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My Brilliant Reading Career

My critical assessment of Miles Franklin’s famous coming-of-age novel My Brilliant Career appeared in Readings Monthly in June 2013.

She’s now lent her name to two literary prizes, but until recently I’d never read Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin’s famous novel My Brilliant Career. The reason I’d avoided it for so long was that its worthiness made it seem leaden. I expected it to be long-winded, boring, full of clichéd outback colonialism.

Instead I found it astonishingly fresh, funny and modern, and its protagonist, Sybylla Melvyn, uncompromisingly feminist. I especially enjoyed Franklin’s ear for the Aussie vernacular, now sadly lost to our globalised tongues. As the Melvyns’ disgruntled servant Jane says: “A girl could have a fly round and a lark or two there I tell you; but here … there ain’t one bloomin’ feller to do a mash with. I’m full of the place.”

The novel got me actively interrogating why I hate books set in the Australian bush. It’s not that I dislike the outdoors; rather, I’m a Romantic by disposition. I love the capacity of wild landscapes to inspire feelings of sublime awe and admiration. And I’ll happily read about remote places in other countries.

Literary depictions of wilderness reflect local ideologies. For instance, books by Mark Twain, Jack London and Henry David Thoreau echo the American doctrine of ‘manifest destiny’. In these works the vast sprawl of the North American continent symbolises freedom and redemption though adventure.

Meanwhile, in the European literary imagination, the wilderness is a space of magic and myth. A mystical, allegorical atmosphere also leaks into European colonial narratives, from Rudyard Kipling’s whimsical The Jungle Book to the Congolese nightmare of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

My Brilliant Career was published in 1901, at the height of the chauvinistic Australian nationalist movement championed by The Bulletin magazine. This was the heyday of the idealised Aussie bushman of Banjo Patterson, Norman Lindsay and Henry Lawson. To give these stoic, sardonic heroes a struggle by which to define themselves, their bush surroundings are described as inhospitably harsh and arid. It’s a tradition I find deeply dreary, not to mention repellently racist and sexist.

Franklin rapturously praises the struggling rural peasant in her closing pages:

Ah, my sunburnt brothers! – sons of toil and of Australia! I love and respect you well, for you are brave and good and true. … I love you, I love you … but I cannot help you. My ineffective life will be trod out in the same round of toil I am only one of yourselves, I am only an unnecessary, little, bush commoner, I am only a – woman!

Henry Lawson endorsed Franklin’s novel in a preface whose casual sexism annoys me: “I don’t know about the girlishly emotional parts of the book – I leave that to girl readers to judge; but the descriptions of bush life and scenery came startlingly, painfully real to me … the truest I ever read.”

Yet Sybylla’s struggle is clearly also a woman’s demand for self-determination. It’s strikingly similar to the speech Charlotte Brontë gives to her sensitive, suffering heroine Jane Eyre: “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!”

Like Jane Eyre, My Brilliant Career is a powerfully interior coming-of-age novel, driven by Sybylla’s inner desires and torments. Her capacity for emotion makes her an appealing heroine, but she’s doomed to be misinterpreted by others as cynical, uncaring and ungrateful: “Did my mother understand me, she would know that I am capable of more depths of agony and more exquisite heights of joy in one day than Gertie will experience in her whole life.”

Jeffrey Eugenides’ recent novel The Marriage Plot has been hailed as a clever deconstruction of the romantic narratives of the nineteenth century. These literary conventions not only guide Eugenides’ protagonist Madeleine, but also the reader. We expect Madeleine to find happiness with one of several potential suitors, but neither she nor we find such simple, familiar comfort.

My Brilliant Career similarly subverts the reader’s expectations… more than a century earlier! It surprised me that it seemed to satirise a Jane Austen comedy of manners.

Caddogat, the gorgeous rural property where Sybylla stays with her grandmother, plays the same pivotal role in this novel as the country houses in Austen’s fiction. Franklin sets up several potential love interests for Sybylla: honest jackaroo Frank Hawden, sophisticated urbanite Everard Grey, and smouldering local squattocrat Harold Beecham. Each pair gets a meet-cute, zingy dialogue and emotionally charged encounters. They circle one another at dinners and parties, and pay and return visits in elegant formal attire and in charmingly unguarded dishevelment.

The scene in which Sybylla finally provokes Harold into displaying his notorious temper is genuinely steamy in a way today’s pallid erotica can only hope to imitate. He seizes her arm in a bruising grip, brutishly ignoring her cries of “Unhand me!”

He drew me so closely to him that, through his thin shirt – the only garment on the upper part of his figure – I could feel the heat of his body, and his big heart beating wildly.

“I’ll do what I like with you. I’ll touch you as much as I think fit.”

Eat your heart out, Christian Grey!

But Franklin has her reject him and her other suitors, for the sake of her immutable moral principles! That Sybylla values intellectual and creative freedom over love and financial security makes My Brilliant Career resolutely feminist. The passionate Harold seems like an ideal match – he begs to marry Sybylla and even pledges to support her authorial ambitions. But she knows that eventually, Harold will want a ‘normal’ wife – which she can never be.

Of course, as Sybylla pens her autobiography, she’s still a teenager driven by immature impulses and smarting from fresh wounds. Franklin’s literary conceit is that Sybylla’s story has taken just one month, March 1899, to write. This lends hope to what is otherwise a total downer of an ending. The ‘brilliant career’ Sybylla ironises so bitterly could still be hers.