Jean Devanny

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We are familiar with considering at a national level whether our creative literature reflects a New Zealand ‘‘voice’’ or story, but less so at regional or local levels.

DevannyDevanny, Jean, 1920's (late) Photographer S. P. Andrew. University of Otago. Hocken Collection. http://hockensnapshop.ac.nz/nodes/view/31015
Click image to enlarge

However, a surprisingly large body of creative literature is set wholly or partly in the Golden Bay/ Mohua area, written by both local authors and by ‘outsiders’, telling stories that inform as well as entertain.

One of the most interesting early Golden Bay/Mohua writers is Jean Devanny, who was born Jane Crook (daughter of miner William and Jane Crook) in the coal-mining settlement of Ferntown, on the western banks of the Aorere River, in 1894.

The focus here is on her novel Dawn Beloved (1928), set mainly in Ferntown and in Puponga, where she met and soon married (1911) her miner husband Hal Devanny, before they moved in the 1920s to other parts of New Zealand and eventually to Australia, where she died in 1962.

Jean Devanny’s writing career was substantial, reflecting a lifelong commitment to socialism and feminism, though she is best known for her first novel The Butcher Shop (1926). It was banned for nearly 30 years in Australia and New Zealand for being ‘‘sordid, unwholesome and unclean’’.

Dawn Beloved, her fourth novel, opens in an instantly recognisable setting of Collingwood (‘‘Jamestown’’), Ferntown (‘‘Coal Creek’’), the Aorere (‘‘Shag’’) River and eventually Puponga (‘‘Paranga’’). Dawn is the thinly disguised author, who passes through childhood, school and community life before meeting her husband-to-be, ‘‘Valentine Devoy’’.

Devanny Dawn BelovedDevanny's Dawn Beloved.

Passionate love leads to life in a two-room mining settlement cottage as wife and young mother, interwoven with threads expressing social concerns about the lives of women and working men. It’s probably somewhat overwritten for current tastes, but true to time and place.

We know this from Devanny’s autobiography, Point of Departure (1986), referred to by scholars as having ‘‘particular merit, and belongs with New Zealand’s strong tradition of narratives of childhood’’.

Jean Devanny Romantic RevolutionaryJean Devanny's Romantic Revolutionary
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In a year which marks the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign, it is interesting to note that Devanny records the death of her brother Cecil Crook at Gallipoli and local tensions arising from conscription and the war.

While members of the Crook/Devanny families are mentioned in passing in several local histories, Dawn Beloved will always stand out as one of few works from the early 20th century with a clearly articulated voice representing women in New Zealand. Uniquely, it draws us into lives and tensions set in the Puponga mining community of a century ago, and a long-gone Ferntown settlement, making this novel a valuable resource in Golden Bay/Mohua heritage awareness.

The Golden Bay Museum copy of Dawn Beloved (pictured) is the only copy recorded outside research libraries in the main cities of New Zealand , and is part of a growing local heritage collection at the museum.

Other writers within this genre include Peter Hawes, Henriette Fleischer, Maurice Gee, Carol Dawber, D. Bradley, Peter Butler, Elizabeth Knox, Sue Clark, David Nelson, and Rachel McAlpine

This article was first published in the Nelson Mail, 18 April 2015

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Further sources - Jean Devanny

Books

  • Devanny, J (1986) Point of departure : the autobiography of Jean Devanny. St. Lucia ; New York : University of Queensland Press. 
    http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/13456514
  • Ferrier, C. (1992). As good as a yarn with you : letters between Miles Franklin, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Jean Devanny, Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw and Eleanor Dark. Oakleigh, Vic.: Cambridge University Press.
    http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/24065761
  • Ferrier, C. (1999). Jean Devanny : romantic revolutionary. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press
    http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/43761047

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