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I’ve just finished reading Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1901), a novel still fresh and intriguing 114 years later. It covers a few years in the life of Sybylla, a determined young woman trying to break free of the restraints of poverty and the expectations of marriage in rural New South Wales during the drought of the 1890s . Jill Roe writes, “It was undoubtedly the literary event of 1901, the only significant Australian novel in the year of Federation; and by now it is more or less recognised that in Australia at the turn of the twentieth century, feminism and nationalism went together as radical forces.” (Stella Miles Franklin, epub edn, 133)

I was surprised by the existential anguish. This isn’t just a young woman troubled by the restraints of gender and the expectations of marriage but as troubled by existence itself as Kafka. A representative quote –

Summer is fiendish, and life is a curse, I said in my heart. What a great dull hard rock the world was! On it were a few barren narrow ledges, and on these, by exerting ourselves so that the force wears off our finger-nails, it allows us to hang for a year or two, and then hurls us off into outer darkness and oblivion, perhaps to endure worse torture than this. (Adelaide ebooks Kindle edn, loc. 523).

Yet the angst is also balanced so delightfully with Sybylla’s silliness, verve and moments of joy.

She wrestles several times to the question of God, not resolving it but leaning toward disbelief. This echoes what I know of Franklin’s own life – more open to religion than Katharine Susannah Prichard, but not able to believe.

Recognizing this, I turned and cursed God for casting upon me a burden greater than I could bear — cursed Him bitterly, and from within came a whisper that there was nothing there to curse. There was no God. I was an unbeliever. It was not that I sought after or desired atheism. I longed to be a Christian, and fought against unbelief. I asked the Christians around me for help. Unsophisticated fool! I might as well have announced that I was a harlot. My respectability vanished in one slap. Some said it was impossible to disbelieve in the existence of a God: I was only doing it for notoriety, and they washed their hands of me at once. (loc. 836)

Sybylla’s longing for a faith she cannot gain is poignant.

I was struck by one instance of casual racism which was undoubtedly representative of the times. In the coach on the way to stay with the M’Swat family, another passenger says to her, “If you can’t stand the stink of that bloomin’ chow, miss, just change seats with me. I’ve knocked about, so that I can easy stand some tough smells without much inconvenience.” (loc. 3354) Sybylla tells him to keep his voice lower, as he might hurt the “Chinaman’s” feelings, before switching places as he suggested. The Chinese character is not given a voice, and so we never learn whether his feelings were hurt.

Sybylla’s ill-fated stint as governess with the M’Swats is an interesting picture of class-relations in Federation Australia. The M’Swats have money but no class, and their lack of class is shown in their dirtiness (“it was one of the many varieties of dirt on the horrible foul-smelling tablecloth” [loc. 3454]), their lack of books (they haven’t heard of Nellie Melba, believing her a myth, and even have only a vague notion of who Jesus was), and their unplayable piano. There’s an amusing scene where the bored Sybylla tries to read Mr M’Swat’s diary:

Pa has lots of diaries. Would I like to read them?”

They were brought and put before me. I inquired of Mr M’Swat which was the liveliest time of the year, and being told it was shearing and threshing, I opened one first in November:

“November 1896

1st. Fine. Started to muster sheap.
2nd. Fine. Counten sheap very dusty 20 short.
3rd. Fine. Started shering. Joe Harris cut his hand bad and wint hoam.
4th. Showery. Shering stoped on account of rane.” (loc. 3563)

Class matters to Sybylla; her tragedy is partly depicted as one of a well-bred woman not able to live up to her entitlements. Of course, in Prichard’s work class is treated quite differently, with the workers usually noble creatures awaiting an autodidact who will come along and enlighten them – the most important education being a political awakening.

I’m writing a follow-up post on the connections between Prichard and My Brilliant Career. You can download the novel here, and see a photo of what is claimed to be the only surviving first edition paperback here.