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My Brilliant Career, by Stella Miles Franklin.

October 14, 2012

Happy Birthday, Stella Miles Franklin, October 14th

My Brilliant Career, by Stella Miles Franklin.

An Australian classic by and about a young woman growing up in the bush and frustrated by her lack of options.

Stella Miles Franklin was important as an Australian writer, feminist, and advocate of literary talent.  She spent years in the USA, working for labor and women’s causes with Progressive women in Chicago such as Alice Henry, also from Australia, Margaret Dreier Robins of the National Women’s Trade Union League, and Jane Adams of Hull House.  When she returned to Australia she continued to write and  support various causes.  She sought help for young Australian writers and was responsible for a major literary award in the country, which was named after her, using the male version of her name: The Miles Franklin award.

Franklin wrote My Brilliant Career when she was still in her teens.  Initially, she hoped to publish it as a male author by using only her second two names, but her ruse quickly failed.  The book is obviously autobiographical, drawing her own experiences of her family’s downward mobility and her own frustrated ambitions.  She fictionalized her story, but I was never clear how much.  The book has weaknesses as a piece of literature, perhaps resulting from the immaturity of its author.  The writing is uneven and full very adolescent mood shifts.  The plot and characters are not always believable. Through much of the book, I was troubled by how negatively she depicted herself, her parents, and many of the people with whom she lived and worked.   Yet the book is plucky and fun and worth reading.

Sybylla is the first-person narrator of Franklin’s story and the character representing Franklin. Initially, her parents had been refined and loving, but with the loss wealth her father has become a drunk and her mother a worn-out hag.  Sybylla has become an angry, frustrated teenager, seeing life as a curse and unable to believe in God or love.  When invited to live with her grandmother, she discovers a different world. Although located in the bush, her relatives had the wealth to live comfortably and appreciate literature, music and good company.  Equally as important, here Sybylla found the love she has craved from family members and from an extremely eligible neighbor.  Life becomes a pure joy for her.  But reality intervenes and Sybylla’s mother forced her to leave her grandmother’s station to live with a dull and dirty family and teach their eight children.  When her position becomes impossible, she returned to her parents’ home where she, like her mother, became a drudge.  As much as she wants to escape these conditions, she still can not see marriage as a viable alternative for her.

My Brilliant Career is an Australian classic, but as an American reader, I found myself somewhat ambivalent about it and unsure why it has been popular.  Certainly it does present a young woman’s view of a life of poverty at the edges of the bush, not the more familiar men’s version.  At times, however, Franklin seems ambivalent about her country and its residents. Her descriptions of Australian landscapes are sometimes attractive and sometimes grim.  She complains about how her country has lost its “democracy” with the emergence of hierarchical classes.  Sybylla hated the town were her family lived calling it, “stagnant  with the narrow stagnation of old country towns.”    On one hand she envies her neighbors’ lack of the restless ambition that haunts her, and on the other offers a hymn of praise for other hard-working, poverty-stricken, and proud  Australian men and women.  But personally she had nothing but disdain for the “Australian peasants” with whom she was surrounded.  Blacks are virtually invisible and, like the Chinese, degraded.  Maybe some Australian bloomers can explain the book’s appeal.

The themes that interested me most in My Brilliant Career were Sybylla’s view of herself and her mother as women.  Angry and unsympathetic to her daughter, her mother retained only hints of her previous refinement and became the symbol of everything Sybylla rejected.  Whether true or not of Franklin’s mother, in the book she turned her daughter against any hope of a loving marriage.

Sybylla’s view of herself was equally unhappy and focused on her flaws.  Franklin depicts her as stubborn and snobbish.  I don’t remember when I have read a book in which the stand-in for the author was so unappealing.  I had little empathy for her, despite my sympathy for her very real plight.  But Sybylla was aware of how poorly she fit into her society, sometimes blaming herself and sometimes blaming society.  She saw herself as impossibly ugly and unfit for love.  Worst of all, she viewed herself as an unthinkable creature, a woman with a brain.  Recognizing her own ambition and restlessness, she was certain that she was inadequate as a woman and would be a disaster as a wife.  When an admirably strong, rich, attractive, gentle man fell in love with her, she was tempted, but turned him down. She urged him to find a more suitable woman for his own good.  No matter what her suitor said, she could not believe that a man could love a woman who sought to be an author.  As a reader, I felt her refusal was a tragedy.  That is not my typical response to romance, but like the author I could not see any other viable option for her.

Having rejected the only possible escape for a woman in rural Australia, Sybylla saw no future for herself.  Like Christie in Louisa May Alcott’s Work, she had found that there simply were no real options for a young woman to be independent.  She cannot support herself; much less engage in the “cultural” offerings of society, like books and music.  Franklin shows us that structural societal change is necessary if women are to live full lives.  Personal desire and hard work will never be enough.  Yet Sybylla and Franklin continue to write.

Reading Franklin’s autobiographical book provoked me to find the recent biography of Stella Miles Franklin by Jill Roe, which has been positively reviewed online by ANZLITLOV and Stumbling through the Past.  I wonder if I would like her better as a person rather than as she presented herself as Sybylla.

I recommend My Brilliant Career to other readers, especially those curious about Australian life and literature and those interested in women’s experiences globally.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. October 14, 2012 3:32 pm

    I’m planning to read this book over Christmas. It sounds like it is a book that can only have been written by a teenager. Jill Roe picked up on the autobiographical nature of much of Miles Franklin’s writing.

    “At times, however, Franklin seems ambivalent about her country and its residents. Her descriptions of Australian landscapes are sometimes attractive and sometimes grim.” This would be one reason why this book resonates with Australians. We are so dependent on the environment. At one moment it entrances, at another moment it turns on us and burns. It is miserly with water most of the time but then at other times it drowns us in a torrent. Its’ beauty is not always immediately apparent. We need to work at finding its masked beauty, yet on other occasions our breath is taken away. The 1890s drought was probably like the ‘dust bowl’ drought in the US of the 1930s – soul destroying.

    I really enjoy your reviews because we need to hear from people thousands of miles away who don’t have the same connections to Australia we do. We need the challenge and different perspective!

    This all made me think that it would be wonderful if you came and visited us. I don’t know if that is possible for you but it would be wonderful for you to see, smell and hear the bush, to visit some of the places mentioned in the books you read.

    • October 15, 2012 8:45 am

      Thanks so much. I’d love to come visit and smell/hear/feel the bush, but that is not an option. You gave was a wonderful description of your country, and actually it applies to the region where I have chosen to live. Not all the country but the swath between the Rocky Mountains in the west and the 100 meridian on the east which roughly marks the “30 inch rainfall line.” That is an average of 30 inches based on rainier times, and we have usually gotten much less–and the wildfires that go with that. And, yes, we do feel that same ambiguity. Sue Terry has been here and she said it reminded her of Australia, too. I like how many Australian authors are sensitive and descriptive of their places. Where do you live? Was your holiday in Australia? Does Australia have pink granite mountains like ours? I have been reading–and will review–Mary Durack’s Kings in Grass Castles and looking up the plants and animals.

      • October 15, 2012 5:19 pm

        I have lived in every state on the east coast of Australia, from Atherton outside Cairns in the north to Hobart in the south. I was born in Melbourne and currently live in Sydney. Each place I have lived has been very different both culturally and environmentally. Our holiday was in NZ, traipsing around the south island in a van and walking (frustratingly limited by the arthritis in my feet). It was sooooo good.

        New Zealand is very different to Australia environmentally. Australia just doesn’t have mountains as tall as other countries but we do get snow. We have pink granite in the Freyinet Peninsula of Tasmania.

        My husband suggested you read one of my favourite poems, ‘Said Hanrahan’ by John O’Brien and published in 1921: It has some Australian idion, rooned = ruined, crook = bad.

        If I holidayed in the US I would love to visit your national parks.

  2. October 15, 2012 7:51 am

    This was the Aussie book I suggested my American reading group do when I lived in Southern California in the early 1990s as it seemed the perfect intro – and an accessible one – to Australian life and literature (albeit the setting is old so it doesn’t represent the true modern Australia). They all pretty much enjoyed it.

    I’m intrigued by your not liking her — though I can understand why. I guess I related (not personally, specifically) to her frustrations with the social and economic restrictions on her life. I think it was rather realistic because the love interest was not easy to give up as is often the case in stories like this. It’s probably partly because this is autobiographical that the hero isn’t the stereotypical chauvinist, but a seemingly valid option.

    • October 15, 2012 8:34 am

      I think my expectations were probably too high, given the bits I knew about her. Glad to understand your reaction.

      • whisperinggums permalink
        October 15, 2012 4:15 pm

        Ah, that makes sense … I can see that … I don’t think she’s as great a writer as she was an all round thinker and supporter of the arts and of women’s rights. With her it’s more the whole package I think … Though she does capture grazing/farming society well.

  3. October 15, 2012 11:40 pm

    I think her ‘voice’ in that book was so fresh, so remarkable, at the time (and still now) that it was quite radical in style. I heard recently that the title was meant to have a question mark – My Brilliant Career? – and I think if you know that, it changes the whole tone of the book!

    • October 20, 2012 9:13 am

      Thanks. Your comment really helped me see why I reacted. I just wanted her to be more mature and the fact that she is not is part of her freshness. I like the question mark.

  4. October 23, 2012 8:54 am

    Yvonne, thanks for your reply. And for the poem. And for more about the geography. national parks would be a good place to start. We live near the Big Bend National Park. You can see our landscape on its web site.


  1. All That Swagger by Miles Franklin | Stumbling Through the Past
  2. Book Review – My Brilliant Career – 4 Stars | strivetoengage

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