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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.

Works Cited:

“The Chicago Manual of Style Online”. 2016. The Chicago Manual of Style Online.

Dalziell, Tanya. 2004. “Colonial Displacements: Another Look at Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career”. Ariel 35 (3): 39.

Franklin, Miles. 2014. My Brilliant Career. Ebook. 1st ed. Adelaide: ebooks@Adelaide.

Gilbert, Sandra. 2007. “”Paradoxical as A Platypus”: Miles Franklin and Her Brilliant Career”. In My Brilliant Career, 1st ed., vii-xx. London: Penguin.

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).

Sethi, Anita. 2016. “My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin – Review”. The Guardian.

Woolf, Virginia. 2014. A Room of One’s Own. Ebook. 1st ed. Adelaide: ebooks@Adelaide.