The first novel by Australian feminist Miles Franklin, written when she was a teenager and published in 1901, launched more than a single brilliant career. There was her own: Franklin produced a bounty of acclaimed books and forged a legacy as one of the country’s most influential authors. And almost 80 years later Judy Davis rose to prominence after starring in director Gillian Armstrong’s fine 1979 adaptation.
Davis gives a rousing performance as bull-headed protagonist Sybylla Melvyn. The term “once in a lifetime” tends to be slapped around like a bumper sticker, but this meaty role lives up to the accolade. Davis won a Bafta award for her troubles and went on to form a long and distinguished CV.
“Here is the story of my career. My brilliant career. I make no apologies for being egotistical because I am,” Sybylla intones in her opening narration, with a characteristically smug, holier-than-thou temperament that makes her one of the most memorable characters in Australian cinema. While a sandstorm erupts in the dusty outback around her she writes a diary entry reflecting on her desire to belong to the world of art and literature.
With those sun-baked rural locations, it’s obvious from the get-go that My Brilliant Career will be a quintessentially Australian story, set in a quintessentially Australian context. The themes of the film are broad (breaking free of the establishment, being true to yourself) and its message about the virtues and consequences of self-empowerment timeless.
From that opening moment it’s unclear whether Sybylla’s “brilliant career” is wishful thinking or an ambition destined to be realised by the closing credits. Part of the strength and nuance of Armstrong’s film (and the book on which it was based) is that the end result is both – and neither.
Sybylla’s aspirations are realised in the sense that her independence is protected, her integrity maintained and her creative voice given an outlet. But despite those virtues – or perhaps because of them – the people around her, constituents of an atavistic male-dominated hierarchy, remain unconvinced of her success and deeply sceptical of her intentions.
“Useless, plain and godless” is how Sybylla’s mother describes her early in the film, when Armstrong is still doing the heavy lifting to establish her protagonist as a maligned free spirit rubbing up against the established order of things. In the next scene Sybylla talks to her sister, below the stars, and asks her if she’s dreamed of a better life – of adventure, books and culture, things beyond a farm-girl existence that oscillates between two modes: work and sleep.
A young woman dreaming of something greater than provincial life is a familiar narrative trajectory, but My Brilliant Career is the seminal work; the grandmother of feminist narratives, built around a character whose determination to live independent of societal expectations took place in a time well before the struggle for women’s rights became a movement.
Despite a touching romantic subplot featuring a dashing Sam Neill as Harry Beecham – one of the rare people who don’t talk down to, patronise or discourage Sybylla – the film doesn’t replace the lonely dignity of its protagonist with rosiness and romance. She ends the film as she began it, writing pensive thoughts into her diary, having refused Beecham’s hand in marriage. The dignity of the film and its subject remains heartbreakingly intact.
There’s no wonder My Brilliant Career is cited as a milestone in Australian feminist cinema. It is a powerful rumination on atavistic Australia, sexism and classism, and a sensitive portrait of a woman destined to think outside the box. Sybylla’s artistic aspirations keep the film relevant and broadly accessible. Pressure from people around her comes in many forms, even in something as innocuous as playing piano. She is instructed “play the nice ones”.
My Brilliant Career isn’t “a nice one”. Like its protagonist, it is staunchly unconventional. The film itself is a kind of free spirit, and one that has made an indelible print on Australian cinema.
Essay by Susan K. Martin
My Brilliant Career opens with a howl: the very first words of the story proper are not words at all, but inarticulate cries of pain, like a birth: ‘”Boo, hoo! Ow, ow; Oh! oh!”‘(Franklin p. 1). Henry Lawson’s preface to the novel, in which he talks about his ability to judge the ‘painfully real’ depictions of bush life, versus his inability to comment on the ‘girlishly emotional’ bits, is usually published as a preface, and if it is read first it can dilute the impact of the opening cries. There are also a set of welcoming remarks from the ‘author’ that offer a playful warning.
The novel tracks the life experiences of Sybylla Melvyn. It is carefully prefaced with her external view as a writing presence, before the opening scream. A brief introduction follows the ‘scream’, which shows Sybylla as a bold and happy little girl enjoying an ideal rural childhood. This golden period is followed by a series of disappointments. A contemporary reader might see this as the common pattern of life, and a 19th century Christian reader might have seen in it a very familiar echo of the biblical plot in which the innocents are ejected from paradise. In either case, as Sybylla grows, she grows away from her ruralparadise due to a number of causes. Her adored father proves to be restless and incautious in his property deals, and moves the family to a less pleasant property. The world becomes less attractive to her, and her parents become less attractive to her also, because their circumstances get worse and because she begins to see them more clearly. Sybylla is a sharp-eyed and unforgiving narrator, and recounts the weaknesses of those around her harshly. Her father’s poor business dealings and thoughtless ambitions are harshly dealt with, as is her mother’s worn gentility, and even more worn out temper.
As the oldest, misunderstood teenage daughter, the story recounts Sybylla’s trials. She must undertake uncongenial work for the family, and is deprived of culture in the form of reading and learning. It is Sybylla who must retrieve her drunken father from the pub, and suffer embarrassments and humiliations. A brief reprieve comes when her genteel grandmother writes and asks her mother to send her to Caddagat, the childhood home of her mother, and she gets a taste of the higher life she has longed for – a world of reading, leisure, and a sympathetic environment.
This environment also offers romantic possibilities, particularly in the form of local wealthy landowner Harold Beecham. Yet, like any return to paradise, or a place that we have loved, it can’t last, and when the family finances deteriorate, Sybylla is recalled home by her mother and sent out to work as a poorly trained governess with the farcically named M’Swat family. There Sybylla suffers horribly, and begs her refined aunt and grandmother at Caddagat to intervene with her mother on her behalf. Finally, in melodramatic fashion she comes down with ‘nervous prostration’, and must be returned to her family (p. 199).
Sybylla is irritating, in the way that self-absorbed, self-pitying people are, when they are not ourselves or our best friends; but most readers still want her to be rescued from her situation, and one of the interesting things about the novel is the way that it ends.
Why read My Brilliant Career?
Why would anyone want to read My Brilliant Career now, over a hundred years later, and what seems like more than a hundred years removed from the world it creates? The answer: closeness and distance, which is to say most readers will immediately recognise Sybylla’s experience while at the same time realising that it is also very much of another time. Sybylla’s frustration is familiar to every person who has grown up in a family. She rages at her lot in life and experiences intense disappointment in her parents, in particular her alcoholic father’s irresponsibility and her mother’s complete failure to comprehend her desire for a wider and different life. Such feelings are immediately familiar to most of us. On the other hand, the context is now extremely unfamiliar. The world of the novel is far removed from the modern, in time and space. Contemporary teenagers stuck in the country now, however remote, have more access to the world than Sybylla could hope to have. If phone reception is bad, and internet slower, this does not compare to the boredom and isolation of reading through all the books the neighbourhood has to offer, or being stuck living with people who do not believe you can be paid for singing, and may not know the name of the Prime Minister. This must seem like another world, not just another century to many readers.
The howls near the beginning of the story do not herald the birth of Sybylla Melvyn, the heroine, but the birth of her consciousness – her first memory, her coming to know herself. That her first memory is one of pain and of literally getting her fingers burnt, despite the idyllic setting, is consistent with the tone of the novel. From the title onwards, My Brilliant Career operates through irony, and indeed the title has been repeatedly borrowed and played upon, mostly in those same ironic terms. Miles Franklin’s original title for the novel was My Brilliant(?) Career (Roe p. 52) but the question mark was removed by the publishers, William Blackwood & Sons. Franklin protested the editorial change, seeing it as neutralising the sardonic mood of the novel. Consequently, the novel was taken as autobiographical – a (factual) story of a girl’s life – and not the ironic fiction that Franklin intended. The novel is no longer thought of as experimental or radical in any way, yet the opening warnings and the screams (the screams are perhaps another part of the warning) introduced a number of experimental departures from traditional novelistic forms of the time. Like another Australian ‘classic’, Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life (1903), that is contemporary with Franklin’s novel, My Brilliant Career declares itself hostile to ‘Romance’.
Sybylla’s ‘Introduction’ warns: ‘There is no plot in this story, because there has been none in my life or in any other life which has come under my notice’. My Brilliant Career plays with the idea of a novel without plot – without sequence, coincidence, narrative climax or dénouement – but it does have one. Arguably, what readers most want out of stories is plot. In a famous book on the topic, Reading for the Plot, Peter Brooks suggests that our pleasure in reading comes from a deeply felt desire for order that is served by plotting – the arrangement and pattern of actions and events comprising the narrative.
Romance and reading
In the case of My Brilliant Career, what the story very deliberately does not have is a conventional plot outcome for a young heroine. Unlike Jane Austen or Stephenie Meyer novels, Sybylla’s life story does not climax with marriage. Yet, while Sybylla’s protests against romance include a denial of love, she is not necessarily to be trusted. Despite her claims, Sybylla seems to have fallen in love like a conventional heroine. The novel raises the question of how resistant she really is to the physical and romantic attractions of Harold Beecham, the escape he offers from poverty and the access to a different life and a different plot he represents. The critic Elizabeth Webby advises readers to be careful to read Sybylla as a character, and not just a narrator; that is, we need to take note of the fact that Sybylla both tells and acts within the story, and therefore, what she says and what she does may not be in agreement.
Franklin’s ridicule of the flowery conventions and flourishes of romantic fiction has sometimes been misread as just bad writing or attributed to the writer’s youthful inexperience. Certainly her parody of romance fiction is half affectionate, and so perhaps lacks bite. Yet, like so many books of every era, this novel is about reading – the desperate desire for reading and plot. The point is made in the full literary sense, for Sybylla is writing her story; and not only is she composing or constructing a version of her life through writing, but she is also in a self-proclaimed position to include and implicate the lives of others: ‘I knew everyone’s business, and was ever in danger of publishing it at an inopportune moment’ (p. 2-3).
If the romantic relationships of My Brilliant Career are deliberately disappointed, the love affairs with print are not. Sybylla’s determination to write a book seems almost a result of running out of books to read: ‘I seldom saw a book’, she says, in the passage describing her launch into writing, having earlier ‘borrowed every book in the neighbourhood’. Sybylla’s longing for story and excitement causes her to embark on the writing of her own story; but it is also important to note that she sees the act of writing not only as a means of self-expression but also as a ‘ticket’ to another life – specifically, the life of an ‘artist’ as she imagines it.
Sybylla’s arrival in the house of romance, her grandmother’s house, is marked by the ‘three things for which [she] had been starving’: good taste, music, and books (p. 43). The first of these ‘things’ she notes as she gazes around the dining-room is in fact two very specifically identified books: a ‘Corelli’, this being a reference to Marie Corelli, and George Du Maurier’sTrilby. Neither of these novels could be considered high art; each is an example of the very popular romance genre of the time, which produces precisely the sort of plots the story supposedly rejects.
Gillian Armstrong’s film of My Brilliant Career dramatises this lust for print in the scene in which Sybylla and her young pupils energetically track a serialised story across the newspapered interior walls of the house. Sybylla’s longing for fiction and for the romance that comes in narratives (and music) is expressed in the frequent mention of books. Reading is quite explicitly associated with nourishment – of the soul, is perhaps implied – but literally with food. Much of Sybylla’s reading is accompanied by eating – she takes in fiction with fruit (‘I ate another fig and apricot, a mulberry or two, and was interrupted in the perusal of my book by the clatter of galloping hoofs . . . ‘ (p. 159)). The appetite for reading spurs the appetite for writing.
Part of the secret to the popularity of the novel, at both its republication in the 1960s and its renaissance from the late 1980s, was not that it rejected romance outright, but that it offered both romance and anti-romance, or perhaps was balanced unnervingly between the two. The named reading preferences of the heroine hint that this is the case. My Brilliant Careerexplores the language, forms and thrills of both love romance and bush romance, and simultaneously parodies, rejects and critiques them. The readers it appealed to through identification as readers, in its own time and later, might seem an odd mix of partakers of romance alongside enthusiasts for Australian bush adventure – Trilby and An Australian Bush Track.
But recent studies of 19th century Australian readers and library borrowers suggest that such readers were not so divided by gender (‘girlishly’ romantic versus bush boy adventure) as we might think now. More importantly, we must think of Australian readers as worldly readers, like Sybylla, who was an eager consumer of European popular fiction as well as local products. Julianne Lamond’s study of the Australian Common Reader Database shows that male and female readers in the sample database of borrowing records took home both romance fiction and adventure fiction, read European fiction and Australian fiction, and, importantly in relation to this novel, were simultaneous readers of ‘Anglo-Australian’ romance and bush realism.
It is worth noting that the brief list of Sybylla’s named reading, despite their apparent differences – Trilby, an unnamed book by Marie Corelli, An Australian Bush Track by J.D. Hennessey – all share features of what might now be called new age mysticism. Trilby is famously the source of the hypnotic and repulsive character Svengali and Corelli’s novels are full of mysticism. The plot of the down-to-earth sounding Australian Bush Track includes the discovery of mysterious lost civilisations.
Sybylla offers a list of writers who she longs to meet for their representations of the real world. She includes Byron, Thackeray and Dickens with Gordon, Paterson and Lawson. An earlier list, of the culture and politics of the ‘outside world’, includes Kipling and Corelli as representatives of ‘real world’ fiction. In this list there is no clear line drawn between high and low culture, popular and literary fiction. Hall Caine was an immensely popular writer at the turn of the century, known for futuristic fantasy and romance. Sybylla does not separate realism and romance, let alone fantasy, despite her stated rejection of romance as ‘fancies and dreams’.
Lawson’s introduction to My Brilliant Career identifies the romance in the novel as suspect, but rescues it from this ignominy by assuring the reader of its ‘bush truth’. Ian Henderson argues that the novel made Lawson uncomfortable because of its balance between ‘female’ identified romance and ‘male’ identified realism (p. 165). By not giving the balance to either, Henderson argues, the novel sets up a genre and gender confusion centered on the performances of the central character. This may be one reason the novel implies and attracts a mixed readership. The same Common Reader Database reveals that across the small sample of lending libraries it covers, Franklin’s novel had exactly equal male/female readership, and the surviving fan mail shows the same (Roe p. 73).
When Sybylla longs for books at the M’Swats, she is offered access to the only books in the house, apart from the unopened Bible and the local newspaper: Pa’s diaries. These are samples of pure Bush Realism indeed: ‘Week after week . . . the same – drearily monotonous account of a drearily monotonous existence . . . [in the diary] 2nd Fine. Killed a snake very hot day’ and so on (Franklin p. 177-178).
Over fifty years later Patrick White commented on the danger of the Australian novel being taken as ‘the dreary, dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism’. Franklin here, much earlier, disavows this. The pure unvarnished account of real life in the bush is worse in its own way than the flowery extremes of romantic dialogue also sampled in the novel, from scenes where she demands that Harry ‘unhand’ her, to the encounters with Frank Hawden, the Jackaroo, to whom she gives various formal rejections, such as when she responds to his proposals by saying, ‘”I ask you, Mr Hawden, if you have a sense of manliness, from this hour to cease persecuting me with your idiotic professions of love”‘(p. 73).
My Brilliant Career can be read as a kind of response to the story, or writing, of the ‘grandmother’, or at least the sort of romance plot represented by the grandmother – Australian (and perhaps British) women romance writers such as Ada Cambridge. When Sybylla’s grandmother writes to her and ‘[k]nowing [her] circumstances’ enclosed ‘a stamp to enable her to reply’ Sybylla uses these stamps not to facilitate the appropriate and expected narrative return to her grandmother, but to mail ‘a prodigious novel in point of length and detail’ to a Sydney publisher, from whom it receives a polite refusal (p. 29). She is not daunted by this rejection, but tries another.
My Brilliant Career also contains samples of the family’s letters, the stories the women write for each other. The grandmother attempts to write a marriage plot for Sybylla, who ‘might do something good for herself’ at Caddagat, and at any rate, ‘being so very plain, will need all the time she can get’ (p. 30-31). Sybylla’s mother does not subscribe to this plot so much as to the story of the ungrateful daughter. She outlines one version of this in the letter summoning Sybylla to teach the M’Swat children: ‘it is time you gave up pleasuring and began to meet the responsibilities of life’ (p. 161). Sybylla’s letters outline various narrative selves and plots, from her part artistic part straightforward letter to Gertie, to her torn up letter to Everard, full of romantic descriptive prose and an artistic life in Sydney.
Her claimed exercises in realism are her letters to her mother and grandmother begging release, in which she did not ‘rant, rave, or say anything which [she] ought not to have said to [her] elders’ but wrote ‘very coolly and carefully, explaining things just as they were’ (p. 176). Her mother’s reply is another unsatisfactory missive, which is torn to pieces. Sybylla’s realistic narrative of her own misery has not been sufficient to convince or compel her mother. It is a critique and rejection of her writing which she takes with less composure than her publisher’s rejection. In this respect her attempts are less successful than Mr M’Swat’s painful efforts to write, in that the half-sheet epistle, produced after three hours struggle, ‘which in grammar, composition and spelling quite eclipsed the entries in his diary’, still ‘served its purpose’ of returning Sybylla home (p. 200). If Franklin is not parodying some versions of bush realism, as she elsewhere parodies some elements of romance, at the very least she is demonstrating that writing takes work and art combined.
The reason the novel is in print, and you are reading it now, has a lot to do with its adoption in the late 1970s by the feminist movement of that period. Feminist critics, scholars and writers of this period were interested in the female author using a male name, the feisty heroine, the complex exploration of gender roles and restrictions in Australia at the turn of the century, and perhaps also the complicated representation of popular genres. My Brilliant Career was a part of the 1890s nationalist movement, but (as with most of the writers so categorised) its representations of environment, like its representations of gender and of nation, are not simple.
In the most anthologised Henry Lawson stories, the Australian environment, identified as the bush, is a harsh opponent to the hardened individuals who struggle to survive against its onslaughts. In My Brilliant Career this idea is present, but is tempered by various portrayals of rural life: Possum Gully is countered by Bruggabrong and Caddagat, and also Barney’s Gap. Barney’s Gap, home of the M’Swats, is an important component, because without it the difference would only be an economic one – Caddagat is pleasant because of wealth and Possum Gully becomes unbearable through poverty. But Franklin’s picture of Australian rural life is a more subtle representation that invites more considered analysis.
The divisions are not just about money, but also about management, education, and class. Jill Roe points out the anti-Squatter tone and the depictions of class division in the novel, clearly revealed by its Goulburn reception (p. 68-73). Strikingly, the differences between places are about water. In Sybylla’s letter to her sister from Caddagat in Chapter 14 she is aware that the fundamental differences are rainfall and irrigation. She says, ‘They have great squawking about the drought up here. I wish they could see Goulburn, and then they’d know what drought means . . . everyone calls the paddocks about the house an oasis. You see there are such splendid facilities for irrigation here’ (Franklin p. 83).
The word irrigation recurs in relation to Caddagat, while laborious and fruitless watering by bucket is increasingly associated with Possum Gully. Water is the primary thing missing – not necessarily money (although Franklin clearly shows that the two are connected). The M’Swats have some money, however, and, notably, it rains on Sybylla’s arrival at Barney’s Gap, but the family take no advantage of the water other than to push each other in it and get wet and cold. Lack of intelligence and education apparently prevent some of the population from taking advantage of their own environment.
However, unlike some contemporary writers – Lawson, and perhaps also Joseph Furphy – Franklin continues to show the beauty not just of lush, irrigated Caddagat, but also of the dry environment, as well as its hardship, and ugliness, and the obsession with profit at the expense of culture. Even Possum Gully has beautiful ‘bowers’ of wattles, which adorn the hills and gullies. The closing of the novel, which leaves Sybylla despairing in her drought-stricken home, half ironically offers the final in a series of admired glorious sunsets: ‘the gorgeous, garish splendour of sunset pageantry flames out; the long shadows eagerly cover all; the kookaburras laugh their merry mocking good-night; the clouds fade to turquoise, green and grey'(p. 232). In Armstrong’s film the bleakness of this scene is redeemed by Sybylla sending off her book: she has some reward for her self-sacrifice and hardship. Elizabeth Webby and Jill Roe argue that this is a romantic production of the film. The film rewrites the novel as akunstlerroman in which the narrative and the heroine happily replace love with art.
However, in the novel, or around it, Sybylla really does write her own preface; she is writing a book (another book) in the novel, and she addresses someone, who seems like a reader, in her closing words. The opening accident – a burn, significantly – and the ensuing cries are matched by a closing flame of sunset and a mock-heroic valedictory prayer. Yet this is not a simple novel of humanist self-realisation any more than it is just a parodic romance. If Sybylla is not holding a book in her hands at the close of the novel, the turning of Sybylla the avid reader into Sybylla the writer does hang as a possibility at the close of her ‘ineffective life’ story in My Brilliant Career. The elided question mark remains.
In her will, Miles Franklin established a literary award for a novel of ‘highest literary merit which must present Australian Life in any of its phases’ (Miles Franklin Award). This requirement has become uncomfortable for some in an increasingly cosmopolitan Australia. From Franklin’s first book to her last will, she retained a passionate interest in Australian life, although she lived a very cosmopolitan one. What actually constitutes ‘Australian Life’ is a constant question for the Miles Franklin Award judges, as it is for the readers of this novel.
Franklin, M. My Brilliant Career . Angus & Robertson, 1979.
Henderson, I. “Gender, Genre, and Sybylla’s Performative Identity in Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career.” Australian Literary Studies 18.2 (1997): 165-173.
Roe, J. Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography. HarperCollins, 2008.
Webby, E. “Reading My Brilliant Career.” Australian Literary Studies 20.4 (2002): 350-358.Note: this is a special edition of Australian Literary Studies with several excellent articles onMy Brilliant Career.
White, P. “The Prodigal Son.” Australian Letters 1.3 (1958): 37-40.
Brooks, P. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. Clarendon Press, 1984.
Australian Common Reader Authors Database.
Docker, J. The Nervous Nineties. Oxford University Press, 1991.
Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate. 21 Apr, 1897: 2. Previous issue Wednesday 21 April 1897
Furphy, J. Such is Life . Halstead Press, 1999.
Lamond, J. “Communities of Readers: Australian Reading History and Library Loan Records” in Republics of Letters: Literary Communities in Australia, eds. Peter Kirkpatrick and Robert Dixon, Sydney University Press, 2012: 27-38.
Martin, S.K. “Relative Correspondence: Franklin’s My Brilliant Career and the Influence of Nineteenth-Century Australian Women’s Writing” in The Time to Write ed. Kay Ferres. Penguin, 1993: 54-70.
Miles Franklin Literary Award ‘History’
Sheridan, S. “My Brilliant Career: The Career of the Career” Australian Literary Studies 20.4 (2002): 330-335.
© Copyright Susan K. Martin 2013