The first time I read this book, back in the 1970s, I didn’t realise quite how extraordinary it was. Extraordinary? Yes, on two counts. First, Miles Franklin was very young when she wrote it. Given that she published it when she was 21, I assume that she wrote at least part of it while still a teenager. Secondly, marriage is almost always the choice made by women both in reality and in novels set in this time. So, for Sybylla not to choose marriage is very unusual.
By the 1970s, some women did have more choices, and choosing to be single was one of those choices. In 2016, I can look back on the fact of choice, and be thankful.
‘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.’
The hero of this novel is Sybylla Melvyn, a teenager growing up in rural New South Wales in the 1890s. Her father, Richard Melvyn, made a series of questionable business decisions which against a background of drought, reduced the family circumstances from some comfort to subsistence levels. Richard Melvyn drinks to escape, Sybylla’s mother struggles and Sybylla is not enjoying her life.
‘Weariness! Weariness! This was my life—my life—my career, my brilliant career! I was fifteen—fifteen!’
Sybylla is sent to stay with her grandmother and aunt, and finds life much more comfortable. She meets a wealthy young man, Harold Beecham, but refuses to take him seriously when he proposes marriage to her. Shortly afterwards, Sybylla is summoned home. Her father’s drinking has now increased her family’s indebtedness to the extent where Sybylla is required to serve as a governess to an almost illiterate family of neighbours.
‘A woman is but the helpless tool of man—a creature of circumstances.’
After becoming ill, Sybylla returns home. Harold Beecham, who has suffered his own ups and downs in fortune returns to ask her to marry him. But Sybylla refuses, and the novel ends with no hint of any brilliance in Sybylla’s future.
I finished this novel resolving to read the rest of Miles Franklin’s works (as well as those she wrote under the pseudonym of ‘Brent of Bin Bin’). This is one of very few novels I’ve read where marriage was not the preferred option for a female. When I first read it (in the 1970s), I took this for granted. Reading it again, I’m more aware of how unusual this was for a novel written in the late nineteenth century.
Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin (14/10/1879 – 19/9/1954) – Miles Franklin— was born in Talbingo, on the edge of the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales. ‘My Brilliant Career’ was her first book, first published in 1901 when she was aged 21. While the novel was successful when first published, Miles Franklin withdrew it from publication because she was upset that so many people considered the novel autobiographical. Was it autobiographical? I wonder. I first read the novel some 40 years ago, and recently reread it as part of my quest to read more books written by Australian Women Writers.