Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

My Brilliant Career, by Miles Franklin

When I emigrated to Australia in May of this year, among the mixed feelings I had about leaving home was a sense of excitement about discovering new authors and an alternative literary history to the one I’d been raised on. Of course, I could already count at least three Australian authors as favourites (Peter Carey, Kate Grenville and Jaclyn Moriarty), but I found the prospect of delving into Australian literature in close physical proximity a thrill, and my first pick has not disappointed.

My Brilliant Career was first published in 1901, in London, having been rejected for publication in Australia. It is an account of a sixteen-year-old girl’s life in the often punishing outback plains of New South Wales. Much of it is based on fact and was completed when the author – born Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, in 1879 – was just twenty. But so disturbed was she at the thought that readers were assuming this a totally autobiographical work that she banned it from republication for ten years after her death, in 1954. In her will Franklin also made provision for an award – to seal her commitment to the unique perspective of Australian literature – which is the most prestigious for an Australian author to receive.

Burdened with sensitivity, ambition, independence and severe restlessness, Sybylla Melvyn finds life at Possum Gully – a small farm in monotonous scenery, where the only two states of being are work and sleep – unbearably hard: “how I hate this living death which has swallowed all my teens, which is greedily devouring my youth…” In turn, she’s a burden to her mother, who has an alcoholic husband and several younger children to deal with, and cannot be doing with Sybylla’s hankering after books and music when she should doing her share of the hard graft: “You are a perfect she-devil…really very useless for a girl your age.”

When Sybylla is given an opportunity to live far away with her grandmother, in a fertile spot that’s a social hub compared to Possum Gully, it’s a welcome relief for all, though Sybylla begins to reveal how desperate she is to be loved and how convinced that she never will be when she begs her younger sister to miss her just a little bit, but dismisses Gertie’s promise as: “the soluble promise of a butterfly-natured child”. Still, at Caddagat, Sybylla blossoms from a girl who is frequently pained by her lack of beauty and weighed down by her own cynicism, to a feisty young woman who captivates everyone she meets and is surely going places. To Sydney, perhaps, to become a musician, under the wing of aristocratic lawyer Everard Grey. Or to neighbouring farm Five Bob Downs, owned by handsome suitor Harry Beecham, to be a well-off landowner, free to pursue a writing career.

But this is no fairy-tale, and Sybylla’s future is taken out of her hands when she is forced to pay off a debt of her father’s by becoming a governess in a place even more unbearably hot, barren and lacking in stimulation than Possum Gully. Here her sense of desperation is palpable, but fortunately for the reader she never loses her sense of humour (it is buried under her propensity for melodrama!) as she gives us a taste of the single book available to entertain her – her boss’s diary: “November 1896…1st. Fine. Started to muster sheep. 2nd. Fine. Counten sheap very dusty 20 short. 3rd. Fine. Started shering. Joe Harris cut his hand bad and wint hoam. 4th. Showery. Shering stoped on account of rane.”

So disheartening is the last third of the book that I almost willed Sybylla to betray her own heart if only to escape. But Sybylla manages to stay true to herself even in the most tempting circumstances. If I call her a difficult woman I mean that as a compliment; it was a huge pleasure and an inspiration to follow her on her journey from rags to riches and back again. Beneath the melodrama and extravagant prose – which has a period charm and suits our hero perfectly – this is a tale of rebellion, and of her indomitable spirit. The settings are vivid, the characters many and varied, and as a piece of history it gives a fascinating insight, particularly into the life of a young woman with no means.

Sybylla’s choices will frustrate a reader looking for romance and happy endings. She is an exasperating, irascible, funny, charming, brave hero; with her trademark cynicism she calls her self-analysis “dull and egotistical”, but her fears and hopes will remind many of us of our own teenage years. This is not a broad story, but it sparkles.

Virago Modern Classics, paperback, 248pp, ISBN 0860681939

13 comments on “My Brilliant Career, by Miles Franklin

  1. Gondal-Girl
    June 25, 2008

    really liked this review Emily and has made me put it back on my list, have had the book for years, but the film was so vivid for me, I was frightened the book wouldn’t live up to things. Have been meaning to read the recent bio of Miles Franklin too, she was an amazing lady – saw an exhibition of her papers/belongings at the State Library here in Sydney, which was really interesting. Prickly heroines are hard too swallow sometimes, but don’t we love them all the more because of it. thanks for reminding me of this book

  2. Moira
    June 25, 2008

    This is a book I’ve always intended to read, but never got around to. I think you may have persuaded me that it’s past time I actually dug it out again.

    I like prickly heroines. It’s the coquettish manipulators like Becky-Bloody-Sharp and Scarlett-equally-bloody-O’Hara who make my teeth itch.

    Someone said to me the other day that Scarlett O’Hara was her role model.

    Ye Gods and Little Fishes …

  3. Kirsty
    June 25, 2008

    Great review, thanks. I have had this on the shelf for months since I got it in a boxset of Virago Modern Classics. I also have a soft spot for prickly heroines… I’ll go fish it out of the TBR mountain!

  4. Luisa
    June 25, 2008

    I read this book when I was growing up, and I loved it, though I have to confess I’d forgotten all about it. Thanks for reminding me with this brilliant review.

  5. Emily
    June 25, 2008

    Oh prickly heroine is right – absolutely nothing coquettish about Sybylla. Her suitor refers to her a couple of times as “a perfect little brick”, and as for the short shrift she gives him…! Gondal-girl, I’m sure the book won’t disappoint…I’m keen to buy the movie now, just as soon as my boxes of belongings – including dvd player! – make it over here (currently mid-ocean). Hope you all enjoy the book.

  6. rosyb
    June 25, 2008

    This sounds really interesting and a bit different and I like the sounds of the irascible prickly heroine. I hope you carry on with the Australian writing journey – be interested to find out more. Maybe we should add another category.

  7. Lisa
    June 25, 2008

    Beautifully written review, Emily. You’ve hooked me. Another book right up my street. I’m rarely looking for romance and happy endings in books, so this will suit just fine.

    The boss’s diary made me laugh out loud just then. Brilliant.

  8. Emily
    June 26, 2008

    Thanks, Rosy and Lisa. Rosy – I’m on a mission to educate myself in Aus-lit so there will be more…next is a modern YA novel. Lisa – so glad the boss’s diary made you laugh; was hard to know if it would seem funny without the horrendous setting that poor Sybylla finds herself in.

  9. Jackie
    June 27, 2008

    I read this years ago and liked it, though the setting so often felt hopeless. I liked Sybella. The movie was great, too, with Judy Davis & Sam Neill, an early work by Gillian Armstrong, who later went on to the luminous “Oscar and Lucinda”.

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  13. Sheree
    March 1, 2018

    Sybylla’s story is a welcome reprieve from the endless selection of “hard-willed unruly young woman settles down when she finds true love in the end” stories we have on hand. I’m not sure I “liked” Sybylla all that much – she was prone to melodramatics, as you mentioned, which can test my patience (in reading and in life) – but Franklin’s writing was masterful. That kind of raw talent at such a young age is a thing to behold. Thank you so much for sharing your review, I really enjoyed it! 🙂

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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