Saturday, April 12, 2008

Jean Devanny & sexual liberation

In my last post I wrote about the life of Jean Devanny. She was a communist writer and activist from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Devanny believed ardently in her politics, but wasn't able to live consistently by her views. This is especially true when it comes to the issue of sexual morality.

You would expect Devanny, as a radical, to promote the modernist view of sexual morality, in which marriage and traditional forms of sexual morality are thought to be oppressive limitations on the individual and artificial barriers to "free love".

In some respects Devanny did follow the modernist line. She had married a fellow political activist but pursued affairs with an array of other men, including the married leader of the party in the 1930s and 40s, J.B. Miles. Devanny wrote proudly of Miles that,

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.

Edna Ryan, a fellow communist, spoke of "very enlightened" members of the party in the 1920s in these terms:

Higgins was sexually liberated and so was his wife Joy, and they led separate lives ... Higgins and Kavanagh said, when the revolution comes almost every housewife will leave her husband, will leave home.

According to Edna Ryan, Devanny went further in promoting the cause:

Looking back in 1983, Ryan identified the 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."

Devanny also pushed the idea of sexual liberation in her novels and short stories. She often chose transgressive themes; one story featured a relationship between a priest and a prostitute. As a result, her works were often criticised for their crudity:

Certain terms recur in the reviews .... an emphasis on "the raw", the "brutal" and "the unpleasant" ... "crude and raw at times" (p.40)

"crude slabs of distasteful sex stuff" (p.37)

"a great deal of unnecessary crudity" (p.292)

Devanny wasn't alone in pursuing the transgressive. One of the heroes of Australian communism in the 1930s was Egon Kisch, a Czech communist who literally jumped off a ship to gain residence in Australia. He broke his leg and was visited by Howard Daniel in hospital:

He took off his pyjama top and exposed his torso. In addition to the tattooed dagger, his right shoulder carried the tattoo of a viper gliding down towards his belly. On the outside of his right arm was the figure of a dancing negro. The inside of his left forearm bore the image of a kind of Fu Manchu head, the left temple pierced by a knife. The girl's head which I had already noticed belonged to a classic whore figure who was lifting her skirt to expose herself.

Kisch became a star speaker for the Australian communists; he and Devanny spoke to 15,000 people at one rally:

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.'

This, though, is only one side of the story. In reality it wasn't so easy to cast aside sexual morality. The party found it necessary to set at least some limits on sexual behaviour: Devanny was expelled in 1941 for "sexual indiscretion" and another writer, Dorothy Hewett, was hauled before a party committee, "in considerable moral trouble", for having deserted her husband and children to live with another man.

Even Devanny wasn't consistent. She criticised Dymphna Cusack's novel Southern Steel for containing "great gobbets of crude sex" and Dorothy Hewett's novel Bobbin Up for its "crude sexiness" which "shocked and disgusted" its working-class readers.

Nor did Devanny's abandonment of her marriage in pursuit of affairs work out for her. She writes of an encounter with her husband Hal in 1940:

As he stood beside the carriage window, a wave of regret for the disunity between us swept over me. I fell to weeping.

By 1949 she was ready to make a plea to Hal:

I proposed then that he ... spend the rest of his life making a home for me. And without much hesitation, to my amazement, he agreed ... We were back now to where we started ... I found myself singing occasionally. I would stand at the front gate of an evening, watching for him to come home from work.

So in her own personal life, Devanny chose to return to something quite traditional.

It is difficult to convey in a post like this the inconsistent attitude to sexual morality amongst the communists during this period of time; reading Devanny's biography you find every chapter riddled with contradictory views. Theory and practice were never successfully brought together.


  1. So to summarise: When she was adolescent and horny, she had her ideology fit whatever allowed her to sleep around.

    Then, as she aged and her hormones quietened, she became more critical of such and wanted to settle down.

    Leftist values are nearly always pretty much what suits them at the time.

  2. Wikipedia has other interesting details on the origins of Kisch. Came as no surprise to me.

  3. Another fascinating post. I don't often comment but I love your blog.

  4. Jennifer, thanks for the comment and for the links. Much appreciated.