“The book? This is people.” Jane Stafford

Jean Devanny: Romantic Revolutionary 
Carole Ferrier
Melbourne University Press, $71.95,
ISBN 0 522 84847 8

 

Faced with the duty of celebrating the new millennium adequately, most New Zealanders saw the challenge in terms of geographical location. Where to be at the significant moment became as important as whom to be with and what to be doing. If the Rapture did occur at midnight, we wanted to be taken from somewhere appropriate. And, true to our heritage as children of Maoriland, that foundational glorification of nature and its wonders, many of us, after due consideration, elaborate catering arrangements and a number of harried visits to Payless Plastics and Camping World, went bush.

Or, more precisely, found that little bit of bush or beach which had particular significance for us. For my family (or at least, those members of my family with voting rights) that place was Golden Bay. The views from the top of Takaka Hill were hardly marred at all by the presence of 11,000 people in cars on their way to the Gathering. The first evening under canvas at Pakawau, before the rain started, was idyllic, and the long-term effects of hypothermia have been much exaggerated. No matter. We were in paradise.

2

Jean Devanny was born into this strange and remote part of the country 106 years earlier. Ferntown, her birthplace, no longer exists – it was somewhere close to Collingwood, I suspect, just across the river after you pass through it on the way to Farewell Spit. And Puponga, where her family lived later, and where she set up house as a young wife, is now just a small huddle of baches, with a DOC Information Centre on the hill, flanked by a large chest marked “Whale Rescue Kit”. Of the mining, the population it brought with it, the busy, engaged, highly politicised community in which Devanny grew up, nothing remains.

Devanny’s family laid claim to aristocratic status, but were in fact typical of the second generation of Pakeha settlers, tradesmen if they were lucky, miners and farm workers when they weren’t. Devanny was the eighth of ten children, all of whom were terrified of their drunken father. Leaving school at 13, she worked as a skivvy in a Collingwood boarding-house. She retained the friendship and company of her teacher, Rose, although the latter’s illegal abortion was an early introduction to the grim realities of women’s lives. Little wonder that Devanny was a life-long advocate of birth-control. By the time the family moved to Puponga, her father was seriously ill with “miners’ phthisis”, and the dashing young Hal Devanny, union organiser, educated, popular, in touch with the wider world, would have seemed irresistible. They married in 1911 when Jean was seventeen.

It makes Janet Frame’s background look positively privileged. Both women had a perverse determination to see themselves as writers. In Frame’s case, the education system encouraged and nurtured her. In Devanny’s, her marriage, and the left-wing politics that now became the currency of the family’s life, did the same. With the manic fervour that would characterise her adulthood, and which won her as many enemies as admirers, Devanny set about educating herself and her neighbours: writing, getting involved in union and political life, as well as being the best damned housewife Puponga had ever seen. In her spare time, in true Campion style, she pounded her piano, so obviously for 19th century women the one respite from a world of drudgery that the arguments over Campion’s debt to Mander seem ridiculous.

In 1918, the Devannys, now with three children, moved to the mining district of Fairfield, in Otago. While they were there, their six-year-old daughter, Erin, died of blood poisoning. “I was lost,” wrote Devanny.

The more so, as I saw my husband only at weekends. Night after night I was seized with remorse so agonising and terrible, so imponderable, that sensing an onset, I would break out into streams of sweat and tremble as if in ague. Down, down I would sink, into a pit of awful, bottomless blackness.

 

Writing was an obvious antidote. She was by this time being published regularly in such journals as The Maoriland Worker and the Auckland Weekly News, and was working on a never- completed treatise on Maori anthropology and on another anthropological work, “Sex Life of Peoples Ancient and Modern”.

A classic autodidact, her range of interest was vast and more than a little barmy. Her first attempt at a novel, Dawn Beloved, was submitted unsuccessfully to Duckworth in London, but they encouraged her to revise it, and to keep in touch. In 1925 she sent them The Butcher’s Shop, followed in 1926 by Lenore Divine. In 1921 the family moved to Wellington, and in 1929 left for Sydney.

3

We know the name Jean Devanny now because of the above novels, and the 12 that followed. A renewed interest in women writers, and a personal commitment to Devanny and her political positions, has caused Carole Ferrier to republish Devanny’s final work of fiction, Cindie (1949, 1986); to edit the previously unpublished autobiography, Point of Departure (1986), which Devanny worked on later in life (she died in 1962); and now to produce this very (very) full biography. While such partisan energy is admirable, it has to be said that Devanny was a pretty dreadful novelist, and the only work of hers that is now widely known, The Butcher’s Shop, gains its notoriety from the fact that it was banned by the New Zealand Government.

Despite her laborious attempts to the contrary, Ferrier does not present any compelling argument for revisiting this neglect. Devanny’s style is histrionic, overblown, and polemical. She admitted that she wrote to further her political causes, but her causes have not aged well. Her membership of the Australian communist party during the 1930s and her portrayal of the Soviet Union during that time as paradise on earth appear unpleasant today, albeit with the benefit of hindsight. Her public and spirited advocacy of birth control, at a time when such subjects were shameful, is entirely praiseworthy, but Ferrier’s attempt to make Devanny’s sexual hyperactivity and unfaithfulness a form of ideological principle seems to me spurious and dated, more suited to the woolly self-justifications of the 1960s than today. And while Ferrier’s biography cannot be faulted on its detail, the breadth of its research, and the archival material she has assembled, it is all rather too much. One gets overwhelmed in the minutiae of Australian left-wing infighting to the detriment of any broader contextualising, while Ferrier’s resolutely hagiographical stance obscures the fact that Devanny was obviously a really irritating person with some very dodgy opinions (on eugenics, for instance, she and Hitler would have seen eye to eye). The Australian writer Marjorie Barnard said of her: “she’s amazing altogether, of an impenetrable innocence, as brave as a lion, and no brains.” John A Lee’s firm opinion that Devanny had worked as a prostitute while she lived in Wellington is a tantalising detail that Ferrier declines to take up.

So why is Devanny interesting? Her books are virtually unreadable, and certainly unread. The political causes she fought for now seem at best dated, and the detail of their prosecution tedious. But there is still something compelling about her. First, her life, especially her early life, is a fascinating picture of somebody with no advantages but, pace Barnard, intelligence, with the restrictions of class and gender against her, fighting her way through. Her childhood and adolescence seem to me where this is most acutely obvious, and here, I am afraid, I would recommend readers look not at Ferrier’s biography, which skates through the New Zealand period very quickly, but to the first part of Devanny’s autobiography Point of Departure. It is a record to rival To the Is-land, setting a particular period against a particular location, and filtering it through the eyes of an awkward, self-absorbed, but sharp adolescent intelligence, reminiscent of Elizabeth Knox’s novellas of growing up in the 1970s. It deserves to be more widely known than it is.

Secondly, although Devanny’s writing is now difficult to read, she was obviously a fantastic public speaker, and in this role was admired and remembered. It is an ephemeral kind of reputation. One gets the sense of her skill from a photograph in Ferrier of Devanny speaking in the Sydney Domain in the 1930s. She is surrounded by a sea of listeners, mainly men. She is elegantly dressed in a cloche hat, jersey suit and sexy high heels. She leans against the rail of the podium in a completely relaxed manner, and the expressions on the faces of her listeners suggest they are having a good time. At a Waterside Workers’ meeting,  she once told her audience: “And comrades, in the Soviet Union sexual intercourse is wonderful!” To which a member of the audience interjected: “It’s not too bloody bad here either, lady.” A friend once remonstrated with her when she abandoned her writing for a political tour: “What about the Book?” “Oh my dear,” she replied. “The book? This is people.” 

 

Jane Stafford teaches in the School of English, Film and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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