Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Special Collections Fossickings 50: Treasures of the Devanny Archive.

Read our previous post, Discovering Jean Devanny before you enjoy this one.
Jean Devanny's cottage in Townsville. Photo Credit: Peter Simon
When you drive along Woolcock Street do you ever ponder the origins of the concrete-lined drain that runs between the road and the Townsville showgrounds? Can you imagine it as a winding mangrove creek, alive with birds, which at high tide almost invaded the gardens of cottages along its banks?  In one such cottage lived the remarkable Jean Devanny who, fearless in this as in so many other ways, swam regularly in the creek and rejoiced in its diverse life. And it was from here, as our previous post described, that the library acquired the assemblage of personal papers, manuscripts, articles and correspondence which constitute one of the most valued and most used archive in Special Collections.

The most extensive user of the Devanny archive must surely have been Carole Ferrier, editor of Jean’s previously unpublished autobiography, “ Points of Departure” (1986), and author of the definitive biography, “Jean Devanny: Romantic Revolutionary” (1999). Several drafts of the autobiography are among the manuscripts held in the archive, as is much of the material used by Ferrier in her research for the later work. It seems fair to say that, without the careful preservation of this archive, the story of Devanny’s turbulent and controversial life may never have been so fully, or so well told.
Books by and about Jean Devanny retrieved from the North Queensland Collection.
And what a life it was!  Correspondence with contemporary writers – Miles Franklin, Eleanor Dark and Mary Gilmore among them – along with passionate articles in defence of racial equality, sexual freedom and social justice speak of a character in whom the twin passions for literature and politics are fused.

More modestly, much interest also lies in material relating to her time in the tropics, particularly Cairns, the Tablelands and Townsville. It seems to have been here that her interest in natural history developed and flourished. Introduced to the Queensland Naturalists by her friend Dr Hugo Flecker (after whom the box jellyfish, Chironex fleckeri, was named) she became a contributor to their newsletters.  And among carefully saved natural history newspaper clippings we find Devanny’s own writings on everything from trees to butterflies and the strange behavior of crabs. Her long letter to the “Cairns Post” calling for rainforest protection and fire control appeared years before these became mainstream issues.

Two unpublished manuscripts are of particular interest. She firmly believed her last novel, the unpublished “You can’t have everything”, was her most important. Like her very successful “Sugar Heaven” (1936), it too featured the conflicts and characters of north Queensland’s sugar industry.  Changing tastes in fiction surely mean that any chance of publication for this work has long passed but its preservation in manuscript form means that it is not completely lost.
Jean Devanny (right) and friend on Magnetic Island, Jean Devanny Album, NQ Photographic Collection, NQID 13769
But for Townsville locals perhaps the most fascinating unpublished work is the descriptive account of  Magnetic Island where she lived for many months in the 1950s. While she also adapted much of this material for a romantic novel, it is the non-fiction work that is so captivating.  Jean’s knowledge of natural history and her delight in natural beauty, and her close observation and sense of kinship with the islanders who became her friends, would resonate strongly with anyone who remembers the island in simpler times. It is arguably one of the most engaging books ever written about our familiar “Maggie”.  Could there be an editor out there willing to bring this book into the public domain?


Story by Miniata

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