By B. Muir
You would be perhaps forgiven for not knowing the works of Miles Franklin intimately, much as you’d be forgiven for assuming from her use of her middle name that Miles was a He; forgiven perhaps – but gravely mistaken nonetheless. Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, originally christened with a glaring question mark after the second word in the title, is a semi-autobiographical kunstlerroman and protofeminist novel published in Australia in the year of federation, 1901. Fittingly, given its year of publication, the text is a highly regarded example of Australian feminist fiction and endures as such today. Indeed, the text’s mere continued inclusion a hundred and one years after its publication as the subject of critical review speaks for itself. If Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is the archetypical feminist text, then My Brilliant Career is the prototype. The texts share the universal themes of cerebral repression in a patriarchal world, and even propose similar observations on the experience of the woman writer at the turn of the 20th century. Franklin’s novelistic debut is highly effective in delivering a focused protofeminist didactic while at once presenting an engaging genre novel and therefore the merit and influence of this text is difficult to overstate. With only a loose connection to the real life of Stella “Miles” Franklin, Sybylla is equal parts original protagonist and Mary-Sue literary avatar. Something of a consummate Australian protofeminist heroine, Sybylla fights to forge the brilliance of a career that may well never come (and certainly does not within the course of the book) as she faces adversities related to her gender, class and ambition.
Born into a life of relative privilege among the squattocracy, Sybylla, in the relative androgyny of childhood encounters a diverse range of people and animals, and learns to approach them fearlessly and their ideas critically. While her life at Bruggabong is not luxurious, it’s certainly not hard. Sybylla is descended from a line of pastoralists leading back to the first colonists, and it is stated that her mother’s side of the family are reasonably wealthy. While she is young, and not so rigidly subject to gender roles and in a position of relative financial security, Sybylla is able to work on her craft as a writer. She even gets high praise from a prospective publisher at the age of thirteen in a reminiscence. Before she can write another work in full, however, Sybylla falls victim to adverse circumstances as her father changes jobs, takes up drinking and inadvertently ruins the family’s finances in the process. Her life goes from the comfortable one of a bourgeois bed and breakfaster’s daughter to the brutal one of a dairy farmer’s in the space of a few short chapters. She is offered a brief reprieve when she returns to her ancestral home of Caddagat in her grandmother’s care (although still failing to start her career, side-tracked by gender expectations), where the novel segues into almost a parody of conventional romance, before being thrust into indentured servitude at Barney’s Gap thanks to her father’s debts. After rejecting yet another unwelcome proposition, she finds herself at Possum Gully once again with no certainty as to whether she will ever have her brilliant career. During the course of the narrative, multiple suitors try at her affections but she finds them unsuitable for various reasons, although she promises herself to the kind-hearted Harold Beecham when she is seventeen so that should he still want her when she is twenty-one, they would be wed. Harold Beecham is entirely unperturbed by any of Sybylla’s oddities, least of all her aspirations to write. Indeed, he even offers to fund her literary career should she choose to be his wife when he regains his fortune and travels to Possum Gully to see her. In spite of this, Sybylla still declines, much as she did with his less worthy competitors in the previous chapters. She feels that she would be a poor wife to him, wrought as she is with insecurities based on the primary narrative of her time. She also knows that not even the progressive Beecham can protect her career from motherhood. The last chapter sees Sybylla come to terms with her life and her place as a single working-class woman in rural Australia, and in the final paragraph she makes a solemn declaration of her solidarity with other working women.
While the book was withdrawn from circulation for a number of years before the author’s death due to the gripes of parties supposedly portrayed unfavourably within, it has now largely been reclaimed by a new audience with particular focus on the analysis of the text within a feminist framework, particularly after the release of a movie adaption. While there seems to be no evidence to suggest Woolf ever read My Brilliant Career; if she had perhaps she might have not felt the need to write such a lengthy essay, and indeed she might have even had more hope for a tradition of women’s writing. If there is any criticism to be made of the author, it would be of repressing this narrative for so long via the refusal of allowing a reprinting. As a contemporary reader, one can see the echoes of Franklin in critically acclaimed feminist authors as early as Woolf, and as contemporary as Atwood. If we are to measure a text by its endured relevance rather than its initial critical reception (as some authors are simply ahead of their times to profit in their lifetimes; Poe himself died a pauper) then we must concede to the merit of this text; similarly, it seems a travesty that such an honest depiction of class and gender so far ahead of its time should have been censored by its own author.
Given that My Brilliant Career was authored decades before A Room of One’s Own on the other side of the globe, it’s miraculous how concurrently their polemics run. The events of the first third of the narrative read almost as if in response to Woolf’s thesis, wherein she ponders:
– What effect has poverty on writing?
The quintessentially modernist central argument of Woolf that explains why and how prior traditions of women’s writing (if they were to be collectivised at all) were relegated to the middle-class, and why this was the case – hence the title. Money, time, and a room of one’s own are what a woman needs to write, and only middle-class, childless women had access to this privilege at the time of the text’s authorship. The paragraph in Career that most directly proposes an answer to Woolf’s question of poverty and writing reads thusly:
Hard graft is a great leveller. Household drudgery, … and gardening soon roughen the hands and dim the outside polish. When the body is wearied with much toil the desire to cultivate the mind, … is gradually wiped out.
Much like Woolf discusses in her fourth chapter, Sybylla understands the innate correlation between female authorship, motherhood and class.
Sybylla’s narrative encompasses a vast multitude of themes, that collectively embody the early feminist and modernist aesthetic, especially within the Australian context, which is another way in which it is especially valuable when read in concurrence with Woolf’s polemic essay. Lawson, perhaps one of the most noted Australian modernists aided in the publication of the novel, although his condescending introduction implies that Franklin had not achieved what could best be described with reference to Virginia Woolf’s Room framework as literary androgyny. Aside from this stylistic gripe however, the didactic elements of both texts continue to run concurrent. Much as Woolf argues the ways in which a woman of their era can be at the mercy of fate, so does Sybylla at several points:
A woman is but the helpless tool of man — a creature of circumstances.
She continues to go on to say:
Women, metaphorically speaking, were forced to sit with tied hands and patiently suffer as the waves of fate tossed them hither and thither.
It would not be unfair to state that these quotes comprise a fairly concise summary of Woolf’s larger argument. Another analogue is apparent in the sense of Woolf’s looking glass metaphor. In spite of her father’s doubly severe transgressions of drinking and poor decision-making, Sybylla often directs her anger back at her mother in equal measure, reflecting on the way in which society predisposes women to serve as reflections of and to reflect the images of men. Sybylla’s refusal to wed might be read as her refusal to participate in this time-honoured process. In addition to the clear retrospective value of Career in a feminist context, there is also no shortage of criticism speaking admirably of it in a broader literary context.
A particularly radical postmodern reader may even, as Dalziell (2004) suggests, consider the notion that Sybylla’s refusal to partake of marriage and motherhood serves as a rejection not only of gender roles, but of partaking of the distinctly colonialist practice of nation building. In spite of her affection for Beecham and his proposal to facilitate her writing, Sybylla understands that as the colonial woman, should she partake of the classic Squattocratic bush narrative, wed and procreate, she will be mother first and artist second no matter what. Sybylla chooses the chance of a transcendent literary career over the assurance and security of financial security of middle-class motherhood. While the text itself alludes to no brilliant titular career at all, like many writers ahead of their time, Franklin’s brilliance was mostly appreciated after her passing.
To end the review, let it be known that although some argue that a text is only a feminist one when it is consciously written within that framework, when the text precedes the majority of the framework it would later be read within, it must then be acknowledged as a significant intertext, if not a pretext to that very framework itself. By this reasoning, Mile’s Franklin’s My Brilliant Career endures as an important protofeminist text, feminist pretext and Australian novel. With unanimously glowing retrospective contemporary reviews and the continued study of the text by both academics and students alike at universities Australia-wide, My Brilliant Career’s place in the English Literary canon remains uncontested.
“The Chicago Manual of Style Online”. 2016. The Chicago Manual of Style Online. http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/.
Dalziell, Tanya. 2004. “Colonial Displacements: Another Look at Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career”. Ariel 35 (3): 39. https://vuws.westernsydney.edu.au/bbcswebdav/pid-2051828-dt-content-rid-18881470_1/courses/102374_2016_aut/Tanya%20Dalziell%202004.pdf.
Franklin, Miles. 2014. My Brilliant Career. Ebook. 1st ed. Adelaide: ebooks@Adelaide. https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/f/franklin/miles/my_brilliant_career/contents.html.
Gilbert, Sandra. 2007. “”Paradoxical as A Platypus”: Miles Franklin and Her Brilliant Career”. In My Brilliant Career, 1st ed., vii-xx. London: Penguin. https://vuws.westernsydney.edu.au/bbcswebdav/pid-2141350-dt-content-rid-19496784_1/courses/102374_2016_aut/Sandra%20Gilbert%20Introduction.pdf.
Hecq, Dominique. 2012. The Creativity Market: Creative Writing in The 21st Century. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Lamond, Julieanne. 2011. “Stella Vs Miles: Women Writers and Literary Value in Australia”. Meanjin70 (3). https://meanjin.com.au/essays/stella-vs-miles-women-writers-and-literary-value-in-australia/.
Sethi, Anita. 2016. “My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin – Review”. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/sep/15/brilliant-career-miles-franklin-review.
Woolf, Virginia. 2014. A Room of One’s Own. Ebook. 1st ed. Adelaide: ebooks@Adelaide. https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91r/.
Essay by Susan K. Martin
My Brilliant Career opens with a howl: the very first words of the story proper are not words at all, but inarticulate cries of pain, like a birth: ‘”Boo, hoo! Ow, ow; Oh! oh!”‘(Franklin p. 1). Henry Lawson’s preface to the novel, in which he talks about his ability to judge the ‘painfully real’ depictions of bush life, versus his inability to comment on the ‘girlishly emotional’ bits, is usually published as a preface, and if it is read first it can dilute the impact of the opening cries. There are also a set of welcoming remarks from the ‘author’ that offer a playful warning.
The novel tracks the life experiences of Sybylla Melvyn. It is carefully prefaced with her external view as a writing presence, before the opening scream. A brief introduction follows the ‘scream’, which shows Sybylla as a bold and happy little girl enjoying an ideal rural childhood. This golden period is followed by a series of disappointments. A contemporary reader might see this as the common pattern of life, and a 19th century Christian reader might have seen in it a very familiar echo of the biblical plot in which the innocents are ejected from paradise. In either case, as Sybylla grows, she grows away from her ruralparadise due to a number of causes. Her adored father proves to be restless and incautious in his property deals, and moves the family to a less pleasant property. The world becomes less attractive to her, and her parents become less attractive to her also, because their circumstances get worse and because she begins to see them more clearly. Sybylla is a sharp-eyed and unforgiving narrator, and recounts the weaknesses of those around her harshly. Her father’s poor business dealings and thoughtless ambitions are harshly dealt with, as is her mother’s worn gentility, and even more worn out temper.
As the oldest, misunderstood teenage daughter, the story recounts Sybylla’s trials. She must undertake uncongenial work for the family, and is deprived of culture in the form of reading and learning. It is Sybylla who must retrieve her drunken father from the pub, and suffer embarrassments and humiliations. A brief reprieve comes when her genteel grandmother writes and asks her mother to send her to Caddagat, the childhood home of her mother, and she gets a taste of the higher life she has longed for – a world of reading, leisure, and a sympathetic environment.
This environment also offers romantic possibilities, particularly in the form of local wealthy landowner Harold Beecham. Yet, like any return to paradise, or a place that we have loved, it can’t last, and when the family finances deteriorate, Sybylla is recalled home by her mother and sent out to work as a poorly trained governess with the farcically named M’Swat family. There Sybylla suffers horribly, and begs her refined aunt and grandmother at Caddagat to intervene with her mother on her behalf. Finally, in melodramatic fashion she comes down with ‘nervous prostration’, and must be returned to her family (p. 199).
Sybylla is irritating, in the way that self-absorbed, self-pitying people are, when they are not ourselves or our best friends; but most readers still want her to be rescued from her situation, and one of the interesting things about the novel is the way that it ends.
Why read My Brilliant Career?
Why would anyone want to read My Brilliant Career now, over a hundred years later, and what seems like more than a hundred years removed from the world it creates? The answer: closeness and distance, which is to say most readers will immediately recognise Sybylla’s experience while at the same time realising that it is also very much of another time. Sybylla’s frustration is familiar to every person who has grown up in a family. She rages at her lot in life and experiences intense disappointment in her parents, in particular her alcoholic father’s irresponsibility and her mother’s complete failure to comprehend her desire for a wider and different life. Such feelings are immediately familiar to most of us. On the other hand, the context is now extremely unfamiliar. The world of the novel is far removed from the modern, in time and space. Contemporary teenagers stuck in the country now, however remote, have more access to the world than Sybylla could hope to have. If phone reception is bad, and internet slower, this does not compare to the boredom and isolation of reading through all the books the neighbourhood has to offer, or being stuck living with people who do not believe you can be paid for singing, and may not know the name of the Prime Minister. This must seem like another world, not just another century to many readers.
The howls near the beginning of the story do not herald the birth of Sybylla Melvyn, the heroine, but the birth of her consciousness – her first memory, her coming to know herself. That her first memory is one of pain and of literally getting her fingers burnt, despite the idyllic setting, is consistent with the tone of the novel. From the title onwards, My Brilliant Career operates through irony, and indeed the title has been repeatedly borrowed and played upon, mostly in those same ironic terms. Miles Franklin’s original title for the novel was My Brilliant(?) Career (Roe p. 52) but the question mark was removed by the publishers, William Blackwood & Sons. Franklin protested the editorial change, seeing it as neutralising the sardonic mood of the novel. Consequently, the novel was taken as autobiographical – a (factual) story of a girl’s life – and not the ironic fiction that Franklin intended. The novel is no longer thought of as experimental or radical in any way, yet the opening warnings and the screams (the screams are perhaps another part of the warning) introduced a number of experimental departures from traditional novelistic forms of the time. Like another Australian ‘classic’, Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life (1903), that is contemporary with Franklin’s novel, My Brilliant Career declares itself hostile to ‘Romance’.
Sybylla’s ‘Introduction’ warns: ‘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’. My Brilliant Career plays with the idea of a novel without plot – without sequence, coincidence, narrative climax or dénouement – but it does have one. Arguably, what readers most want out of stories is plot. In a famous book on the topic, Reading for the Plot, Peter Brooks suggests that our pleasure in reading comes from a deeply felt desire for order that is served by plotting – the arrangement and pattern of actions and events comprising the narrative.
Romance and reading
In the case of My Brilliant Career, what the story very deliberately does not have is a conventional plot outcome for a young heroine. Unlike Jane Austen or Stephenie Meyer novels, Sybylla’s life story does not climax with marriage. Yet, while Sybylla’s protests against romance include a denial of love, she is not necessarily to be trusted. Despite her claims, Sybylla seems to have fallen in love like a conventional heroine. The novel raises the question of how resistant she really is to the physical and romantic attractions of Harold Beecham, the escape he offers from poverty and the access to a different life and a different plot he represents. The critic Elizabeth Webby advises readers to be careful to read Sybylla as a character, and not just a narrator; that is, we need to take note of the fact that Sybylla both tells and acts within the story, and therefore, what she says and what she does may not be in agreement.
Franklin’s ridicule of the flowery conventions and flourishes of romantic fiction has sometimes been misread as just bad writing or attributed to the writer’s youthful inexperience. Certainly her parody of romance fiction is half affectionate, and so perhaps lacks bite. Yet, like so many books of every era, this novel is about reading – the desperate desire for reading and plot. The point is made in the full literary sense, for Sybylla is writing her story; and not only is she composing or constructing a version of her life through writing, but she is also in a self-proclaimed position to include and implicate the lives of others: ‘I knew everyone’s business, and was ever in danger of publishing it at an inopportune moment’ (p. 2-3).
If the romantic relationships of My Brilliant Career are deliberately disappointed, the love affairs with print are not. Sybylla’s determination to write a book seems almost a result of running out of books to read: ‘I seldom saw a book’, she says, in the passage describing her launch into writing, having earlier ‘borrowed every book in the neighbourhood’. Sybylla’s longing for story and excitement causes her to embark on the writing of her own story; but it is also important to note that she sees the act of writing not only as a means of self-expression but also as a ‘ticket’ to another life – specifically, the life of an ‘artist’ as she imagines it.
Sybylla’s arrival in the house of romance, her grandmother’s house, is marked by the ‘three things for which [she] had been starving’: good taste, music, and books (p. 43). The first of these ‘things’ she notes as she gazes around the dining-room is in fact two very specifically identified books: a ‘Corelli’, this being a reference to Marie Corelli, and George Du Maurier’sTrilby. Neither of these novels could be considered high art; each is an example of the very popular romance genre of the time, which produces precisely the sort of plots the story supposedly rejects.
Gillian Armstrong’s film of My Brilliant Career dramatises this lust for print in the scene in which Sybylla and her young pupils energetically track a serialised story across the newspapered interior walls of the house. Sybylla’s longing for fiction and for the romance that comes in narratives (and music) is expressed in the frequent mention of books. Reading is quite explicitly associated with nourishment – of the soul, is perhaps implied – but literally with food. Much of Sybylla’s reading is accompanied by eating – she takes in fiction with fruit (‘I ate another fig and apricot, a mulberry or two, and was interrupted in the perusal of my book by the clatter of galloping hoofs . . . ‘ (p. 159)). The appetite for reading spurs the appetite for writing.
Part of the secret to the popularity of the novel, at both its republication in the 1960s and its renaissance from the late 1980s, was not that it rejected romance outright, but that it offered both romance and anti-romance, or perhaps was balanced unnervingly between the two. The named reading preferences of the heroine hint that this is the case. My Brilliant Careerexplores the language, forms and thrills of both love romance and bush romance, and simultaneously parodies, rejects and critiques them. The readers it appealed to through identification as readers, in its own time and later, might seem an odd mix of partakers of romance alongside enthusiasts for Australian bush adventure – Trilby and An Australian Bush Track.
But recent studies of 19th century Australian readers and library borrowers suggest that such readers were not so divided by gender (‘girlishly’ romantic versus bush boy adventure) as we might think now. More importantly, we must think of Australian readers as worldly readers, like Sybylla, who was an eager consumer of European popular fiction as well as local products. Julianne Lamond’s study of the Australian Common Reader Database shows that male and female readers in the sample database of borrowing records took home both romance fiction and adventure fiction, read European fiction and Australian fiction, and, importantly in relation to this novel, were simultaneous readers of ‘Anglo-Australian’ romance and bush realism.
It is worth noting that the brief list of Sybylla’s named reading, despite their apparent differences – Trilby, an unnamed book by Marie Corelli, An Australian Bush Track by J.D. Hennessey – all share features of what might now be called new age mysticism. Trilby is famously the source of the hypnotic and repulsive character Svengali and Corelli’s novels are full of mysticism. The plot of the down-to-earth sounding Australian Bush Track includes the discovery of mysterious lost civilisations.
Sybylla offers a list of writers who she longs to meet for their representations of the real world. She includes Byron, Thackeray and Dickens with Gordon, Paterson and Lawson. An earlier list, of the culture and politics of the ‘outside world’, includes Kipling and Corelli as representatives of ‘real world’ fiction. In this list there is no clear line drawn between high and low culture, popular and literary fiction. Hall Caine was an immensely popular writer at the turn of the century, known for futuristic fantasy and romance. Sybylla does not separate realism and romance, let alone fantasy, despite her stated rejection of romance as ‘fancies and dreams’.
Lawson’s introduction to My Brilliant Career identifies the romance in the novel as suspect, but rescues it from this ignominy by assuring the reader of its ‘bush truth’. Ian Henderson argues that the novel made Lawson uncomfortable because of its balance between ‘female’ identified romance and ‘male’ identified realism (p. 165). By not giving the balance to either, Henderson argues, the novel sets up a genre and gender confusion centered on the performances of the central character. This may be one reason the novel implies and attracts a mixed readership. The same Common Reader Database reveals that across the small sample of lending libraries it covers, Franklin’s novel had exactly equal male/female readership, and the surviving fan mail shows the same (Roe p. 73).
When Sybylla longs for books at the M’Swats, she is offered access to the only books in the house, apart from the unopened Bible and the local newspaper: Pa’s diaries. These are samples of pure Bush Realism indeed: ‘Week after week . . . the same – drearily monotonous account of a drearily monotonous existence . . . [in the diary] 2nd Fine. Killed a snake very hot day’ and so on (Franklin p. 177-178).
Over fifty years later Patrick White commented on the danger of the Australian novel being taken as ‘the dreary, dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism’. Franklin here, much earlier, disavows this. The pure unvarnished account of real life in the bush is worse in its own way than the flowery extremes of romantic dialogue also sampled in the novel, from scenes where she demands that Harry ‘unhand’ her, to the encounters with Frank Hawden, the Jackaroo, to whom she gives various formal rejections, such as when she responds to his proposals by saying, ‘”I ask you, Mr Hawden, if you have a sense of manliness, from this hour to cease persecuting me with your idiotic professions of love”‘(p. 73).
My Brilliant Career can be read as a kind of response to the story, or writing, of the ‘grandmother’, or at least the sort of romance plot represented by the grandmother – Australian (and perhaps British) women romance writers such as Ada Cambridge. When Sybylla’s grandmother writes to her and ‘[k]nowing [her] circumstances’ enclosed ‘a stamp to enable her to reply’ Sybylla uses these stamps not to facilitate the appropriate and expected narrative return to her grandmother, but to mail ‘a prodigious novel in point of length and detail’ to a Sydney publisher, from whom it receives a polite refusal (p. 29). She is not daunted by this rejection, but tries another.
My Brilliant Career also contains samples of the family’s letters, the stories the women write for each other. The grandmother attempts to write a marriage plot for Sybylla, who ‘might do something good for herself’ at Caddagat, and at any rate, ‘being so very plain, will need all the time she can get’ (p. 30-31). Sybylla’s mother does not subscribe to this plot so much as to the story of the ungrateful daughter. She outlines one version of this in the letter summoning Sybylla to teach the M’Swat children: ‘it is time you gave up pleasuring and began to meet the responsibilities of life’ (p. 161). Sybylla’s letters outline various narrative selves and plots, from her part artistic part straightforward letter to Gertie, to her torn up letter to Everard, full of romantic descriptive prose and an artistic life in Sydney.
Her claimed exercises in realism are her letters to her mother and grandmother begging release, in which she did not ‘rant, rave, or say anything which [she] ought not to have said to [her] elders’ but wrote ‘very coolly and carefully, explaining things just as they were’ (p. 176). Her mother’s reply is another unsatisfactory missive, which is torn to pieces. Sybylla’s realistic narrative of her own misery has not been sufficient to convince or compel her mother. It is a critique and rejection of her writing which she takes with less composure than her publisher’s rejection. In this respect her attempts are less successful than Mr M’Swat’s painful efforts to write, in that the half-sheet epistle, produced after three hours struggle, ‘which in grammar, composition and spelling quite eclipsed the entries in his diary’, still ‘served its purpose’ of returning Sybylla home (p. 200). If Franklin is not parodying some versions of bush realism, as she elsewhere parodies some elements of romance, at the very least she is demonstrating that writing takes work and art combined.
The reason the novel is in print, and you are reading it now, has a lot to do with its adoption in the late 1970s by the feminist movement of that period. Feminist critics, scholars and writers of this period were interested in the female author using a male name, the feisty heroine, the complex exploration of gender roles and restrictions in Australia at the turn of the century, and perhaps also the complicated representation of popular genres. My Brilliant Career was a part of the 1890s nationalist movement, but (as with most of the writers so categorised) its representations of environment, like its representations of gender and of nation, are not simple.
In the most anthologised Henry Lawson stories, the Australian environment, identified as the bush, is a harsh opponent to the hardened individuals who struggle to survive against its onslaughts. In My Brilliant Career this idea is present, but is tempered by various portrayals of rural life: Possum Gully is countered by Bruggabrong and Caddagat, and also Barney’s Gap. Barney’s Gap, home of the M’Swats, is an important component, because without it the difference would only be an economic one – Caddagat is pleasant because of wealth and Possum Gully becomes unbearable through poverty. But Franklin’s picture of Australian rural life is a more subtle representation that invites more considered analysis.
The divisions are not just about money, but also about management, education, and class. Jill Roe points out the anti-Squatter tone and the depictions of class division in the novel, clearly revealed by its Goulburn reception (p. 68-73). Strikingly, the differences between places are about water. In Sybylla’s letter to her sister from Caddagat in Chapter 14 she is aware that the fundamental differences are rainfall and irrigation. She says, ‘They have great squawking about the drought up here. I wish they could see Goulburn, and then they’d know what drought means . . . everyone calls the paddocks about the house an oasis. You see there are such splendid facilities for irrigation here’ (Franklin p. 83).
The word irrigation recurs in relation to Caddagat, while laborious and fruitless watering by bucket is increasingly associated with Possum Gully. Water is the primary thing missing – not necessarily money (although Franklin clearly shows that the two are connected). The M’Swats have some money, however, and, notably, it rains on Sybylla’s arrival at Barney’s Gap, but the family take no advantage of the water other than to push each other in it and get wet and cold. Lack of intelligence and education apparently prevent some of the population from taking advantage of their own environment.
However, unlike some contemporary writers – Lawson, and perhaps also Joseph Furphy – Franklin continues to show the beauty not just of lush, irrigated Caddagat, but also of the dry environment, as well as its hardship, and ugliness, and the obsession with profit at the expense of culture. Even Possum Gully has beautiful ‘bowers’ of wattles, which adorn the hills and gullies. The closing of the novel, which leaves Sybylla despairing in her drought-stricken home, half ironically offers the final in a series of admired glorious sunsets: ‘the gorgeous, garish splendour of sunset pageantry flames out; the long shadows eagerly cover all; the kookaburras laugh their merry mocking good-night; the clouds fade to turquoise, green and grey'(p. 232). In Armstrong’s film the bleakness of this scene is redeemed by Sybylla sending off her book: she has some reward for her self-sacrifice and hardship. Elizabeth Webby and Jill Roe argue that this is a romantic production of the film. The film rewrites the novel as akunstlerroman in which the narrative and the heroine happily replace love with art.
However, in the novel, or around it, Sybylla really does write her own preface; she is writing a book (another book) in the novel, and she addresses someone, who seems like a reader, in her closing words. The opening accident – a burn, significantly – and the ensuing cries are matched by a closing flame of sunset and a mock-heroic valedictory prayer. Yet this is not a simple novel of humanist self-realisation any more than it is just a parodic romance. If Sybylla is not holding a book in her hands at the close of the novel, the turning of Sybylla the avid reader into Sybylla the writer does hang as a possibility at the close of her ‘ineffective life’ story in My Brilliant Career. The elided question mark remains.
In her will, Miles Franklin established a literary award for a novel of ‘highest literary merit which must present Australian Life in any of its phases’ (Miles Franklin Award). This requirement has become uncomfortable for some in an increasingly cosmopolitan Australia. From Franklin’s first book to her last will, she retained a passionate interest in Australian life, although she lived a very cosmopolitan one. What actually constitutes ‘Australian Life’ is a constant question for the Miles Franklin Award judges, as it is for the readers of this novel.
Franklin, M. My Brilliant Career . Angus & Robertson, 1979.
Henderson, I. “Gender, Genre, and Sybylla’s Performative Identity in Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career.” Australian Literary Studies 18.2 (1997): 165-173.
Roe, J. Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography. HarperCollins, 2008.
Webby, E. “Reading My Brilliant Career.” Australian Literary Studies 20.4 (2002): 350-358.Note: this is a special edition of Australian Literary Studies with several excellent articles onMy Brilliant Career.
White, P. “The Prodigal Son.” Australian Letters 1.3 (1958): 37-40.
Brooks, P. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. Clarendon Press, 1984.
Australian Common Reader Authors Database.
Docker, J. The Nervous Nineties. Oxford University Press, 1991.
Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate. 21 Apr, 1897: 2. Previous issue Wednesday 21 April 1897
Furphy, J. Such is Life . Halstead Press, 1999.
Lamond, J. “Communities of Readers: Australian Reading History and Library Loan Records” in Republics of Letters: Literary Communities in Australia, eds. Peter Kirkpatrick and Robert Dixon, Sydney University Press, 2012: 27-38.
Martin, S.K. “Relative Correspondence: Franklin’s My Brilliant Career and the Influence of Nineteenth-Century Australian Women’s Writing” in The Time to Write ed. Kay Ferres. Penguin, 1993: 54-70.
Miles Franklin Literary Award ‘History’
Sheridan, S. “My Brilliant Career: The Career of the Career” Australian Literary Studies 20.4 (2002): 330-335.
© Copyright Susan K. Martin 2013