My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin #bookreview

my brilliant careerEvery time I picked up my copy of My Brilliant Career, instead of delving straight into the narrative, I found myself simply staring at the cover image.  That girl haunted me. At times it felt as if she was glaring at me, almost daring me to judge her behaviour and her attitudes.  Other times it seemed more that she was asking me a question, inviting a response.

Maybe I’m making far too much of this but I certainly found the image mesmerising. The boldness of the girl’s look combined with her wild, unkempt appearance also perfectly matched the character of the protagonist created by Miles Franklin, Sybylla Melvyn.

Hers is a passionate nature, a force that will not be suppressed or controlled and in whom ambition is ablaze. Sybylla believes she is destined for “a brilliant career”, one that will offer more than a life rearing cattle and sheep. Nor does she envisage a life shackled in marriage. Marriage to her is a degradation, a result of social laws arranged so that it’s “a woman’s only sphere” in which she would have to suppress her inherent nature. . Not that any man would want someone “so very plain” and “as ugly” as her, she reasons. But she reckons without the wealthy young landowner Harry Beecham. He does want her for his wife.

Sybylla however is a wilful girl, “utterly different” to other girls her age and instead of viewing  him as a highly attractive partner, she leads him a merry dance.  Even as the novel comes to an end Miles Franklin keeps us guessing whether Sybylla will succumb to or hold out for her dreams of a life as a writer.

The tension between vocation and marriage as potential exit routes out of the stagnation of a rural life, forms the dramatic heart of My Brilliant Career. Sybylla’s intellectual and artistic talents are stifled in the environment of Possum where her father ekes out a living and his wife grows bitter and complaining.  Sent to live temporarily with her grandmother, Sybylla delights in the more refined atmosphere. It brings her “three things for which [she] had been starving”: good taste, music, and, above all, books.

But the idyll doesn’t last.

Drought exacerbates the problems created by her father’s excessive drinking habits and his poor business decisions. To pay off the family debt, Sybylla is despatched to work as governess and housekeeper for a family to whom her father owes money.  Among this illiterate farmer’s family, denied intellectual and creative stimulus and aghast at the filth of their home, she suffers a breakdown.

There are many enjoyable elements in this book but chief among them is Sybylla herself. She’s a sharp-witted, sharp-eyed narrator who doesn’t hold back from highlighting the weaknesses and faults of those around her. She views her mother scornfully because she has  “no ambitions or aspirations not capable of being turned into cash value.” Her father comes in for equally harsh treatment for his drunkenness and disregard for his family’s welfare.

But she’s also an irritating girl, too absorbed and self-pitying to recognise other people’s emotions. The kind of girl who, when you hear her lash out at poor Harry Beecham, you think she deserves some of the knocks that come her way.

I also loved Franklin’s descriptions of the Australian landscape. It’s a very honest portrayal, showing both its beauty and its unforgiving harshness when the rains fail, the land shrivels and livelihoods are endangered. Sybylla alternately loves the “mighty bush” and loathed.

My Brilliant Career isn’t without its faults. Sybylla has a tendency to get on her soap box , resulting in prose that sounds more like pamphleteering than how a young girl would actually express herself. But given this was Miles Franklin’s debut novel and it was written when she was 21 years old, primarily to entertain her friends, I think I can forgive her the occasional over-inflated, melodramatic passage.


About this book

My Brilliant Career was published in 1901 under the pen-name of  Miles Franklin (real name of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin).  In her introduction she said the book was “all about myself…. I make no apologies for being egotistical. In this particular I attempt an improvement on other autobiographies.” She describes it as not a novel, but simply a yarn about a life of “long toil-laden days with its agonising monotony, narrowness, and absolute uncongeniality.”

It was hugely successful, but Franklin was upset that contemporary readers believed it to be closely based on her own life and that of families in her locality. She ordered it to be withdrawn from publication until after her death.  It was revived in the 1960s, and underwent a critical evaluation, particularly in the light of the feminist critique. Today it is viewed as a key text within the Australian literary canon.

For an assessment of the key themes of the novel, take a look at the critical essay by  Susan K. Martin at Reading Australia.


About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on January 23, 2019, in Australian authors, Book Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 50 Comments.

  1. I think the flaws of this book come from the youth of its writer. They have the flaws of teenagers and her treatment of Harry Beecham betrays her youth.

    I agree with you, the landscapes descriptions are stunning and she takes you to Australia.

  2. I read this one a couple years ago and very much enjoyed it. I liked Sybylla’s sass, though you are right, she can be a bit grating at times.

  3. I am embarrassed to admit that I had no idea who Miles Franklin was until now. I knew there was a literary award named for her, but I didn’t even know it was a “her”. And how wonderful that the Stella award is also named for her! Thanks for this review. 🙂

  4. I now live in the same suburb as Judy Davis and her fierce stare is still legendary! It’s hard not to squirm under the weight of it.

    I haven’t read MBC since I was a teen. I really must revisit it to see if I like it better than I did back then.

  5. Loved your review Karen and have included it in Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week. Yes the image is a very young Judy Davis from the 1970s movie. Movies are derived from books rather than just being illustrated versions of them and in this case the director (Gillian Armstrong I think) chose to conflate My Brilliant Career with the later My Career Goes Bung in which Sybylla writes a mock autobiography featuring a fictitious Sybylla.

    Franklin was tremendously upset by My Brilliant Career being treated as biographical, although the local colour is undoubtedly genuine, withdrew it from republication, and descended into obscurity as a writer for 30 years.

  6. You’re right about the cover – what a strong image, and well chosen for the main character.

  7. This is my kind of book! Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  8. Great review, Karen! This is on my TBR for this year, and you made me want to read it asap 🙂

  9. I’ve had this for decades, and it’s one of those books I wish I could remember if I’d read or not. Certainly I think I have, and I think I own the follow up too. Will check this out because you really make it sound like I have to revisit it soon! 😀

  10. Great review, Karen. I hadn’t realised that Franklin had asked for her novel to be withdrawn. What a brilliant choice for the jacket, too. She certainly holds your gaze.

  11. Ow! This is one of the unread books which didn’t make the cut when I moved last year. Of well, maybe I can nip into the Oxfam shop, see if they still have it and buy it back!

    • You can have my copy – it’s a bit battered (I bought it at a National Trust book sale) but perfectly readable. I’m only going to donate it back so very happy if it finds a new home with you and the Bears

  12. And her legacy lives on – one of the chief literature awards prizes in Aus is the Miles Franklin and the prize for female authors is the Stella 🙂

  13. I haven’t heard of this either, but your review makes me want to seek out a copy straight away. I do enjoy books that feature this era and the harshness that the people endured.

  14. I remember reading this one too, I agree that’s an intense, knowing stare coming off the cover, it would be good to see the film. I didn’t know she’d had the book withdrawn, another example of a healthy ego at work – she did capture something unique and an incredible feat at such a young age.

  15. This is such a well known and popular book here in Australia. I read it several years ago and still remember the mood of the story.

  16. I read this ages ago and was interested when you mentioned you’d be reading it because I couldn’t actually remember anything about it other than a vague feeling that I enjoyed it. I can’t say it’s ringing many more bells now even after reading your review! But I have a feeling I also felt it had a bit too much soapbox going on in parts, and I don’t think I found Sybylla easy to empathise with, which was why I liked rather than loving it. I do wonder if, having been roughly the same age as the author when I read it, I might have been less willing to make allowances back then than I would now – perhaps one day I’ll re-read it.

    • Interesting question whether the age at which you read this affected your reaction. I do find that has happened with some other books principally Little Women which I loved as a child but as an adult I developed a strong aversion to its preaching tone

  17. This one is on my list of books-to-reread, as it led to a terrific discussion in a face-to-face bookgroup several years ago. Since then, I’ve discovered the film, but I wanted to reread the book first. Your description of it rings true in many ways and I do remember the soapbox moments, but I, too, was quite willing to forgive them. Are you tempted to read the sequel?

  18. The novel was published when Franklin was 21, but it was written five years earlier, when she was herself a teenager. Near the end of the novel, Sybylla is a little older than her author! Quite a feat.

    The photo matches the character for good reason. It is Judy Davis playing the character in the 1979 film version of My Brilliant Career.

    • Thanks Tom for putting me straight on the age when she wrote this. Makes her achievement even more remarkable. I do feel an idiot though for not checking inside the cover to discover the origin of that image……

  19. I have never heard of this author but I seriously want to read this now. Great review!

    • I wasn’t aware of her either until I kept seeing references to the Miles Franklin Award in Australia and was curious what that was all about. It was an award set up by the author – still going strong today

  20. Wonderful review, Karen:)
    It’s definitely Miles Franklin’s best and well as breakthrough book.

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