Jane Crook was born on 7 January 1894 in Ferntown, near Collingwood, Nelson, the eighth of ten children of Jane Appleyard and her husband, William Crook, a miner. A schoolteacher with whom Jane was friendly persuaded her to change her name to Jean. She attended school until she was 13, when she had to leave to care for her mother. In 1911 Jean met Francis Harold Devanny (usually known as Hal) at a dance in Puponga. Like her father, Hal Devanny was a miner and was deeply involved in union affairs. They were married the same year and their son, registered as Harold but always known as Karl (for Karl Marx), was born in 1912; Patricia was born in 1913 and Erin in 1915.
Jean and Hal Devanny were active in the miners' union and in Marxist study circles, which flourished in mining communities. An orderly routine enabled Jean to care for three small children, practise the piano and violin, participate in political activity, and read widely in socialist literature. Through their union and Marxist study activities, the Devannys came to know many of the leading labour activists of the period, including Bob Semple, Pat Hickey, Peter Fraser and Harry Holland.
When the mine at Puponga closed in 1917 the Devannys moved to a mining job in Fairfield, near Dunedin. In 1919 Hal joined Bob Semple's tunnelling gang in the Orongorongo Valley. While Hal was in Wellington, Erin contracted peritonitis and died. In her grief Jean turned away from the music that had provided her with intellectual stimulation; she never returned to it.
The family then joined Hal in Wellington. He was earning a good salary and the couple bought a boarding-house, but neither was a good manager of money: they saved nothing and made no profit. Jean joined the women's branch of the New Zealand Labour Party and was approached by Fraser, Holland and Walter Nash to become involved in party politics. But both Devannys found the Labour Party too far to the right, and were attracted to the Communist Party of New Zealand. Although Hal could not join because the party considered the co-operative tunnelling venture to be 'a boss's…outfit', both were active participants in party activities.
By the 1920s Jean Devanny had turned to writing. Her best-known work, The butcher shop, was published in London in 1926. Fifteen thousand copies were printed and sold, and the book was banned in New Zealand, Australia, some American states and Germany. Its banning in New Zealand was due to its supposed obscenity, and some considered 'its frank portrayal of farming conditions' to be 'detrimental to the Dominion's immigration policy'. Devanny later described the novel as 'a terribly confused and foolish book; its meagre merit sincerity, frankness and a certain power of phrasing.' At the core of the novel is Devanny's belief that women in marriage are the economic, social and sexual property of their husbands and will achieve independence only in a socialist state. Like most of her fiction, it suffers from rhetorical excesses, over-reliance on melodrama and inadequate characterisation, but its concentration on contemporary social conditions was then unusual in New Zealand fiction.
Between 1926 and 1929 Devanny published a book of short stories and three more novels: Lenore divine, Dawn beloved and Riven. Bushman Burke (1930) and Poor swine (1932), though set in New Zealand, were published after the Devannys' departure for Australia. All the novels examine the economic and sexual relationship between men and women in marriage, the centrality of motherhood to a woman's concept of herself, female sexuality and women's right to free expression of their own sexual feelings, and issues of left-wing politics.
The Devannys left for Australia in 1929 believing that a warmer climate would help Karl's weak heart. All the family immediately became involved in the activities of the Communist Party of Australia, which Jean joined in 1931. She became a prominent member, and a regular speaker at rallies and meetings in Sydney. The same year, the Devannys agreed to absolve each other of 'marital obligations', although they sometimes lived in the same house and supported each other financially when they could. Jean had a long-term relationship with J. B. Miles, the general secretary of the Communist Party.
Jean Devanny had a particular interest in the role of culture in the Communist Party, and she was involved in the establishment and running of a number of literary organisations. She helped to found the Writers' League (and was its first president in 1935), and became friends with prominent left-wing writers. She herself continued to write, and ten novels and four works of non-fiction were published between 1932 and 1951. Of these the most significant is Sugar heaven (1936), which focuses on the role of women in a strike in the sugar-cane fields of northern Queensland.
Jean Devanny was expelled from the Communist Party in 1941, ostensibly for moral degeneracy and disobeying an order; the exact circumstances remain unclear. She pressed for the right to put her side of the case and was readmitted in 1944 on the basis that the rights and wrongs of the case could not be established. She resigned in 1950 when the party leadership criticised her portrayal of race relations in her novel Cindie. The party had given her 'a warm, wonderful sense of "belonging" ' but now 'there had to be an end to my naivete'.
After her resignation, Jean Devanny moved to northern Queensland where she had earlier spent some time working for the Communist Party. She wrote several books and articles documenting the area. She and Hal were reconciled and settled in Townsville, where she died on 8 March 1962 of leukaemia, survived by her husband and daughter; Karl had died in 1934. Her autobiography, Point of departure, was published in 1986.
Jean Devanny lamented that the time spent working for the Communist Party prevented her fulfilling her potential as a writer. Yet the two were inextricably intertwined: writing was one way of advancing the cause of a communist revolution, and through communism the beliefs she espoused in her books would come to fruition. She became disillusioned about the possibility of her ideals being realised through a communist government, but she certainly had no more faith in the existing order. A 'vivid, valiant and temerarious' woman, Jean Devanny overcame many of the obstacles to women achieving independence, and through her writings sought the same end for others.