Jean Devanny in the early 1930s
"A red revolutionist and ranter"
By CAROLE FERRIER [email protected].
You are our heroine, comrade good and true
Sweet and so noble, pure right through and through
Fighting so gallantly ‘gainst capitalistic laws
Suff’ring as Red Rosa did for the workers’ cause.
Jean Devanny of the "struggle", leather-coasted figure of the "Dom", fighting "for what she knew was right", was a memorable presence for many at the huge rallies of the 1930s:
A lone woman towering above a multitude of men. One woman charged with dominant courage.... Vital, logical, vibrant, caustic, happy, humorous -- yes, emotional Jean of the "Dom"; could we ever forget you?’
All her life Jean would be seen as a ‘fiery orator of the working class.’ An activist comrade recalled her as `one of the best four women speakers in my time.’ ‘Jean Devanny’, wrote Miles Franklin to Alice Henry in 1935, `is a red revolutionist and ranter, but I like her very much.’
Through the 1930s, most on the far Left in Australia still believed Australia’s socialist revolution was imminent. Mary Lamm recalled the early days of her relationship with Tom Wright:
If Labor council finished a little early we’d go for a walk around Sydney and he’d show me all the places he’d worked in -- bits of the roof of the Queen Victoria Building and things like that -- and we’d rebuild the city -- what we’d do with that building, what this would be able to be used for. (After the Revolution?)─ Oh yes, just around that beautiful corner -- we took that very seriously.
In November 1930, Labor had come to power in New South Wales, but Premier Jack Lang’s rhetorically radical solutions to the Depression were irrelevant to both Left and Right. The choice was between socialism and barbarism, and it was starkly posed for activists in the early 1930s by the rise of fascism in Europe. In a speech on May Day of 1935, Jean would assert: ‘World War, world revolution, either may happen before next May Day.’
Jean had joined the Communist Party not long after coming to Sydney from New Zealand in 1929 with her husband Hal, her son Karl and her daughter Pat. The Party was growing in strength, visibility and credibility with the onset of the Depression and was central in the militant working class struggles of the 1930s, consistently and forcefully challenging the Right and its initiatives.
Edna Ryan, along with her husband Jack an early Party member, recalled that when Jean arrived in Sydney (at the age of thirty-four, and with a reputation as a sexual radical) there was `a group of a dozen, even twenty or so women all of whom would have welcomed her.’
She came here of course as an author, and they had a lot more prestige then.... I can remember sitting in a group talking with Jean, and how warm it was, and friendly and exciting, really lovely.
Kay Brown, later to write the Mount Isa novel Knock Ten (1976), first met Jean at this period also, and commented on her vast enthusiasm for the struggle.
She always reminded me of a knight at arms galloping to a crusade, and her crusade was her passionate love of Communism (though everybody had that on their lips in those days, particularly if they were studying or writing).’ Judah Waten confirmed the same image: `she was on a charger and I’m sure that she was convinced that the revolution was around the corner.’ Edna Ryan remembered also Jean’s close friendship with John Benjamin King, earlier member of the Industrial Workers of the World, and one of the group jailed during World War I. `I used to say that J.B. King was going to lead the Revolution on a white horse, because the Party became very charismatic then. With people like Jean Devanny and J.B. King around, it gave them a great lift.’
He and Jean of course would have got along famously, whether their relationship was more than friendly nobody knows, but they were certainly very much attracted to one another. They would have probably been the only two people at that time who had awareness about sexuality in the sense of sexual freedom. We had certainly not reached that stage in the Communist Party. We were very strait-laced, hypocritical is the word.
In its earlier years, when it found its inspiration in Lenin and other revolutionary Bolsheviks like Alexandra Kollontai, not Stalin, the sexual politics of the CPA had been more progressive and exploratory. The leadership group that had lost its dominance by the time of Jean’s arrival at the end of the 1920s included, Edna Ryan recalled, `certain people, if not many, the intellectuals in the Party, who were very enlightened.’ These included Jack Kavanagh, who had come from Canada in 1925 (and appears in Christina Stead’s novel, Seven Poor Men of Sydney, as Whiteaway), also Esmonde Higgins and his partner, Joy Barrington. As Ryan remembered:
Higgins was sexually liberated and so was his wife Joy, and they led separate lives. They were different from the rest of the Party in that way. First of all Higgins and then Kavanagh said, when the revolution comes almost every housewife will leave her husband, will leave home. They never made these statements except to one another, but all the same they stayed with me.
Looking back in 1983, Ryan identified the particular radicalism of Jean’s position: `Unlike Hig and Joy who thought of it as a personal issue, Jean Devanny advocated sexual liberation, particularly for women, as a political issue. She was far in advance of the Party at that time.’
Less sympathetic observers perceived Jean as having rather a lot of front. Her former compatriot, feminist and poet Jessie Mackay, perorated to Mary Gilmore: `O that woman!... All I’ve heard of her is that she goes around the country lecturing on companionate marriage, and her Butcher’s Shop was banned for its morals or lack of them.’ Gilmore commented to Nettie Palmer of Jean: `She’s a Myra Morris for volubility, but in a platform way -- more or less.’
In March 1930, Miles Franklin, who would later become a close friend of Jean saw her for the first time --at the Mitchell Library. She wrote to Mary Fullerton that she had been fascinated by her striking looks:
Tall and shapely -- her arms rather muscular for beauty, but my, her nose, one of that high fine sort with a narrow forehead from which the hair rippled away in a smart short crop that was perfect -- the aristocrat unmistakably.
Fullerton was keen to correct Franklin’s misapprehension:
So you have seen Jean Davaney [sic] and she looks aristocratic. I’m amazed, it just shows how looks mislead sometimes for she writes like a butcher’s wench and I say that not merely because she has written a book called The Butcher’s Shop but because of her outlook on human character and life. Common.
Jean was, in Fullerton’s view, quite excessive: ‘straining to be red blooded masculine, she only manages to be raw meat.’ And, indeed, when Franklin encountered Jean again the following day she had been, for the time being, rather less seduced:
She looked terrible as if she had engaged in nothing but dissipation since last I saw her. The effect may have been heightened by the fearsome amount of red she had plastered on cheeks and lips, and her hair was cut to the roots almost. She looked a regular shrew.
God’s policing of the type Fullerton favoured was one of the targets of an article Jean published in July 1930 on `The Literary Moral Standard.’ This asserted:
being moral consists in keeping pace with the changing moral standards ... the mode of life to-day, in bringing up into the light certain aspects of the sex-life which have always been there, but hidden, has necessitated an understanding of those aspects so that they might be dealt with.
The journalist Bernice May, when she interviewed Jean the same month, was more favourably disposed than many towards Jean, and benevolently relayed a reassuring self-construction for consumption by readers of the Woman’s Mirror: ‘her amazing literary story ... should be an inspiration to every woman who wants to write, for Jean Devanny did her woman’s work, married and mothered and reared her family before she took her pen.’
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Jean attempted to negotiate a problematic politics of sexuality in her relationship to the Party and the people in and around it, particularly its General Secretary, J.B. Miles with whom she had a close relationship throughout the 1930s. Party members were supposed to appear (at worst, serially) monogamous in the public eye, and Jean’s comments about J.B. for example, perhaps protest too much: `Yet there was no Presbyterianism -- or puritanism, call it what you like -- about Leader where the love-life of Party members was concerned. His relationship with myself was proof enough that he stood for the right of the individual to free choice in mating.’ The `great love’ launched here is reminiscent in some respects of that described by the former leading Bolshevik, Alexandra Kollontai, in her novella of that title some ten years earlier. The official Party position on sexual politics in the early 1930s was purportedly free of petty-bourgeois moralism, but freedom became rather more complicated in practice. Edna Ryan recalled `getting Kollontai’s pamphlet on the family’, and also the influence of her programmes for women’s liberation: `We were very proud of Kollontai.’ But while it was considered that `Marxism necessarily rules out the concept of bourgeois morality’, there were other considerations -- as Jean outlined.
Sexual promiscuity in Communists tends to bring the Party into disrepute among the masses; further, it does not square with proper attention to Party work. Should family ties obtain, humane dealing with existing partners is to be expected of Communists, even to the extent of self-sacrifice.
Jean’s daughter, Pat, a leading activist in the Party’s youth group in these years, later attributed a rather less up-front version of the Party’s position to J.B.
There were too many guns pointed at the Party for it to take chances on individual members giving ammunition to the enemy by pandering to personal/moral weaknesses. Communists in capitalist countries were still feeling the back lash from legislation on women’s rights adopted by the Soviet Union in the first years of its existence, i.e. equalising female property rights, giving mothers equal rights over children and, above all, making divorce very easy and legalising abortion. Communists outside the USSR were presented as disciples of family-destroying "free love."
Some did indeed have an impression that no great circumspection was the norm around the Party, especially in the 1920s and early 1930s. Arthur Howells viewed the CPA as `notorious for the bohemianism displayed by many of its adherents. One so-called "comrade" informed me that the main reason he had joined the Party was that it was "good for lays".’ When, from the end of the 1920s, a repressive sexual `morality’ re-asserted itself in the Party’s homeland and model, the Soviet Union, the CPA would be ‘subjected to a process of cleaning up and its bohemianism was replaced by what almost amounted to a wowseristic puritanism.’
With the dominance of Stalin consolidated, many of the gains made in the Soviet Union towards women’s liberation by early post-Revolution policies were being systematically reversed and, by the early 1930s, there was an ascendancy of earlier conceptualisations of women’s role within the family. This also affected international Party positions, and produced an increasing conservatism about sexuality that intersected with the dominant capitalist ideologies that, in Australasia, had never been challenged at the level of the state. Further, it was nearly ten years before, back in 1922, that Kollontai had lost any real power in the CPSU and this had substantially affected the impact of her radical sexual politics, previously quite influential in Russian and international Party circles. At the Australian Party’s Tenth Congress in 1931, Moxon (whom J.B. had replaced as leader) inveighed against `wrong ideas about freedom’ that resulted in `promiscuity in sex relations’, while Prichard’s Wester Australian comrade, Lindsay Mountjoy warned that some Party women’s image might mean working class wives would stop their husbands joining. `We must remember the Communist Party is not a bohemian club’, she counselled.
Jean went on the obligatory tour for cadre in training to the Soviet Union and Germany in 1930-31. The Left habitually reproduced dominant ideologies of `big’ and `little’ men─though all their big men, of course, were socialists -- and Jean’s practice was no exception. Phyllis Johnson, Secretary of the Kings Cross Party Branch, recalled how Jean, returned from Russia, talked (with a level of irony difficult definitively to establish) about `this magnificent man in the wheatfields with rippling muscles and how magnificent he was, and she said that she could assure us that sex was a delightful experience in the Soviet Union.’ After a speech on International Women’s Day in which Jean argued `women had the right to enjoy sex as much as men did’, Johnson reported the female reaction, even in the Party as: `we were like stunned mullets really.’ Another story repeated to me by several comrades, and related also by Oriel Gray, involved Jean `wanting to tell everyone that the Soviet Union was transfiguring in every respect.’
At a Waterside Workers’ Federation meeting, she was quite carried away. "And comrades, in the Soviet Union sexual intercourse is wonderful!" "It’s not too bloody bad here either, lady", said a big wharfie politely from the front row.
Jack Stephens recounted: `There used to be a lot of jokes about her, you know. She used to talk about what fine big men they were in the Red Army, and Charlie used to do an imaginary speech about: "And there they were, marching, those magnificent Red Army officers", and an imaginary interjection: "Did you see their privates, Jean?" Things like that.’
Despite Jean’s best efforts, her public image was not serially monogamous. ‘Stories grew’ for example, Stephens recalled, about a romance with Mick Ryan. ‘They used to lock the doors of the Party rooms and all the faithful couldn’t get in. But Mrs Ryan got onto this, and Mick would be addressing a meeting in the Domain and Mrs Ryan would start interjecting: "What are you doing with that woman?" That’s how Mick Ryan ended up in Brisbane.’ Stephens reproduced the legend that surrounded Jean in Australia in the 1930s: `I think if she fancied a bloke and could get him, she had him.’
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As previously mentioned, Jean was one of the best known public platform faces of the early 1930s. With the Left taking to the streets almost weekly with agitational campaigns, there were consistently large audiences for the Sunday rallies in the Domain.
Open air speaking was particularly taxing. Jean recalled that it `imposed a terrific strain on throat, chest and stomach’ -- especially if the speaker simultaneously (as Jack Beasley reported was Jean’s wont) ‘prowled the platform like a hunting lioness.’ The Domain was only one of the places where the Left’s speakers would draw a crowd. Jean recalled her usual routine: ‘Seven a.m. would find me at one or other of the dole dumps, as the ration-distributing centres were called; or down on the wharves. Perhaps the Trades Hall at mid-morning; then a lunch-hour factory gate. Every afternoon I spoke in a suburb and, at eight at night again, a suburban meeting or in town.’ Many of the talks would last for one to two hours, with another hour for questions. Jean became weak and exhausted from the demands of these activities, especially since she was doing them on a `dole diet.’ `I was always driven, always driving myself.’ Looking back from the mid-1940s to these years of the early 1930s, she commented on how things had changed:
Noting the younger generation of Communist speakers getting round in trucks and cars for their open-air meetings -- few in number now for the law, after a few years, closed down on indiscriminate public speaking -- with public address systems at their disposal and withal organised in relays ... I thought how little they knew of the arduous struggles of the pioneers. Not for them the horrific strain of projecting the voice for hours daily over large crowds.
Adela Pankhurst Walsh, a founding member of the CPA, had shown a militancy, fearlessness and charisma similar to Jean’s in her championing of Left causes at the beginning of the 1920s. By mid-decade, she and her husband, Tom, were shifting politically to the Right and Adela moved, via the Labor Party, to the Association for Industrial Peace, and then founded the Australian Women’s Guild of Empire in 1929. (The Communist lawyer, Christian Jollie Smith had more reason subsequently to regret her role in preventing Adela’s deportation in 1917 than simply having risked losing her job over it.) Jean had ‘a forensic battle’ with Adela at her platform in the Sydney Domain; the journalist Miriam Soljak recalled the ‘famous victory’ when ‘the New Zealander completely "floored" the Englishwoman in a debate on the rights of the workers.’
Attempts to demobilise working class resistance to continuing employer attacks went by the euphemistic name of industrial peace. The Women’s Guild of Empire aimed ‘to end the industrial and class strife and restore industry to a basis of co-operation.’ The Communist Party resisted this through organising in workplaces, and through its ‘fronts’. One of these, the Militant Women’s Group, targeted the Guild from its inception, and followed Walsh around Sydney and Cessnock to disrupt her meetings. They were still doing this in 1934, when the ‘Communist women’ led by Jean invaded a Guild tea party at Miller’s Point in Sydney. The Secretary reported that, while it was `a most unpleasant afternoon’:
We all felt pleased to belong to the Guild when we listened to Mrs Walsh quietly answering the avalanche of questions while honestly trying to help these people.’
Other apparently respectable Right organisations included the All For Australia League, launched in 1931. In the Federal election at the end of that year, one candidate in Newcastle gained 11 per cent of the vote on a platform that promised `to keep Australia white, to preserve our British tradition ... to defend the Christian faith against the representatives of godless sovietism.’ The New Guard would `parade in old military uniforms, many carrying rifles’; the White Army in Victoria was rather more discreet. Mick Ryan was one of the organisers of the Workers’ Defence Corps which resisted their physical intimidation of the Left.
Amid repeated physical confrontations with the employers and the Right, the CPA leaders were divided over how far to encourage the widespread spontaneous militancy, as well as over the degree to which its own members should hurl themselves into strife and repeatedly end up in police cells. Depression conditions produced rising anger and huge demonstrations. Typical was a march of unemployed women on Parliament on 14 November 1930, of which Pat wrote later:
The "indignity" of fighting in the streets with hair and skirts flying was as nothing to the women. The real indignity ... lay in having no place in the work force, the lack of independence ... being forced to allow dole inspectors to enter one’s dwelling any time they wished, being told to sell this, sell that, keep you waiting, insult you at the dole office.
It has often been remarked that on women’s demonstrations the police make a point of picking out any men there and arresting them. This one was no exception, and Mick Ryan was the first to go. The Workers’ Weekly report, characteristically headlined `Lang’s Labor Police Bash and Arrest Women’, gave an account of the arrests of Grace Peebles, Joy Barrington and Pat; Mary Lamm was also taken into custody, as well as her then husband.
After a great deal of difficulty Comrade Barrington was hoisted into the waiting police car. Immediately she jumped out at the other side, Comrade Peebles following her, but she was caught by the leg by a policeman, Com. Barrington pulling the other way, and it took a considerable amount of energy and effort on the part of the police before these two comrades were secured in the car.
One woman, greatly incensed at the treatment meted out to comrade Devanny who was gamely trying to hold her own with two detectives, commenced thumping the police with her umbrella, calling out that she had never seen anything like it, and it was a disgrace to see such brutality.
Comrade Lamm, who was protesting and endeavouring to get out of the car to the aid of the struggling women, calling out that they could kill him but not the women, was knocked down into the car.
Pat was by no means the only one ‘gamely trying to hold her own’ in this demonstration:
Some kept marching and tried to break through the cordon, others laid down across the tram lines causing a hold up of traffic as far back as past the Central Railway Station ... women fought hand to hand with police. Umbrellas, handbags, rolled up newspapers, feet, finger nails, all were weapons in the battle.
At the beginning of December 1930, Jean, her husband, and her son, were all charged with the comparatively respectable offence of engaging in an illegal procession, arising out of another march of unemployed workers. Jean conducted her own defence. According to her autobiography, when sentenced she turned to the press table and said: `You all know that I am a writer. I am taking the four days ... because I am here on a trumped up charge. When I come out of jail I shall join the Communist Party.’ Karl and Hal also received short sentences. Then Pat was convicted on 5 December of taking part in an unlawful procession and assaulting police, and given eight days in Long Bay where her education progressed fast.
She was held in a cell with thieves and prostitutes as well as fellow demonstrators and noticed that written on the cell wall were the words: "All policemen are cunts."... The only context in which my daughter had heard this word before was to describe a measure by weight of wool. A cunt of wool, as I remember it, is an eight pound measure. Wondering why a policeman could be insulted by being compared to wool, she spoke the words out loud. She was astonished to get a rough dig in the ribs from Joy.
Four other women besides Jean and Pat were there for political offences. Jean noted that her whole family being in jail at the same time was `reckoned a record for the revolutionary Labour movement.’
Marion Piddington was one of the women who had welcomed Jean in her early days in Sydney. When Jean came out of jail she urged her not to join the Party, warning her: `You are not tough enough for them. They will break you.’ Such a move, she suggested, would be the end of Jean’s career as a writer. `These novels you’ve written mean nothing’, she urged, `they are only practice for the serious work you could do.’ Marion even offered Jean her cottage in the Blue Mountains to live in. But despite Jean’s commitment to the importance of literature -- asserted for example in her 1930 article that compared `true literary thought’ to `pillars of fire guarding and guiding the line of humanity’s progress’ --she didn’t opt, as did Marion’s niece, Eleanor Dark, for a writer’s life in the country.
* * * *
Jean had been made national secretary of the Party’s newly formed `front’, Workers’ International Relief and, in 1932, visited Melbourne to build up its branches and engage in a speaking tour. At the Victorian Congress of WIR, she pointed out its ‘very marked difference’ from `the bourgeoisie organisations which distribute relief on the basis of keeping the workers quiet.’ Jean was under constant surveillance by the police, both uniformed and secret, as evidenced by surviving files. Inspector Browne (of the non-uniformed section) forwarded transcripts of four talks she did there to Canberra. By the third, on 21 April, dealing with `Morals and Marriage in the Soviet Union’, she seems to have charmed even him:
The lecturer gave a very interesting account of her subject in a very skilful and pleasing manner ... the audience included many women not usually attracted to a lecture under Communist auspices.
Browne’s report mentions that the `hall was overfilled with an interested audience, many women of a better type being present.’ Jean informed these ladies:
Communists particularly are expected to show the way in their moral and orderly sex life. Woman is no longer a chattel, a slave of the slave. She is now the comrade, the mother of the future race.
At Jean’s fourth talk, Mrs Butler of the Women’s Section welcomed ‘every kindly feeling woman.... there was nothing in the tenets or the activities of the WIR which could in any way jar the susceptibilities of any person ... the WIR was entirely without dogma. As to women of the working class ... every one of them should belong to it. It was in fact a sacred duty.’ As Jean’s meetings continued, `the women began to bring along floral tributes; some nights I finished surrounded like a prima donna with flowers’, she recalled. Less amicable and appreciative were some Party members. Jean clashed with Dinny Lovegrove, the Victorian Secretary, who demanded to vet her speaker’s notes, saying: ‘Christ only knows what tripe you will spill.’ He called her a ‘bloody petty-bourgeois scribbler.’ Before her third talk, Jean recalled: ‘The hall was packed, with hundreds standing. I was due to go out on the platform when this fellow rushed into the anteroom and started to abuse me. He reduced me to tears.’ Though he later congratulated her on her speech, this animosity was not an isolated instance.
Towards the end of her time in Melbourne, Jean woke up one morning unable to see. ‘The air was midnight dark. Not knowing then that acute nerve-strain could cause temporary loss of vision’, she `lay on in bed, shivering with fear, and gradually my sight returned.’ By 15 April she reported having `reached the stage of being compelled to dose myself with aspros to get any sleep at all. I have a meeting every night till May 1st, and some during the day.’ For cadre to drive themselves in this way, especially at this period, was not unusual. Jean did not intend to change her plans for proceeding on to Adelaide; she had also been invited to Perth by Katharine Susannah Prichard. But on 23 April, a curt letter from the Party leaders in Sydney informed her that she was ‘not only physically unfit for work, but also in a mental condition which makes it impossible for us to allow you to continue work away from Sydney’, and should cancel all remaining arrangements on the grounds of ill-health.
Then events occurred in Melbourne which further complicated the cancellation of Jean’s visit to Adelaide. On May Day 1932, the Communist Party and Unemployed Workers’ Movement clashed with the reformists of the Labor Party and Trades Hall that they dubbed the ‘social fascists’. The two groups marched separately and the Communists and their supporters lay in wait at the Yarra Bank for the second march to arrive and set up a platform. At this point, according to the Age, the scene took on ‘a decidedly ugly aspect, and looked like developing into a general riot.’ Riley, president of the Trades Hall Council, was chairing speakers, including the Acting Premier Tunnecliffe, on the back of a truck when a man `who appeared to be one of the main leaders of the Communistic faction’ jumped up on it and began to speak. When Riley tried to shout him down, `a young woman, wearing a bright red jersey, clambered on to the lorry shouting, "You dirty rotter, Riley─get off the lorry!" She attempted to push him from the platform but was seized by a labour representative.’ Another Communist supporter mounted the platform and called for cheers for the CPA, `which were loudly given’, and he was followed onto the lorry by others: `one being a woman who arrived recently in Australia from Germany and Russia ... stated to be an emissary on behalf of the Workers’ International Relief.... Her presence on the platform was the signal for an attempt to take entire charge of the meeting.’
Endeavouring to remedy matters, the driver of the lorry set off with the politicians and officials aboard, and `men and women still jostling and fighting on it’; ‘hundreds of Communist supporters followed’, until the respectable part of its cargo was finally rescued by the police and loaded safely aboard a tram. Despite the disgruntlement of the Adelaide comrades who read about all this just after they had been officially informed that she was ill, Jean’s visit to Adelaide was deferred in the end.
These ‘incidents of storm and stress’ increasingly began to be a feature of Jean’s relationship with J.B. and the Party, Jean pressed on with all her activities.
I felt fraternal love for all the comrades, even for those who "used" me, and if there was dislike for me in any quarter I remained unconscious of it. There was, ever, with me a sense of great things being done, of shared greatness with great men, a feeling that one was an instrument of’high destiny.
Prichard had been following Jean’s political career from Perth, and wrote to Winifred Hamilton in November 1932: ‘Jean Devanny is wonderful. No-one I know so vital, magnetic, absolutely devoted and dis-interested. She is a good woman, really! I wish I could give all my time to Party work as she does.’
Jean was, as mentioned, frequently subjected to police harassment and arrest. Nonetheless, in many clashes with the forces of the state it was possible to retain a sense of their irony. Kay Brown recalled the wit of Jean’s platform style: ‘always humorous, and good repartee.’ Edna Ryan remembered this also: ‘One thing that saved Jean was her good humour. She wasn’t easily rolled over or upset.’ Jean wrote later: ‘The relationship between some representatives of the law and we political offenders seems now rather comic.’ In the early 1930s, many of the Party leaders were ‘in smoke’; Stephens talked of their being ‘underground in a rather Gilbertian sort of way’, as ‘fond of playing Lenin in Finland.’ The artist Roy Dalgarno remembered confrontations in Cairns with annoying and obtrusive men in plain clothes, who would snidely enquire, following his separation from his wife: ‘How’s Nadine?’ Another Party member called Jack, canvassing door-to-door years later, met one of his former associates (earlier suspected of being a spy) in his police uniform. ‘Jack said, "Well now, how could you?" "Oh, simple", he said. "By doing what I did, I was mixing with people like you and Mick Ryan instead of bloody drunks and prostitutes and perverts."‘
The Commonwealth Crimes Act had been used by the state against the Left in general, and the CPA since its 1920 founding, as well as to prevent the importation and distribution of radical publications. By 1926 some hundred titles had been banned for advocating the overthrow of the government by force or violence, producing a ‘distinct dearth of Marxist and Leninist texts.’ In May 1932, the Act was expanded to allow the Attorney-General to ‘call upon any bodies of persons’ to show cause why they should not be declared unlawful associations. If they were, their records and assets would be confiscated, and members not born in Australia deported. Hal Devanny, who was publisher of the Workers’ Weekly, was the first to be tried under the notorious Part IIA of the Act, on 24 October, and tortuous processes of conviction and appeal followed.
In 1933, the selling of seditious literature in the Domain was declared illegal. As a result of the ensuing campaign (‘I can see her now, kicking a couple of detectives in the face when they tried to drag her off the stump’, Stephens recalled), Jean spent another four days in gaol, this time with hard labour. Conditions were bad, but ‘the attitude of the warders to political prisoners had in some cases shifted.’ Jean found discussion with the other inmates ‘an eye-opener to the stupidity and uselessness of a retributive system of dealing with anti-social elements.’ She reports one conversation with a sex worker.
"But why do you do it?" I asked. "If I can live on the dole, you can." "But how do you live?" she flashed back. "I don’t get jugged very often, and when I’m out I can keep my husband and children decently."
The Domain remained both shop front and front line for the Party; the demonstrations that gave rise to the stirring song `Comrade Good and True’ were in 1934.
The workers in great numbers gather’d on that afternoon
To pledge their right for freedom and for liberty of speech
The right to educate our class, class interest best to teach
Our comrade Jean De Vanney [sic.] was for plutocrat of course
Maul’d manhandled by some brutal members of the force.
The rally for freedom of speech on Sunday 11 March had attracted a huge crowd. A police charge eventuated; the platform was overturned and speakers dragged down and arrested. The Movement Against War and Fascism’s magazine, reported the ‘treatment meted out to women victims of this terrorist onslaught.’
Mrs Moroney, who went to the assistance of Mrs Devanny who was being harassed, received a blow on the head from a policeman’s handcuffs, splitting her skull, which was followed by a savage punch in the eye ... although she was in a condition of collapse she was detained at the Central Police Station until 11.30 p.m.
As well as for free speech the Party agitated, perhaps with rather less enthusiasm, for birth control. Jean had been doing work with Marion Piddington who delegated her ‘to take her place at lecturing on birth control to audiences of women, and at interviews with victims of neurosis.’ Marion in the early 1930s set up the first Australian birth control clinic, in Sydney. In mainstream medicine at this time there was hostility to contraception and little had changed a decade later when a medical student at Sydney University reported: `The great man who was scheduled to lecture us was single, elderly and Catholic. He strode up to the rostrum ... [and] said in a very portentous voice, "Today the subject is contraception. I don’t believe in it. We will now proceed with the next topic".’ In 1933, at St John’s College at Sydney University, students were warned that ‘the policy euphemistically known as birth control’ would cause ‘race suicide’ and have ‘dangerous consequences for mental and physical health.’ The Racial Hygiene Association’s clinic had opened in Martin Place in Sydney in December 1933, but services were available only to those suffering from ‘hereditary diseases, mental deficiency or economic hardship.’ The latter criterion notwithstanding, a ‘nominal fee’ of five shillings was charged for a visit. Jean criticised this and called for the setting up of free clinics throughout Australia, and for changes to the law to bring the situation closer to that in the Soviet Union, `where every facility exists for happy and safe motherhood.’
Here, due to the terrible pressure of the economic crisis, depriving the young of the chance of marriage, and the married of the means for family life, abortion is practised widely, and under all the dreadful conditions inseparable from illegality.
Jean does not mention it in her autobiographical writing, but Pat comments, assuming the persona of Jean, on how her mother was a contact point for women who needed a termination.
It is amazing how word gets around as to who can help. My daughter told me later she always associated the phrase, "Oh, that’s awkward, isn’t it", with pregnancy. This is because I was often not home when a woman needing help called. And Pat swears she never missed identifying the reason for the caller’s presence because they invariably used this phrase.
This account continues: `I had nothing to do with the actual treatment but passed the women to a competent and qualified person. The best abortionist I knew never got caught because he had helped so many wives and girlfriends of policemen and detectives that he was always "tipped off" in time to cover his tracks.’
* * * *
With all these demands on her for public and private welfare work, as well as for agitation and propaganda, Jean found it hard to get any writing done. She was still sending novels to Duckworth her London publisher (and had managed to complete one, Poor Swine, on the boat to Berlin and Russia). She nonetheless now produced two more, The Ghost Wife, and The Virtuous Courtesan; while she dismissed them as `light’, the latter is radically innovative for its time in having a number of homosexual and lesbian characters. `Though I had ceased to regard fiction writing as of any importance, there was still the necessity to earn some money’, was the justification Jean used for engaging in literary production. `Serious writing was quite impossible. I was kept constantly on platform and soapbox’, she remembered -- but Brown recalled the strategy Jean employed to get writing done, enlisting her as an accomplice:
She’d get two large packets of cigarettes and take a room at the Cross and give no-one her address. And I’d take along food -- that was always important.
Egon Kisch’s arrival in Australia in late 1934 gave another direction to Jean’s literary development, since his writing came under the Party’s rubric of propaganda. Many colourful stories surrounded him. Len Fox later wrote: ‘On one occasion, Katharine stayed with Kisch in his cabin to keep guard against a possible attempt to shanghai him onto a German gunboat which was lying near the Strathaird so that he could be taken to a Nazi concentration camp.’ Kisch eventually jumped onto land, breaking his leg; this contact with Australian soil resulted in his being able to stay for four months, until early March 1935. At a rally in the Sydney Domain on Sunday 18 November, attended by 15 000 people, Jean made a stirring speech. Kisch told the assembled masses that many Communist leaders (including some Jean had met in Berlin) had been killed by the fascist regime, and called for: ‘the shut fist of an irrevocable determination to fight against the forces of Fascism in Australia.’ Kisch seems to have been a man of strong emotions. Jean reported that he wept on the platform: ‘The tears ran down his face unheeded; he held my hand so tightly that it hurt.’ The rally ended spectacularly; a call to form a bodyguard for Kisch was ‘responded to by thousands of men and women marching alongside, cheering, shouting, singing the "International" again and again.’
The next novel Jean would write, Sugar Heaven advanced, she would later claim, ‘far beyond the new vogue in creative writing at that time: the creative reporting (reportage, it was called) invented by Egon Kisch.’ Reportage was defined as ‘a report plus atmosphere, description, comment and deduction -- all with the thread of accurate fact running through it.... The best reportage is propaganda, and plus all these aspects it strives for artistic quality.’ The origins of the Kisch model were somewhat lurid. Before the First World War, he had made a speciality of first-hand accounts of the lives of sex workers and was apparently dubbed in Europe at that time ‘the rampaging reporter.’ When he sailed away from Fremantle on 11 March 1935, he left behind, one young comrade reported, ‘a reputation as a Don Juan, which at the time shocked me considerably. The romantic puritan in me believed that professional revolutionaries were above all that.’
Jean had also found companionship, and encouragement for her writing with Prichard, while both were in Sydney. ‘We had some grand talks together, Kathie and I, in her Kings Cross flat.... I admired Kathie even more than I loved her, for the strength of mind she brought to bear upon the right of the Communist writer to put writing above all other Party work. She was so sure of herself, and of the high standing of the writer’s craft.’ It would, nonetheless, be quite a few more years before the Party leaders would consider literary production a valuable activity.
* * * *
Jean spent much of 1934 and 1935 in Queensland on a speaking tour for MAWF. One of the Party stalwarts in the North recalled Jean in Herberton in 1934. She had set up a soapbox in the main street and was successfully diverting the populace from their habitual Saturday night entertainment at Bill’s cinema.
Anyrate, she spoke till the pictures were due to come in, and she kept on speaking, they get carried away with themselves and forget about it, so old Bill said: "Look, there’s nobody coming to the picture show, so free pictures for you blokes and tomorrow night I’ll put the lights on and advertise the meeting on the screen." We eventually were able to stop Jean and went to the pictures and the next night we had a very big meeting. She was a bloody marvellous speaker.
Jean also interacted with the upsurge of industrial strife in the sugar industry. She was involved in propaganda around the big strike in 1935 over Weil’s disease, with relief work (of which she had gained much experience in WIR), and the organisation of the strikers’ wives, especially in Women’s Progress Clubs. In Innisfail in September 1935, the relief committee for the strike included several women. They organised entertainments including `concerts, card parties, cricket, football, picnics, swimming, all forms of sport, debates, community singing, dancing, wheelbarrow races, etc.’ The first Women’s Progress Club was formed from these women; intended to be a vehicle for making contact with the wives of strikers, it in fact carried on a wide range of activities. In Tully, Jean met Eileen Quinn and the first meeting of the WPC there was held in Quinn’s invalid bedroom: `they were sitting all round the bed, on the duchess, and [Jean] spoke to the women there.’ Soon after this, when Quinn moved to Townsville, she became President of the WPC there -- like WIR, an ostensibly very popular front -- whose constitution stated: `The club shall be non-sectarian, non-party and neither religion or politics shall be discussed at its meetings.’ Nonetheless, with more than half of the members in the Party by then, `the activities of the group were often very political indeed’ -- though it is unlikely that the absence of discussion of religion was particularly controversial.
Jean, we can gather, was also interested in the situation of another group of women in Tully. An unpublished fragment contains this information:
On ... the Banyan creek bank, which runs between the railway station and the town, the prostitutes dwell in tiny iron huts. They use red blinds and have a red lantern hanging on the trees. Fifteen girls there now. Brickie told me they charged 7/6. Frightful business. One went in cold off the street. They undid a man’s trousers and examined him. Needs great lust to find pleasure in it. Sickened him, he said. One girl told him she took 150 men in one night between ten o’clock and four in the morning. They queue up outside sometimes, waiting their turn. Some men believed they needed it for health reasons, even if didn’t greatly desire it.
While in Tully, Jean also heard that more of her earlier fiction had been subjected to censorship when on 14 September the Comptroller General decreed The Virtuous Courtesan (which had been published in New York) a prohibited import, mainly because of its representation of sex work, along with ‘camp’ characters.
The Party also organised through a youth group. George Bordujenko recalled of Jean:
She was super sexy, Christ almighty, we had to bloody restrict her on more than one occasion because the younger generation in our circles in those days, they were little prim and propers, and we were trying to build up a youth organisation ... Jean was encouraging them about enjoying sex, they’ve only got one life to live ...
He was anxious to add, `Not that it worried me ... but Oh Christ, she was used to bloody Sydney and her territory and ...
Jean’s contribution to the struggles in the sugar, other than her agitational physical presence, was to write a novel: `Fact in the form of fiction, under the title Sugar Heaven.’ This had already been under way when Jean stayed with Kay Brown in Mount Isa; the latter recalled that Jean was then `in the middle of a book ... set in the Queensland sugar country ... the plot telling just how short of heavenly the characters’ daily experiences really were.’ Jean had been there for a week when she was summoned back to the North, and Brown was dismayed at the interruption to the writing which she had thought was going well. ‘"What about the Book?" I wailed. She said: "Oh my dear, book? This is people." Brown recalled resignedly: ‘And that was Jean.’ Much of the rest of the novel was written in Tully, where Jean would remain until mid-October.
Reactions from Jean’s contemporaries to Sugar Heaven when it came out in 1936 were mixed. Brown, with her rather jaundiced perspective, saw it as ‘just a record of events like a small-town newspaper.’ Jack Stephens considered that the book had ‘an extraordinary naïveté in it which becomes quite clear to anyone that’s been through it, that the strike wasn’t really over Weil’s disease at all, it was a struggle for the control of the Australian Workers Union and when of course it wasn’t succeeding, the Party told them all to go back to work and die of Weil’s disease and work for the control of the AWU.’ Jean later reported with gratification: Letters came to me from workers scattered nationwide, acquainting me with discussions held round it in the industries, on the track, on the farms and stations.’ She would claim in 1942 that Sugar Heaven was ‘the first really proletarian novel in Australia.’ Prichard was more inclined to give that honour to Upsurge.
Apart from celebrating industrial militancy, Sugar Heaven also sets out to combat prejudice towards Migrants. Jean had encountered this even amongst the Left. One Party member said to Jean, in relation to Sugar Heaven: ‘"You made a big mistake putting in that love affair between the Italian and the Australian woman.... No Australian woman would have an affair with an Italian."‘ Jean’s later rejoinder was: ‘I could have told him that the prototype of the woman in the book was his own wife!’ The Aboriginal woman, Louise West, who joined the Party in 1942, notes that the term ‘chauvinism’ was used then collectively for what would now be called racism and ethnocentrism. The north Queensland comrades, Jean observed, ‘while making common cause on economic issues, yet refused to accept "niggers" and "dagoes" as equals on personal and social grounds’, their ‘backwardness ... outside direct industrial struggle’, was 'expressed most clearly in that they were subservient in scarcely less degree than the general population to the national characteristic of chauvinism.’
The term nigger was freely used among them in relation to coloured persons. I was shocked and angered to find that the leading comrade of Innisfail, in love with a Chinese girl, would not be seen with her in public. It was actually said to me in argument: "How would you like your daughter to go about with a Chinaman!"
(Pat was in fact mixing a great deal with young Chinese in Sydney in the course of her work for the EYL.)
The ‘dagoes’ were divided in their political sympathies. Among the Italians who formed the largest group of non-Anglo Migrants in north Queensland, `their origins and politics varied, but a significant number emigrated during the early 1920s to escape the growing power of Mussolini.’ In 1930, a British Preference League had been set up to favour Anglo-Australians in employment. The Foreign Cutters’ Defence League, formed in response, was led by Italians, and involvement in the League provided contact for the Communist Party with the Migrant communities. There were also groups of Fascist sympathisers; ‘the Innisfail Fascio opened in 1929, and sporadic Black Shirt rallies were held in the district throughout the following decade.’ In many cases the Catholic church provided comfort. Jean’s only (surviving) play, Paradise Flow, depicts the involvement of many Migrant cane cutters with the Party (as well as a romance between an `Australian’ and a Yugoslav Migrant.
Jean returned to Sydney a few days before Christmas 1935. She finished Sugar Heaven, and ‘handed it in to the Party for consideration.’ J.B., she reported, ‘liked the political aspects of the book so much that, for once, he withheld criticism of my handling of the sex question.’ The sex question was, however, quite an issue for the Party in the mid-1930s. Although parts of Kollontai’s Communism and the Family had been run in Working Woman in 1932, in the Communist Review in 1935 what was being foregrounded was Klara Zetkin’s supposed interview with Lenin in which he rejected the ‘glass of water theory’ (ie. that sex should be as uncomplicated a satisfying of needs as quenching one’s thirst). The Party leaders had drawn the attention of ‘All Districts’ to the publication of the article in the same month, and particularly to the injunction: ‘Will the normal man in normal circumstances lie down in the gutter and drink out of a puddle, or out of a glass with a rim greasy from many lips?’
In relation to Sugar Heaven, Kath Olive would recall:
the main criticisms raised in Party circles were not of its literary worth, or even of its political accuracy, but of the presentation of the sexual exploits of some of the male characters who, it was felt, were fairly recognisable as well-known north Queensland personalities.
Jack Beasley recalled being told of the reaction of Jack Henry, the Party leader in north Queensland, to Sugar Heaven: ‘He stamped up and down the office, "Look at this bloody stuff", because really she had shocked him.’ Modern Publishers, Jean heard, would however produce it if she could raise the money for printing, and she managed to borrow it.
* * * *
As the 1930s progressed, Jean still retained her ability to captivate audiences. Kay Brown reminisced:
on the stage, she had the quality that in the green room crowd we would call "gets over the footlights"; it would now be called charisma. I could have seen her in a lot of theatrical parts, but that wasn’t her lean.’
In January 1934, Franklin had championed Devanny’s and Prichard’s platform activities against those who sneered at them for mixing with `that grubby scum of Domain orators’─though in her distinctive anarchic mode that refused both the seriousness of the Party and petty bourgeois censoriousness. After a public meeting at which Prichard had spoken on Russia, Franklin wrote: ‘KSP’s personality and appearance are so satisfactory that they save her speaking from the aridity of her writing.’ Arthur Howells preferred Prichard’s style: ‘Unlike Jean Devanny, she possessed an old world charm and a certain disarming gentleness which reminded me of lavender and old lace. As a public speaker she had a natural stage presence that was both elegant and sincere. She could have been a great actress.’ But Simon Bracegirdle remembered of Jean: ‘She dominated the scene, I don’t mean in an unpleasant or bureaucratic manner, she was the dominant personality there, always, even if she wasn’t the main speaker, even if she was only chairing for the main speaker, her personality would tend to dominate, very, very much.’
Jean maintained a fervent commitment to actively striving for socialism against the forces of barbarism which had vastly improved their position in Europe, throughout this period. She urged readers of the Workers’ Weekly in January 1936:
Readers of this page! Don’t put yourselves on side with the enemy by being "neutral." Don’t think being "tired" and trusting in others will exonerate you from the duty of being present. ... Dreams must be made concrete; the poetry of theory must be wrought into the iron of practice.
At a Fellowship of Australian Writers dinner in Melbourne in January 1937, Vance Palmer was on the platform along with Prichard -- and Jean who, Hugh McCrae told Nettie Palmer, had lost none of her oratorical powers. He ‘became suddenly breathless’ when she spoke.
Words at express speed shrilly driven, a tongue like an axe in a woodchopping contest. She never minded how the chips flew, so long as she penetrated to the heart and brain. Drilled with words I went to bed seeing the unearthly face -- white, patched with red -- the close helmet of black hair. A devil’s spirit on the right side. A lantern, a spear, a tocsin, tearing the night.
For a printed copy of this article including the endnotes, send a $5 note to Carole Ferrier, English Department, The University of Queensland, Brisbane Q4072.
Related works by Carole Ferrier
Jean Devanny: Romantic Revolutionary. Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1999. The first biography.
Edited with Rebecca Pelan, The Point of Change: Marxism/Australia/History/Theory, St Lucia, Australian Studies Centre, 1998. ( $20 inc postage) .
(Edited), A Janet Frame Reader, London, Women's Press, 1995.
(Edited), As Good as a Yarn With You: Letters between Miles Franklin, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Jean Devanny, Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw and Eleanor Dark. Sydney, Cambridge University Press, 1992.
(Edited), Gender, Politics and Fiction: 20th Century Australian Women’ Novels. St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1992. ($17 inc postage).
Editor since 1975, Hecate: A Women's Interdisciplinary Journal. (Sample copy $5)
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