by Zora Simic, Altitude, Volume 1, Article 4, 2001.
After Dorothy Hewett joins the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), she does not write fiction for a decade. When Jean Devanny is in the middle of a book, she abandons the project to help out with a strike effort. Both women are called before the Communist hierarchy to account for their sexual behaviour. When Hewett writes a successful book in the Party sanctioned socialist realist style, Bobbin’ Up, some male Communists maintain that it is written by her lover�even though it is based on her own experience of working in a textile factory (Wild Card 257). Devanny eventually resigns from the Party, after two dubious expulsions and over controversy surrounding her novel Cindie. Initially, the CPA refuses to review it in the Party publication, and when they finally do, the review is littered with personal insults and inaccurate quotations. The Party objects to her depiction of Kanakas, which are based on her own experiences of the sugar industry in Northern Queensland, and, looking back, Devanny reflects that ‘the book is rejected because it featured historical truth; what they wanted is a spurious Uncle Tom’s Cabin�’ (Point of Departure 306).
The autobiographies of Jean Devanny (Point of Departure 1986) and Dorothy Hewett (Wild Card 1991) offer invaluable insights into the specific experience of being a creative woman in the increasingly rigid CPA, suggesting that it is an experience fraught with issues of sex, class, creativity and trust. Together, Devanny and Hewett represent over thirty years of the female Communist experience, starting out from the earlier optimism of the late 1920s (when Devanny joins the Party), ranging through the Stalinist years, finishing off with the breakdown in the Party after Stalin’s death in the mid 1950s and then the series of Eastern European invasions by Soviet Russia (when Hewett leaves the Party). More specifically, Devanny and Hewett can be used to illustrate the shifting position of women in the Party, and in particular that of the creative and sexually confident woman who is not easily accommodated into the idealist paradigm of the working class family current in the high Stalinist period. Both Devanny and Hewett present some of their experiences as typical of Communist women, while others are clearly unique to their particular set of circumstances. It is this specificity that I seek to highlight in this consideration of Devanny and Hewett’s respective autobiographies. How is it that the specific experiences of Devanny and Hewett effect the possibilities of subjectivity in the creation of their autobiographical selves? How to compare and contrast the autobiographies according to time, space and discourse?
Dr Zora Simic is a lecturer in Australian History at the University of Melbourne.