Home > 1900, 20th Century, Australian Literature, CENTURY, Classics, Franklin Miles, Novel > My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

February 10, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901) French title: Ma brillante carrière.

If the souls of lives were voiced in music, there are some that none but a great organ could express, others the clash of a full orchestra, a few to which nought but the refined and exquisite sadness of a violin could do justice. Many might be likened unto common pianos, jangling and out of tune, and some to the feeble piping of a penny whistle, and mine could be told with a couple of nails in a rusty tin-pot.

Sybylla Melvyn is an opinionated young girl living in rural Australia in the 1890s. She first grew up on a station until her father moved his family to start a dairy farm. Due to several years of severe droughts and poor business decisions, her family gets poorer and poorer while her father wastes all their earnings in alcohol.

She is sent away to live with her grandmother who is wealthier and cares for her company. These are the happiest years of her life. She has the opportunity to read, to have interesting dicussions and to be in good company. She gets acquainted with Harold Beecham who falls in love with her and wants to marry her.

Sybylla is the narrator of the book and we see her life and other people’s reactions solely through her lenses. And her lenses are quite biased. Her personality is extraordinary for her sex, time and age. Sybylla is quite the tomboy. Her vision of men and marriage is rather jaded and she has no intention of marrying as expected of her.

Marriage to me appeared the most horribly tied-down and unfair-to-women existence going. It would be from fair to middling if there was love; but I laughed at the idea of love, and determined never, never, never to marry.

Sybylla rejects the idea of love and marriage but I’m not sure it’s really to keep her freedom. She’s convinced that she’s ugly and that men only fall for pretty girls. Therefore, she assumes that she’s unlovable. So, there is no way Harold Beecham could actually love her for herself. She’s not the average young girl, not interested in clothes and appearance. She’s more into books and theatre, more interested in intellectual activities than the ones devoted to her sex.

So, if you feel that you are afflicted with more than ordinary intelligence, and especially if you are plain with it, hide your brains, cramp your mind, study to appear unintellectual–it is your only chance. Provided a woman is beautiful allowance will be made for all her shortcomings. She can be unchaste, vapid, untruthful, flippant, heartless, and even clever; so long as she is fair to see men will stand by her, and as men, in this world, are “the dog on top”, they are the power to truckle to. A plain woman will have nothing forgiven her.

Unfortunately, this still rings true, don’t you think? There are no such things as dashing silver temples for women and we still use the expression “trophy wife”. I’m with Sybylla in this, trophy wife is an awful career to have.

Miles Franklin was a teenager when she wrote My Brilliant Career and Sybylla has the unflinching mind of a teenager. She lacks nuances in her thinking, she’s blind to recommendations from older people around her and she’s certain she understands it all. She’s also at a period of life when one questions their parents’ choices and assesses their character.

My mother is a good woman–a very good woman–and I am, I think, not quite all criminality, but we do not pull together. I am a piece of machinery which, not understanding, my mother winds up the wrong way, setting all the wheels of my composition going in creaking discord.

What a great way to describe how someone can rub you the wrong way and always get the worst of you. It could sound unfair but it’s not, considering her mother’s behavior in the novel. She’s hard with her daughter, who rebels too much. She’s also embitered by her poverty and her miserable life with a useless and drunkard of a husband. Sybylla also kills any romantic ideas one could have of living on a dairy farm. As she points out:

I am not writing of dairy-farming, the genteel and artistic profession as eulogized in leading articles of agricultural newspapers and as taught in agricultural colleges. I am depicting practical dairying as I have lived it, and seen it lived, by dozens of families around me.

And this life is grueling. The chores are heavy and leave little time or energy for anything else. They destroy the farmers’ bodies, they limit their free time for cultivating their minds. They’re at the mercy of the weather and of market rates. This part hasn’t changed much and it’s a bit disheartening.

Miles Franklin must have been a spirited young lady. And a feminist. As a lot of women of her time, Sybylla doesn’t have a lot of possibilities for a career.

“What will you do? Will you be examined for a pupil-teacher? That is a very nice occupation for girls.” “What chance would I have in a competitive exam. against Goulburn girls? They all have good teachers and give up their time to study. I only have old Harris, and he is the most idiotic old animal alive; besides, I loathe the very thought of teaching. I’d as soon go on the wallaby.” “You are not old enough to be a general servant or a cook; you have not experience enough to be a housemaid; you don’t take to sewing, and there is no chance of being accepted as a hospital nurse: you must confess there is nothing you can do. You are really a very useless girl for your age.”

In Australia, like in Europe at the time, girls who needed to work didn’t have a lot of career choices opened to them. In the end, what is Sybylla’s brilliant career mentioned in the book title? Well, she wants to be a writer! You’ll have to read the book to know how this pans out.

I enjoyed My Brilliant Career for Sybylla’s tone and the picture of rural Australia in the 1890s. I have to confess she irritated me sometimes, because she was so set in her ways and so little inclined to question her vision of the world. Pride and Prejudice was a better title than My Brilliant Career for Franklin’s novel but well, it was already taken.

It was my first Australian book from the 19thC (I know it was published in 1901 but it’s still a 19thC book for me) and I read it in English. There were a lot of unfamiliar words to describe the land and some like Kookaburras or jackeroo had a funny ring to them. Like I would be later with The Three Miss Kings, I was surprised by Franklin’s freedom of speech. Sybylla’s ideas on marriage, religion, men and life in general are unconventional. Women seemed to have more space to express themselves, probably because the country was so young and made of daring people (I think you had to have guts to leave safe and mild Europe to travel so far and settle in a brand new land).

This read is another of my contributions to the Australian Women Writers Challenge. This was also my first read out of the wonderful list of Australian Literature that I made after all the recommendations I received. It is my turn to say it is highly recommended.

As you may know the Miles Franklin is Australia’s most prestigious literary award. I’m not aware of another country where their most sought-after literary prize is named after a woman writer. Do you know another one?

  1. February 10, 2018 at 6:37 pm

    I have a copy of this around here somewhere. I’ve read two so far for the challenge as well, and my second one will be written up soon.
    There’s a film of this one, btw.


    • February 11, 2018 at 9:42 am

      I’d be interested in your thoughts about this one. I think you’d like it and I’d like to know what you’ll make of Sybylla.


      • February 11, 2018 at 6:23 pm

        Not sure I’ll get to it to be honest. I have some of challenge names (books I want to read) picked out already.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. February 10, 2018 at 10:04 pm

    There’s a fine story behind our most prestigious literary award. My Brilliant Career was Miles’ most successful novel and she struggled to make a career out of writing after that. In the biography by Jill Roe, it shows that there were many reasons for her difficulties but one of them was that at that time the Australian publishing industry didn’t really exist and authors mostly had to get their work published in England, where of course they were competing with British authors and the market was not for Australian readers, but British ones. But she knew that Australians want to read about themselves in their own country with their own ways of doing things. (*chuckle* Though not, these days, using expressions like ‘going on the wallaby’ meaning becoming a swagman, or tramp). So in her old age, (she never married) she lived very frugally in the house her mother left her, and when she died she left everything she had so painfully saved to set up a trust fund for a prize for “a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”.


    • February 11, 2018 at 9:45 am

      That’s a great story. What a woman she must have been. I wonder why she didn’t go into publishing herself but perhaps it wasn’t feasable for a woman at the time.
      Can you get the Miles Franklin several times or is it once in a life time like the Goncourt?


  3. February 10, 2018 at 10:56 pm

    I enjoyed your account of ‘My Brilliant Career’ very much. The full name of the author was Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin. So as a writer she chose to be known a ‘Miles Franklin’, obviously hoping to be mistaken for a man in order to be taken seriously in the world of writing. As for the prize in her name – it may be awarded to a woman or a man, however, in recent years there has been another Australian prize named after the same writer. This is the Stella Prize, and it is named for the same woman, but is awarded to women writers only.


    • February 11, 2018 at 9:47 am

      To be honest, at first I thought she was a male writer. It wasn’t uncommon at the time to use a male penname to be taken seriously. (Even Jo in Little Women does it, if I’m not mistaken)
      I didn’t know that the Stella prize was the “spin off” of the Miles Franklin.

      I’m not a dutiful follower of literary prizes. I don’t really trust their juries.


  4. February 10, 2018 at 11:39 pm

    I wrote my masters dissertation around Miles Franklin and have been looking forward to your review. You bring fresh eyes to a story most Australians read growing up. I’ve always focused on the anti marriage element, but you’re right, it’s a teenager’s howl of anguish at the unfairness of life. As it happens I’ve never reviewed My Brilliant Career on its own, so I’ll link to your review on my Miles Franklin page and go on with her more obscure works.


    • February 11, 2018 at 9:59 am

      Thanks Bill.
      About my “fresh eyes”. I understand what you mean because that’s how I feel when I read reviews about Balzac or Maupassant written by foreigners. There’s a fresh perspective from coming to a writer with a “virgin” background. It means coming to a book without being tarnished by tedious school classes, without cultural baggage attached to it, with no expectation to be in awe of a national masterpiece…
      There’s also the fresh perspective from being a foreigner and paying attention to details that are obvious to locals.

      About Sybylla’s teenage anguish. She’s full of certainties the way we are at that age. She’s frustrated by life as it is, its unfairness and she wants to break free of the constraints of her sex.
      I don’t know if she really didn’t want to marry because (like Jane Austen maybe), she didn’t want the consequences that went with it: unplanned pregnancies, taking care of a household and a husband and basically leaving her life as a person away to only be a wife and a mother.
      This right to be an individual besides being a husband/wife and a parents was brought by the 1960s, I think. I’m not sure adults had their own hobbies outside of the house before those years. They had to drop their personal activities to become serious adults, meaning a spouse and a parent.


      • February 11, 2018 at 12:37 pm

        I’ve thought a lot about Franklin’s anti-marriage stance because she was so vocal about it. You have to accept that she was genuine in her commitment, and I’ve attempted to demonstrate that there was a deep streak of ant-marriage campaigning in Australian women’s writing in the 50 years preceding My Brilliant Career.

        But there was also something personal in it. Franklin was engaged three or four times and was a great flirt. She wrote somewhere that a virtuous women could behave outrageously because her virtue made her immune to criticism. I think she was both attracted and repelled by sex – and in particular by the possibility that the man would be ‘unclean’, that he would be experienced. In On Dearborn Street, written when Franklin was in her mid thirties, the heroine finally permits herself to become engaged when the man assures her of his “wholesomeness” – his virginity, but even then she’s looking for a way out.

        As it happens, I’m in the middle of a Jane Austen biography right now and she is far less complicated!


        • February 12, 2018 at 11:25 pm

          Oh, I’m sure Franklin was genuine about being anti-marriage but Sybylla protests a bit too much. Then she had a chance to live a comfortable life with Harold but she resisted. (No Charlotte here)

          I didn’t know there were such things as anti-marriage campaigns at the time.

          Thanks for the info about Franklin being a serial fiancée. I guess Sybylla’s reluctance to marry Harold also comes from her fear of commitment.


  5. February 12, 2018 at 12:24 pm

    How did you like Sybylla’s encounter with Australia’s worst family?

    A lot of good comedy in this novel.


    • February 12, 2018 at 11:18 pm

      There was a bit of comedy during that period of the novel.
      It was a terrible family, you wonder why they hired a governess in the first place. They’re like an Australian white trash version of the Bennett family.


  6. March 10, 2018 at 11:34 pm

    Great review of this book. I have heard much about this novel over the years. Sybylla sounds like such an interesting character. Sometimes young people do think that they know everything and will not question themselves, thus that sounds like a realistic character trait.


    • March 11, 2018 at 8:32 am

      It’s an interesting book and her tone is much freer than what you see in European literature of the time. Very refreshing and interesting about Australia.


  1. February 12, 2018 at 3:24 am
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