Every 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.