Thursday, 10 December 2015

Special Collections Fossickings 49: Discovering Jean Devanny

In 1969 Ron Store, then a young graduate library assistant, suggested to the University College Librarian that the library should be acquiring a collection of regional literature, whether written about North Queensland, or by North Queenslanders, or indeed both. Receiving approval, and a small budget, Ron began enthusiastically seeking out the material. As well as historical and travel books, and those describing life in the north, Ron had a particular interest in North Queensland fiction. Taking as his guide contemporary works on Australian literature, especially Cecil Hadgraft’s study, “Queensland and its writers”, he soon identified some of the key titles to be acquired, among them those of Jean Devanny.
Ms Jennifer Tompkins (Special Collections Volunteer) working with the Jean Devanny Archive. Note that the books by Jean Devanny in the picture are from the North Queensland Collection.
Knowing nothing about Devanny at the start of his search, Ron quickly recognised her importance as a political and literary figure. He soon discovered that Devanny, a prominent Communist Party activist for much of her life, had not only travelled widely in the north and set three of her novels here, but had spent the last twelve years of her life in Townsville. Even more enticing was the news, gleaned from then City Librarian, Helen Mays, that Jean’s daughter and son-in-law, Patricia and Ronald Hurd, still lived in what had been Jean’s last home in Castling Street, West End. Finding their address in the phone book, Ron arranged a visit. It must have been quite a moment when he was first shown Jean’s large collection of papers stored in cardboard boxes in the humble cottage, which still stands today.  Patricia would have been well aware of the significance of her mother’s documents and her decision to place them in the safe custody of the fledgling University College Library ensured their preservation. Although containing manuscripts of published and unpublished fiction, this acquisition was not just a literary coup. JCU’s history professor at the time, Brian Dalton, was among those who recognized its historical and political value.
Townsville Bulletin, 21st November 1969
The handover of this treasure trove from the Devanny/Hurd family to the library took place more than 45 years ago and from that day to the present the archive has been used by researchers across Australia, as well as from New Zealand (her country of birth) and the US. The importance of the archive to Devanny’s biographer, Carole Ferrier, cannot be over-estimated and was acknowledged by the decision of both author and publisher to launch “Jean Devanny: Romantic Revolutionary” in our library. 

Our next post will take a look at the Devanny archive itself.  In the words of former University librarian, John McKinlay, the archive contains “probably the most important collection of manuscripts held at this library.”

Story by Miniata

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