1901 – my brilliant career ~ miles franklin

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:


Author: Michelle

Reader, writer, wannabe. Literary critic (with training wheels on). Blogging my way through the 20th century's classic novels in chronological order.

19 thoughts on “1901 – my brilliant career ~ miles franklin”

  1. Aw, no happy ending. :-( Do you know if she gets a happy romantic ending in the sequel?

    I agree with you on reviewing. I can read book after book, but writing the reviews can be a real effort.

    1. Hi Kat! Thanks for stopping by – it’s greatly appreciated!

      I haven’t read the sequel (“My Career Goes Bung”) yet, but I’m really looking forward to it – when I can find the time. My copy of My Brilliant Career actually combines both books into the one volume, so I’ve got no excuse! Once I get around to reading it, I’ll let you know how Sybylla’s story ends.

  2. Nice review! Not the sort of book I’m going to read though!

    Can I make a small suggestion? Set up a page where you link to each of your book reviews in a list. People are going to have trouble finding reviews, the further you get.

    As a sidebar, I like the photos that you’re putting with them. Keep that up. :)

    Oh, and I’m sending you a couple of books. As soon as I manage to dig them out of a box.

    1. Hi again, Doctor (c:

      Good idea ’bout the masterlist of reviews! I’ll get that going soon – as soon as I can work out how to do it. And I’m VERY glad you like the photos! I was originally going to just yoink photos of book covers from the web, but I thought taking my own photos around the house would give Book to the Future a kind of personal touch. It’s definitely something I’m planning on continuing – however, our house isn’t that big, so I might run out of places to take photos in a year or so.

      Send me books any time – this goes for you, and for anyone else reading this. Especially publishing companies! (shifty eyes)

  3. My sister read MBC a couple of weeks ago for a uni film & lit. class and **LOVED** it. Apparently, though, the vast majority of the class absolutely hated the book (and Sybylla) with a fiery, fiery passion.

    She’s been talking about the book ever since (which is irritating, because I haven’t read it and she won’t reveal the shocking ending.) I’ll forward this on to her – she’ll enjoy the vindication!

    1. My Brilliant Career and Sybylla go hand in hand – she’s what makes this book. You hate her, you hate the book.

      Sybylla’s one of those characters with the capacity to divide people – you either adore her, or you hate her with a fiery, fiery passion and want to stab her (*cough* abitlikeBellafromTwilight *cough*). There’s no middle of the road with Sybylla. She’s frustrating, in that she makes her life all the more difficult through her own decisions…but I, personally, respect her for that.

      If you ever get around to reading My Brilliant Career, let me know what you think! And thanks for stopping by… (c:

  4. Hi Michelle. I read this book on your recommendation and despite almost tossing it in the trash about a third of the way through, I stuck it out and did quite enjoy it. I didn’t love it, as Sybylla is painfully childish and irritating most of the time but given the affections of Harold the story is compelling enough to want to finish. I think in the end I do ‘get’ Sybylla and I think she might the right decisions. She is as Harold describes her: “the best and truest girl in the world.”

    1. Hi Marc! Thanks for dropping by!

      I’m glad you didn’t pitch My Brilliant Career in the bin, though I can understand why anyone would. There were times reading My Brilliant Career when I seriously wanted to strangle Sybylla too. She can be pretty unbearable at times. Not that Harold’s a perfect darling dreamboat, either (his behaviour before recognising Sybylla, for example – wrong wrong wrong!). It’s Sybylla’s truth, in the end, that really won me over – she didn’t choose the easy path to happiness. She chose what was true to her.

      (I’m also glad that one of my reviews managed to convince someone to read a book! Yay!)

  5. can guys give me summary of chapter 13 of my brilliant career. The chapter is really sweet and I don’t know how to summarise it……plz help

    1. Hello Chaarvee. Hope I’m not too late – I’ve been busy reading. Does this help?

      In Chapter Thirteen of My Brilliant Career, Sybylla tells us how she meets Harold Beecham for the first time, who she confesses in the first sentence has been her only real sweetheart. She’s halfway up a tree, on a ladder picking some lemons, when Harold approaches her and, mistaking her for a servant girl, grabs her, lifts her down from the ladder and behaves quite arrogantly towards her. Sybylla decides to go along with it for fun, and doesn’t reveal her true identity. Harold cracks his whip around her to see if she flinches – which she doesn’t.

      Later, Sybylla and Harold are formally introduced, and Harold realises his mistake and blushes profusely, which Sybylla finds hilarious. They talk (and flirt!) for a while, then Sybylla questions her Aunt Helen about Harold when he’s not around. Then Harold and Sybylla bid each other good night.

      This isn’t homework by any chance…? (c:

  6. Thank you really much!!!! It helped me a lot. I really love this book and I can’t wait to read the next one. :D

    1. Thanks Emily! This is the second review I ever wrote (and I’m too afraid to re-read it because it’s probably awful) but I still think about My Brilliant Career all the time. Such a witty, playful novel – I want to read it again just thinking about it!

  7. Franklin’s turn of phrase was truly masterful, that kind of raw talent at sixteen is a rare find. It’s funny, like you I had a similar beginning to Sybylla in a lot of ways (awkward, passionate, perplexed by the social norms for a young girl in a regional Australian town), but I didn’t seem to find her quite as relatable/enjoyable to read. I think perhaps I don’t have enough distance from that period in my own life to give me good perspective ;) I really enjoyed this review though, thank you so much for sharing! I’d love to see more bloggers reviewing great Aussie female writers (shout out to the AWW challenge!).

    1. Hi Sheree – welcome, and thank you for your kind comments! As a thirty-something, I admire Sybylla’s determination. I really like to think that if I’d read this in my teens, I’d have loved it…but when I was a teen, I was grumpy and thought I knew *everything*, and I’d probably have detested Sybylla – even though I was awkward and perplexed as she was and we’d have been best buds if I’d known her IRL :)

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