Monday, 9 May 2016

Portraits and Personalities of Townsville: The Revolutionary Jean Devanny

Jean Devanny used north Queensland as the settting for
novels such as Sugar Heaven, as well as travel memoirs
Jane (Jean) Devanny’s work, By Tropic Sea and Jungle: Adventures in North Queensland, was described by fellow writer Katharine Susannah Prichard as being “like one of those gorgeous butterflies which drift down from North Queensland.” It seems hardly possible that such vivid yet gentle beauty could have come from the pen of someone who was alternately described as 'fiery', 'agitational’, ‘temerarious' and ‘cocksure’!

Yet it did. Jean was born in New Zealand in 1894 but died in Townsville, in tropical north Queensland, in 1962. She had been drawn there by what she described as a “recurrent yearning”. In the last two decades of her life she documented north Queensland in books and articles written as she wandered as “fancy” took her. These works – rich with “well-drawn” characters, voluptuously vivid, care-free, ribald and evocative descriptions – transport the reader from “limitless expanses of sugarcane” to “rangey jungle-clad mountains” to visions of sunshine that “lay like a bridal veil of gold on land and sea.” They are not devoid, though, of her customary critical and acerbic comment, or lacking political observation or instructive purpose.

She was a friend and correspondent
of many prominent female Australian authors
of the early-mid 20th century
Her interludes in a tropical paradise, however, are not what Jean Devanny is particularly remembered for and those non fictional works are actually out of print. What she is most remembered for, rather, is her friendships with the likes of Miles Franklin and Marjorie Barnard, her activity in the labour movement, her membership of and then expulsion from the Communist Party (for “political degeneracy”), and her authorship of novels which were considered explicit and scandalous in their time, such as Sugar Heaven and The Butcher Shop.

The Special Collections of James Cook University has extensive archival holdings of material pertaining to Jean Devanny including manuscripts, personal papers and letters.


Devanny, Jean. Papers. James Cook University Special Collections.

Prichard, Katharine Susannah. 1944. “Foreword.” In By Tropic Sea and Jungle: Adventures in North Queensland, written by Jean Devanny, vii-viii. Sydney, Australia: Angus and Robertson.

Store, Ron. 1981. “Devanny, Jane (Jean) (1894-1962).” In Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra, Australia: Australian National University.

Bianka Vidonja Balanzategui 
JCU PhD History Candidate

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