Oz Feb and #ReadIndies: Miles Franklin

Miles Franklin: My Brilliant Career, Virago Press, 1980.

When I first asked for recommendations for Australian authors a few years ago, particularly women authors, the name that cropped up most frequently was Miles Franklin and her classic novel My Brilliant Career, written when she was sixteen and published when she was twenty-one in 1901. It contained enough autobiographical material for readers to think it was a memoir, and it became a ‘succès de scandale’, which proved so distressing to the young author that she forbade its republication until after her death. Nevertheless, she revisited the story in a sort of sequel called My Career Goes Bung, although that too was deemed too scandalous at the time and wasn’t published until 1946. She was a prolific writer, in spite of her peripatetic lifestyle and numerous other jobs across three continents, but never quite replicated her early success.

My Brilliant Career (brilliant in this case is both ironical and also expresses the idealism of the heroine) follows a few years in the life of young Sybylla and her downwardly mobile family and is one of the first examples of what one might call ‘working class’ literature, albeit from the rural environment.

There is no plot in this story, because there has been none in my life or in any other life which has come under my notice. I am one of a class of individuals which have not time for plots in their life, but have all they can do to get their work done without indulging in such a luxury.

As you can tell from the titles of the two books themselves, we are no longer in prim and proper English Edwardian literature territory here. The 1890s were very much a decade when Australia was finding its own political identity but also its voice, and what a raucous, unfiltered, lively voice it was, at least judging by this book. As one critic (Havelock Ellis) at the time described it, it reads a bit like the work of ‘a Marie Bashkirtseff of the bush’, which can be regarded as a back-handed sort of compliment. On the one hand, it is precocious, high-spirited and sincere. On the other hand, it can be regarded as childish, temperamental, pretentious, overwrought.

To me, it felt like both. It was certainly a book ahead of its time, with its rejection of marriage or a happy ending, and the way the heroine Sybylla expresses her desire to escape from a dull life and societal expectations, and pursue a fulfilling artistic career instead. It ventures further than even the Brontë sisters dared to go, but it all becomes permissible because it is seen through the eyes of a teenage girl (16-17 years old for most of the book), who wouldn’t really be portrayed again with such accuracy and detail until the 1960s. There is all the drama and complaining and concerns about her looks that we might expect of any girl that age, at any time throughout history, but Sybylla is more than that. She is interested in arts and politics, she is active and resolute, mischievous and witty, self-deprecating but also proudly independent. She is also very much in love with the landscape and life on her grandparents’ farm, providing us with many lyrical descriptive passages, but also no-nonsense glimpses of the hard daily work.

Although she protests so much about her lack of height and good looks, it seems there is no shortage of men falling in love with her vivacious personality, especially the tall, quietly supportive Harry Beecham, whom no doubt most women readers fall in love with. We may feel she is mistaken or even cruel when she ultimately rejects Harry, but at the same time you cannot help but cheer her on as she realises that she is not the marrying kind, that her ambitions are too high and she would never be content to be the accomplished dilettante wife of even the nicest of farmers. She is prepared for the loneliness that this might bring her in life, but she has already experienced that in her family: her drunkard father, her demanding mother with whom she clashes.

Our greatest heart-treasure is a knowledge that there is in creation an individual to whom our existence is necessary – someone who is part of our life as we are part of theirs, someone in whose life we feel assured our death would leave a gap for a day or two. And who can this be but a husband or a wife? Our parents have other children and themselves, our brothers and sisters marry and have lives apart, so with our friends; but one’s husband would be different. And I had thrown behind me this chance; but in the days that followed, I knew that I had acted wisely.

There are some unpleasant or puzzling aspects to this book too. The casual racism and disparaging treatment of servants would have been typical of the period, perhaps, but grate on modern ears. Although it is true that Sybylla does not have many positive male role models in her life, she seems to have rather extremist views about men in general, expecting them all to behave badly. There also seems to be a bit of sexual squeamishness going on, some overreactions when anyone touches her that could indicate some deeper traumas.

In conclusion, I am glad I read this book – it is refreshingly different from anything written in England at the time, but there was a bit of a YA tone to it. I think I would have loved this even more if I had read it aged fourteen, together with Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.

Still from the film My Brilliant Career (1979)

Virago is now part of Hachette, but back in 1980 when this book was first reissued in the Virago Modern Classics series, with a foreword by Carmen Callil, it was an independent publisher, so I am not really cheating, am I, if I include this in the #ReadIndies initiative organised by my blogging friends Lizzy and Kaggsy.