Last week, I ventured back to 1900 and read a book about a very determined little girl who wants nothing more than to find her way back home.
This week, in 1901, I read a book about an equally determined young woman who hates everything about her home with an unrivaled passion, and longs to escape. The story – and more importantly, the young woman in it, has permanently left a mark on me.
In my travels this week, I discovered for the very first time an Australian classic; one of the very first. I hope you like it as much as I did…
My Brilliant Career
by Miles Franklin
First published in 1901
I don’t know about you, but to me, the thought of anyone reading the stories I wrote as a teenager makes me want to cringe. CRINGE, I say! My writing as a teenager was awful. All my main characters were thinly-veiled versions of myself and all the scenes I created were shockingly melodramatic. And then, there’s the writing…trust me, it was dreadful.
Miles Franklin wrote My Brilliant Career, her first and most famous novel, over the course of six months when she was only eighteen. By the time it was published in 1901, Miles Franklin was twenty.
For anyone reading Book to the Future overseas – yep, Miles Franklin was a woman, born Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin. She is one of Australia’s leading literary figures to this day. The Miles Franklin Literary Award is one of Australia’s most highly-regarded annual literary prizes.
My Brilliant Career was based loosely upon Miles’s own life, and when it was published in 1901, many assumed that the story was a pure autobiography, including Miles’s family and friends. In 1910, Miles forbid the republication of My Brilliant Career until ten years after her death. However, nothing Miles Franklin ever wrote in her lifetime would even approach the enduring success of My Brilliant Career. The reason for this success is, perhaps, that it contains one of Australian literature’s most unique creations – Sybylla Melvyn.
Sybylla is a remarkable, stubborn, intelligent young woman, born to the dullest of lives. She’s the eldest child in of a family of eight, living on a farm in remote New South Wales. Sybylla’s perpetually drunk father has squandered the family fortune, a situation Sybylla’s quiet, worn-out mother accepts with blind obedience. Despite her dreams of reading and music and dancing and art, Sybylla’s life is dominated by constant, wrenching labour on the family farm. She rears calves with the utmost of care, while watching older animals die, weak and shriveled on the drought-stricken land, because her father can’t afford to feed them.
This futility is too much for Sybylla, and her disobedience leads her mother to send Sybylla away to live on the family’s grand country estate, under the care of her Grandmother and aunt. This is the beginning of the most memorable, dream-like passage of My Brilliant Career. Over the course of Sybylla’s stay at Caddagat, everything about her begins to change. For the first time in her life, she is free to do as she wishes. She reads, she writes, and begins to take pride in her appearance. Everyone who meets her is mesmerised. Suddenly, her life has possibilities – the Brilliant Career of the book’s title beckons. Surely, Sybylla is destined for greatness…?
Then, Sybylla meets Harold Beecham, her wildly wealthy, attractive next-door neighbour. And slowly, shyly – they fall in love.
If you think you know what’s going to happen next, you obviously don’t know Sybylla yet. She’s a collage of literary heroines – Tess, Emma Bovary and Jane Eyre, all in one. Not only does she often slip into the behaviour of a literary heroine, Sybylla also expects the same from others. For instance, after the practical Harold Beecham proposes marriage (“Tell me, will it be yes or no” he says, without actually asking her the question first) Sybylla tells us:
“This was an experience in love. He did not turn red or white, or yellow or green, nor did he tremble or stammer, or cry or laugh, or become fierce or passionate, or tender or anything but just himself, as I had always known him…This was not as I had pictured a man would tell his love, or as I had read of it, heard of it, or wished it should be. A curious feeling – disappointment, perhaps – stole over me.”
– Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career, page 140
She accepts Harold’s proposal, but when he moves forward to kiss his fiancee for the very first time, after commenting casually on how easy it was to win her over…Sybylla panics, picks up a riding whip and slaps him across the face with it, silently pleading with him to show a little passion, to behave the way she’s read about in books. Sybylla expects the man she marries to be a hero – a passionate Heathcliff or a brooding Mr. Darcy. But, then again, don’t we all expect that when we’re eighteen?
Sybylla might act as if she’d rather be in an Austen novel, but the fact is, she’s not. The book’s quietly tragic ending (which I won’t spoil here) will make that abundantly clear. Sybylla’s future, her Brilliant Career, is snatched from her by a combination of circumstances – and her own choices.
I’m sure not all readers will “get” Sybylla in the way that I do. Perhaps you need to have once been an unattractive, awkward, confused teen girl to really see where Miles Franklin was coming from when she created Sybylla Melvyn. I can see why other readers could be frustrated with her character. She is irritable, but at the same time, determined and passionate, with a fantastically cynical sense of humour that will have you laughing out loud.
Hang on – I’ve spent my entire review talking about Sybylla. That’s not what I intended. There’s more to love about My Brilliant Career than just Sybylla. Miles Franklin’s amazing ability to capture the terrifying beauty of the Australian landscape is something truly extraordinary. I’d find an example for you, but there are far too many. And then, there are Franklin’s characters, who are portrayed with stunning clarity.
But really, when it comes to reading My Brilliant Career, it’s Sybylla who stands out above everything else. My Brilliant Career is Sybylla’s story. You may love her. You may hate her. But you can’t deny it – she’s absolutely one of a kind.
The Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should I read it?
Definitely – but only if you remember what it’s like to be a teenager. And if you’re not afraid of an ending that will leave you stunned…I mean it!
In a word: