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.
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