Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Devanny, Jane (Jean) (1894–1962)

by Ron Store

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Jane (Jean) Devanny (1894-1962), writer, known as Jean, was born on 7 January 1894 at Ferntown, Collingwood, New Zealand, eighth of ten children of William Crook, boilermaker and miner, and his wife Jane, née Appleyard. She left school at 13 but read voraciously, observed constantly and was profoundly influenced by the premature death of her father and by trade union militancy. When barely 17 she met the militant Francis Harold (Hal) Devanny (1888-1966); they married in 1911 at Palmerston and soon had a son and two daughters. Jean became active in the labour movement, early contact with Marxist and other theories of socialism leading to the public speaking that filled much of her life.

'Spiritually committed to writing' by about 1923, her first novel, The Butcher Shop (1926), was a succès de scandale for its explicit condemnation of sexual oppression in marriage. Over the next three decades she published twenty books and many short stories and articles in Australia, England, United States of America, Germany and Russia.

The Devannys moved to Sydney in 1929, hoping to improve the health of their son who died in 1934. Jean was employed as a domestic in western New South Wales, then joined the Australian Communist Party in late 1930 or early 1931, was appointed national secretary of Workers' International Relief and in 1931 attended its Berlin conference. Despite an eight months organizing tour on behalf of the party in Queensland in 1935, she faced increasing official dissatisfaction which resulted in 1940 in her expulsion. Although she rejoined the party in 1944, she had lost many illusions and left it in 1949.

Jean Devanny played an active role in literary organizations. She helped to found the Writers League with Katharine Susannah Prichard and Egon Kisch, and was its first president in 1935; in 1937 it was converted into the Writers Association. By 1945 she was a leading light in the presentation by the Fellowship of Australian Writers of a submission to the Tariff Board seeking literary protection. The last two decades of her life were spent in North Queensland. During this period, she documented much of the area in very readable 'walkabout' books and articles. She died with chronic leukaemia at Townsville on 8 March 1962 and was cremated at Rockhampton.

Jean Devanny had close friendships with Miles Franklin, Marjorie Barnard and Winifred Hamilton, but her literary contemporaries found her intensity disturbing. To Miles Franklin she was 'vivid, valiant, temerarious', a person of extraordinary energy. Nettie Palmer respected her courage, admired her generosity and friendliness but 'resented her general cocksureness'. Hugh McCrae spoke of 'a tongue like an axe in a wood-chopping contest'. For her the novel was an instrument for propaganda, written often in a 'fiery agitational style'. Well aware of her own literary defects, Devanny feared she had wasted her life: 'I realise now that I have not exploited the small measure of ability for writing I possess one whit. I never really got down to it and THOUGHT. Thought was reserved for politics'.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Academic and Research Libraries, 1 (1970), p 66
  • North Queensland Register, 17 Mar 1962
  • J. Devanny papers, and autobiography, The River Flows On (James Cook University Library, Townsville)
  • private information.

Citation details

Ron Store, 'Devanny, Jane (Jean) (1894–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/devanny-jane-jean-5968/text10141, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 21 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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