the early 1950s, it firstly traces the evolution of a woman active in the struggle for socialism and women's rights, and the problems she encountered in this regard. It also gives information and insight into the nature of the class struggle in Australia, and the operations of the Communist Party (CPA). Finally, Ferrier argues that the memoirs are significant in showing the development of an important writer of politically-committed fiction, whose work has been neglected.

The autobiography is certainly important in providing an insider's perspective on these issues. However, the insights it provides and the questions it raises are complex and problematic and, above all, intensely personal. Therefore, it's difficult to move freely between the subjective specificity of Devanny's account and generalizations regarding the social and political milieux in which she moved. At the same time, though, it is the personal detail regarding Devanny's life as a writer and political activist which enhances the book's relevance for the modern reader of history and biography.

Devanny's story is essentially about marginalization. As is the case with many who have worked outside the mainstream of Australian society, the nature of her experiences remains largely unexplored. Ferrier notes that there has been a recent increase in the number of published autobiographies dealing with being in the CPA, many of them by women.(1) Nevertheless, none have addressed so directly, or in such agonized detail, the problems encountered by Communist(*) women struggling to achieve political and personal equality with male Party members. Furthermore, the work of writers active in left wing political organizations in Australia has been largely ignored by literary historians. This is partly because of an assumption on the part of many literary critics and historians that `good' literature and political engagement are somehow mutually exclusive, resulting in the denigration or neglect of literature produced by Communist writers.(2) Historians of the left have also neglected the work of Communist writers in their accounts: perhaps because, while Communist theory afforded creative writing the status of significant political activity, in practice it was viewed as subsidiary, and writers themselves often suspected of political unreliability.

Point of Departure is a detailed account of the difficulties Devanny encountered in trying to work as a writer and political activist, as well as of her efforts to overcome the inequality experienced by women in the CPA. Indeed, the marginalization she experienced as a Communist woman and a Communist writer lies at the heart of her narrative, making it a story which needs to be heard if some of the gaps in Australian political and cultural history are to be addressed.

The first section of the autobiography deals with Devanny's childhood in New Zealand, and the experiences of working class family life which were to mould her commitment to socialism and the rights of women. When she emigrated to Australia in 1929, she was already an experienced political activist, and an author of some repute. She joined the Communist Party in 1930, prompted by her family's experience of the Depression and her disillusionment with Labor Party politics.

Devanny's lifelong commitment to Communism pervades the rest of the narrative. Her interest in literature, anthropology and natural history, her concern for the rights of oppressed groups, are all couched within the framework of her adherence to Communism as the means for redressing social and economic injustice. …

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