Book Review - My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

This year I am taking part in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, which encourages people to read (and optionally review) books written by Australian women.  The AWWC came about in response to the results of the 2011 VIDA count, which analyses gender ratios in publishing industries in the northern hemisphere.  It found that there is a glaring disparity in the ratio of women to men both reviewing books and having their books reviewed.  And so the AWWC came about as a way for more women's work to get out there.  And so here I am.

Running alongside the AWWC is the Stella Prize, a literary award begun in partial response to the VIDA count of 2010.  It is ironically named after Miles Franklin - full name Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin - whose novel My Brilliant Career was published in Australia in 1901 when she was 21 years old.  Stella provided in her will for an annual literary award recognising Australian writers, and the Miles Franklin Award is now considered to be Australia's most prestigious literary award.  The Stella Prize began, irony of ironies, in response to the bias found in Australia not only within the publishing industry but in the Miles Franklin Award itself, where in its 55-year history only 10 women have won the prize.

So I decided that I would go back to the crux of those two awesome enterprises and read My Brilliant Career itself.  All I really knew about the book was that it had been made into a film starring Judy Davis.  The irony of the title was lost on me - it was originally titled with a question mark, which the publishers removed, much to Stella's chagrin, and so for years I had this strange idea that this book was about some woman who managed to get herself an awesome job back in the times when women often didn't have one.

The history of this book reads like a bit of a dream - it was Stella's first published book, at 21, after she sent the manuscript to Henry Lawson.  The book's popularity in Australia led to her withdrawing it from circulation until after her death because of the distress she felt when people assumed certain characters in the book to be like her real-life family and friends.  A bit of an occupational hazard when so much of the story obviously is autobiographical, but very understandable for her to feel distress that those close to her, like her parents, were likened to those in her story.

If you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, you should sometimes also not judge it by its opening paragraph.  The first chapter begins with:

'Boo hoo!  Ow, ow; Oh!  Me'll die.  Book, hoo.  The pain, the pain!  Boo, hoo!'
Not the most compelling hook into the book, and surely not a very accurate depiction of a three-year old Sybylla, but it gets better.  Because while the opening paragraph doesn't do a very good job of foreshadowing its contents, the teenage narrator does a very good job at depicting herself, a character who apparently shared many autobiographical traits with her creator.  A feisty feminist, and an atheist to boot, Sybylla knows her own mind when many of those around her insist that a woman knowing her own mind is a sacreligious act.

The curse of Eve being upon my poor mother in those days, she was unable to follow her husband [into town to pick him up from the pub, where he'd been drinking his woes and the family's money away for a couple of days].  Pride forbade her appealing to her neighbours, so on me devolved the duty of tracking my father from one pub to another and bringing him home.

Had I done justice to my mother's training I would have honoured my paternal parent in spite of all this, but I am an individual ever doing things I oughtn't at the time I shouldn't.

Sybylla yearns for that which lies not only beyond the realm in which she finds herself, a penniless daughter of a squattocracy family fallen, but also beyond the realm of her society.  Though women were to achieve the vote in 1902, a year after the book was published, they were still front and square considered by society on the whole to be helpmeets for men. 

I controlled myself instantly and waited expectantly.  What would she say?  Surely not that tame old yarn anent this world being merely a place of probation, wherein we were allowed time to fit ourselves for a beautiful world to come.  That old tune may be all very well for old codgers tottering on the brink of the graves, but to young persons with youth and romance and good health surging through their veins, it is most boresome.  Would she preach that it was flying in the face of providence to moan about my appearance? it being one of the greatest blessings I had, as it would save me from countless temptations to which pretty girls are born.  That was another piece of old croaking of the Job's comforter order, of which I was sick unto death, as I am sure there is not an ugly person in the world who thinks her lack of beauty a blessing to her.  

So much of Sybylla's striving is against the restrictions of the day upon her wild soul, and her desire for romance in all its forms is hindered in the man stakes by her corresponding repulsion at the thought of being kept by a man like a cow.  Though Harold Beacham is a catch in the district, he does not ever manage to catch Sybylla.  Almost, but no cigar.

Sybylla's desires for more from life come at a time when such a desire is considered to be a striving above your station.  So much of the cultural imperative to be ever busy and productive and to know your place back then was fuelled by moral directives driven by cultural Christianity (and by necessity in Sybylla's family's case); 110 years later it's the god of economics that still drives us all like slaves to the status quo. Some things never change, they only change their outward appearance.

Sybylla escapes for a time the monotony of a subsistence life in Possum Gully cleaning the hearth and polishing the saucepans when she is farmed out to live with her aunt and grandmother for a time in the big smoke of Sydney.  It is here that she finds time and space for the things that she craves - conversation that's not about farming, music, literature.  The world of ideas and intelligence, and of beauty and romance too:
I was decked in my first evening dress, as it was a great occasion.  It was only on the rarest occasion that we donned full war-paint at Caddagat.  I think that evening dress is one of the prettiest and most idiotic customs extant.  What can be more foolish than to endanger one's health by exposing at night the chest and arms - two of the most vital spots of the body - which have been covered all day? 
There is so much that is endearing about Sybylla, and so much that still speaks to me today.  How different my life is from hers, in so many ways.  In some instances I feel more constrained than she did, which seems ridiculous upon first thought, but perhaps it's simply an effect of living under a panopticon eye in an uber-monitored world.  I don't know.

Sybylla is the ultimate duck out of water, and is good reading even now, in an era so vastly different from hers, and which has made so many gains in some ways, for those who feel themselves ducks out of water in their own times and who seek for more beauty beyond what has been ordained by the powers that be.

Oh, how I envied them their ignorant contentment!  They were as ducks on a duck-pond;  but I was as a duck forced for ever to live in a desert, ever wildly longing for water, but never reaching it outside of dreams.
Whatever systemic and social changes differ between Sybylla and me, the beauty and space and time that Sybylla yearns for in which to think, to write and to be her own person remain my own.  That fight, to claim the space that is your self, whether fuelled by internal or external forces, goes on.

Sybylla's youthful tenacity and guts was revivifying for this young crone. 


  1. Sue, your review has whetted my appetite for more and I will have to read My Brilliant Career(?).
    Stories of strong females of any age in a "male dominant world" fascinate, and empower, me.

    It was hard enough being a headstrong teenager in the seventies. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been to be a, "sacrilegious atheist feminist" in Sybylla's (and Stella's) society.

    Willful women unite!

    1. Oh, cool. Let me know what you think of it when you've read it. I agree, strong females fascinate and empower me too :)


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