Posts Tagged ‘My Brilliant Career’

These next two books are proving to be something of a challenge to me.

Well, not actually the books themselves. Reading Miles Franklin’s teenage bestseller, My Brilliant Career, and her publisher-suppressed sequel (and apology to her parents) My Career Goes Bung, has been a fascinating process. My dilemma lies in how best to express what these books are really all about, and how they reflect the strong ideals of their author in her own life, while still inhabiting the fictional realm.

I will try to keep things brief(ish); one could go on for pages and pages and pages. Luckily there are others who have covered this ground before, and I think that if I succeed in piquing your interest in this writer and her books I will have to say, “Good enough.” Biographies and resources are definitely available for further study.

my brilliant career virago press miles franklin 001 (2)My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin ~ 1901. This edition: Virago, 2002. Introduction by Carmen Callil. Paperback. ISBN: 0-86068-193-9. 232 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

My sphere in life is not congenial to me. Oh, how I hate this living death which has swallowed all my teens, which is greedily devouring my youth, which will sap my prime, and in which my old age, if I am cursed with any, will be worn away! As my life creeps on for ever through the long toil-laden days with its agonizing monotony, narrowness, and absolute uncongeniality, how my spirit frets and champs its unbreakable fetters—all in vain!

Whoa, steady on, there!

These emotions, from the introduction of My Brilliant Career, written in the voice of fictional autobiographer, almost-seventeen-year-old Sybylla Melvyn, absolutely sob teen angst. Appropriately so, for their real author, Australian Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, was just sixteen herself when she dashed these words off in the late 1900s, and the youth of the author is very evident throughout the story.

The fictional Sybylla starts life as the indulged child of a successful New South Wales landholder and an aristocratic mother. When Sybylla is eight years old, a prolonged drought inspires her father to change his occupation, to that of a stock dealer in nearby dairy-farming region, and the landholdings are sold and the family relocated to a much smaller farm. Sybylla’s father proves to be a very poor businessman, and his escalating failures start him drinking to excess, until the family’s circumstances become reduced to the point of bankruptcy. Sybylla’s mother is predictably soured by all of this, and her frustration with her declining lot in life and with her continually sulking eldest daughter comes to a head. Sybylla is told to get out into the world and earn a living, as the family cannot support either her careless ways or her continued financial drain on family resources. A reprieve comes through an offer by Sybylla’s well-off maternal grandmother to come and live on the family estate.

Sybylla finds life at her grandmother’s very congenial, and she blossoms into something of a local belle, eventually attracting the attention of the district’s wealthiest bachelor, the dashing Harry Beecham. Harry and Sybylla come to a tentative agreement – tentative, anyway, on Sybylla’s part, though ironclad on Harry’s – that she will marry him once she turns twenty-one. As she is just seventeen when this takes place, anything might happen in the ensuing years, and of course it does.

Harry loses his estate and leaves the district in order to re-establish himself; Sybylla’s parents send for her to take on a post as a governess with a family friend who has loaned the Melvyns money; Sybylla’s labors will count towards the interest. This proves to be a squalid and humiliating experience; Sybylla ends up having a nervous and physical breakdown, and returns to her parents’ home to recuperate, much to their combined dismay.

Harry returns, with fortune well on its way to being restored, but Sybylla has developed a deep antipathy to the married state, having observed the brutal physical and emotional effects of even a happy marriage on the women she has been observing as she becomes ever more acquainted with the wider world. Though Harry offers her a deep respect and swears that he will allow her the freedom to pursue her own interests (writing and music), and she is herself more than a little in love with him, she is ultimately unable to commit herself to him, and there Sybylla’s story abruptly ends.

This novel was an immediate bestseller, and brought the young author – Miles Franklin was twenty-one when it appeared – much fame and notoriety, as it was claimed by the publisher to be autobiographical, and the parallels between aspects of the lives of fictional Sybylla and real-life Miles were too obvious to dismiss. Teenage girls thrilled to Sybylla’s emotional outpourings and her desire to make something of herself, to have a “brilliant career”. The melodramatic tone of the tale caught adult readers’ attention, while family friends and neighbours raised querying eyebrows at the “Franklin girl’s” manipulation of the facts, and eagerly purchased the book for its curiousity value.

Despite the welcome income her debut novel brought, Miles Franklin was appalled at how it was received, and by the assumption that her family was accurately portrayed; she had meant it as a fiction. When her publisher inquired as to whether she would allow a second edition, Miles Franklin staunchly refused, and the book went out of print, until it was finally reissued in 1966, twelve years after her death.

The emotions expressed in the novel, chiefly those of frustration at the lack of opportunities for education and professional development for women, resonated with the modern feminists of the 1960s, and My Brilliant Career has been in print ever since, a highly regarded piece of early feminist literature, and a blazing example of a young woman’s refusal to bow to the status quo.

So much for the “meaningful” aspect of this book. Was it a “good” read?

Well, yes. It really was. I enjoyed it greatly.

Sybylla, for all of her over-the-top rantings about the woefulness of her life, early on turns into a very real and relatable character. I found that I was completely drawn in to her rather heart-rending little saga, and though I had moments of wanting to shake her vigorously – my “mother” side coming to the fore, I’m sure – I was completely on her side throughout. I sighed a bit when she turned down Harry Beecham at the very last; he was a wonderful catch, especially for the time and place. It was touch and go there for a bit, until Sybylla’s deeply entrenched intention of lifelong single womanhood got the upper hand!

Fascinating, then, to read the “sequel” to My Brilliant Career, which was written soon after the first book was published, but which was turned down by the publisher because of fear of scandal. More below.

First edition cover of "My Brilliant Career", which is gently mocked in the author's sequel/rebuttal, "My Career Goes Bung".

First edition cover of “My Brilliant Career”, showing the illustration which is gently mocked in the author’s sequel/rebuttal, “My Career Goes Bung”.

my career goes bung virago press miles franklin 001My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin ~ 1946. This edition: Virago, 1981. Foreword by Verna Coleman. Paperback. ISBN: 0-86068-220-X. 234 pages.

My rating: 9/10

I bless the serendipity which brought this book to me just before Christmas, when I was assembling books for the Century reading challenge. The name “Miles Franklin” was in the forefront of my awareness, having just purchased her first novel, My Brilliant Career, to represent 1901, and that in combination with the green Virago cover caught my eye.

While My Brilliant Career is something of a curiousity, a teenage writer’s attempt at dramatic fictional autobiography, My Career Goes Bung shows a polish and maturity which make me eager to explore more of this writer’s work.

The back story behind the delayed publication of the novel is fascinating as well. Written in 1902, concurrent with the author’s brief social success in Sydney as an up and coming young writer due to the instant popularity of My Brilliant Career, this next novel was returned by Franklin’s publisher with a terse, “No, thanks!”, citing fears of libel suits as well as concerns about its audacious and “advanced” views on sexuality and women’s rights. Miles Franklin then packed the manuscript away, and for decades believed it to have been destroyed, until the discovery of a second copy in an old trunk of her mother’s led to its publication in 1946.

In My Career Goes Bung, we are introduced to the “real” Sybylla, the young woman who has penned a bestseller based very loosely on fact, but which has been accepted as strictly autobiographical. In My Brilliant Career the fictional Sybylla’s parents and associates are portrayed as much less than admirable, and it is not at all surprising that the young author finds herself humiliated by the whole experience, and deeply apologetic to her parents, who were in actuality supportive of the young Sybylla’s literary strivings.

Peeling away the layers then, we have three characters to consider while reading these books. At the core, the very real person, Miles Franklin. Then her sympathetic alter-ego, the Sybylla Number Two of My Career Goes Bung, and lastly the teenage creation of excessive emotion and high imagination, Sybylla Number One, of My Brilliant Career.

Got that? It’s not all that complicated once one is immersed in the books; it all falls into place quite neatly. (Trust me!)

Sybylla Number Two goes off to Sydney to attempt to take advantage of the hubbub around her bestselling novel and to meet some of the literary stars of the day, with an eye to advancing her writing career. She is greeted with enthusiasm as the novelty of the moment, the little “bush girl” in her simple frocks, very much the innocent abroad, fending off the wolves by her impermeable naïvety in regards to their social manipulations, and in the case of many of the men, their sexual advances.

Sybylla attracts the eye of the handsome, calculating and immensely successful Goring Hardy, a thinly disguised version of the real-life “Banjo” Paterson (Waltzing Matilda, The Man From Snowy River, et al), who finds the virginal Sybylla a tempting prospect for conquest. Sybylla submits to his caresses, but allows no further liberties than some hot and heavy fondling and kissing; at the end of a week of secretive meetings, both parties realize that the relationship is not about to progress any further, and politely part ways. (Miles Franklin did have a short-term relationship of some sort with Paterson, hence the libel suit fears in regard to the fictional version.)

Sybylla is apparently something of a “babe” – in the most modern sense of the term – attracting the lavicious attentions of every many she meets. Another suitor, one Henry Beauchamp, assumed by all to be the original of the dashing Harry Beecham of My Brilliant Career, appears to vigorously woo Sybylla, but she spurns his frequent marriage proposals with steadfast determination. Sybylla then rather scornfully dismisses Sydney society as an artificial and fickle atmosphere antipathetic to true creativity, and returns to her family home more than ever determined to live the life of an independent woman, unshackled by the chains of marriage and childbearing, to pursue her ideals alone.

The End. (With the sound of enthusiastic feminist cheering faintly off on the sidelines.)

The real Miles Franklin stood by her convictions as firmly as did her fictional alter-ego. Though courted by many men, she never married. She continued to further develop her unique literary voice, supporting herself while writing by a variety of occupations, including nursing, housemaiding, and working as a secretary. She adopted the unlikely and picturesque nom-de-plume “Brent of Bin Bin”, avoiding her (modified) real name in order to sidetrack unfavourable comparisons of her subsequent work to My Brilliant Career, and had a modest success in her lifetime as a writer of Australian historical sagas and slightly quirky fictions.

Miles Franklin. I don’t think I’m quite done with her yet. What an interesting writer. Century of Books, you’ve already introduced me to a number of new-to-me mind-broadening reading experiences, of which this one stands out, so early along. I wonder what other happy surprises this reading year will bring?

Project Gutenberg Australia has a number of Miles Franklin’s works represented online, well worth looking at. My Brilliant Career and My Career Goes Bung are widely available in physical book form, in some cases as a combined edition, which I highly recommend. The second book enhances the first, and they greatly reward being read together.

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