Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction,, Miles Franklin, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, Setting

‘My Brilliant Career’ by Miles Franklin


Fiction – Kindle edition;; 252 pages; 2004.

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin (1879-1954) was an Australian feminist and writer. If her name sounds familiar it’s because she bequeathed her estate to set up the prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award, which is given to a novel of  “the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases” every year.

Her novel, My Brilliant Career, first published in 1901, is widely regarded as a fully fledged Australian classic.

Headstrong teenager

The book tells the story of a headstrong teenage girl, Sybylla Melvyn, growing up in rural Australia in the 1890s. She shuns the conventions of her time and strives to become a woman of independent means. Her greatest dream is to become a writer, but not everything goes her way.

The eldest child of a large family struggling to make ends meet, she is sent away to live with her aunt and maternal grandmother. It is here that she first meets Harold Beecham, a wealthy young pastoralist, who proposes to her. But Sybilla, who believes she is ugly and undeserving of a man’s attentions, is reluctant to accept his hand in marriage.

Then life takes a turn for the worst, when she is sent away to work as a governess in order to pay off one of her father’s gambling debts. She finds this life exceedingly dull and monotonous, and falls into a serious depression. When Harold reappears on the scene, Sybilla is confronted with a dilemma: marry him and live a life of comfort, or fulfil her “fixed determination to write a book — nothing less than a book”.

Hiding her brains

Reading My Brilliant Career, I was struck by how angry I became on Sybilla’s behalf, forced to live her life as second fiddle to a man simply because of her gender. She is clearly intelligent and full of potential, but feels she has to hide her brains for fear of being misunderstood and shunned by society. Even her mother denies her the chance to pursue a career of her own, telling her she’s “a very useless girl for your age”.

And her grandmother, who is more kindly and more forgiving of Sybilla’s tom-boyish ways, believes her only goal is to get married:

My grandmother is one of the good old school, who believed that a girl’s only proper sphere in life was marriage; so, knowing her sentiments, her purpose to get me married neither surprised nor annoyed me. But I was plain. Ah, bosh! Oh! Ah! I cannot express what kind of a feeling that fact gave me. It sank into my heart and cut like a cruel jagged knife–not because it would be a drawback to me in the marriage line, for I had an antipathy to the very thought of marriage. Marriage to me appeared the most horribly tied-down and unfair-to-women existence going. It would be from fair to middling if there was love; but I laughed at the idea of love, and determined never, never, never to marry.

While Sybilla clearly understand’s society’s double standards (she makes reference to men being allowed to sow their wild oats while women must remain chaste and “proper”), there’s not much she can do about it except be true to her own self: determined to find happiness in work and a career rather than in someone of the opposite sex.

A romantic tale

Despite this emphasis on feminist values, the book does read very much like a classic romance — will she or won’t she agree to marry Beecham, will he or won’t he find her too difficult and pursue someone else? (Think an Australian version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.)

And it’s written in an over-wrought style, mirroring the scattered, often unformed, thoughts of a rebellious teenager, who is quick to anger and make judgements on her seniors. Sometimes it feels a bit repetitive and “flabby”, and Sybilla isn’t always easy to like, but it provides an important insight into the boom-and-bust lifestyle of life on the land and the ways in which women were expected to fall into line.

Fans of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre will find a lot to like here. Like that classic English novel, My Brilliant Career celebrates the idea that everyone should be valued for simply who they are, not what they are or how much money they have in the bank. It’s highly emotive, frank and forthright. Sometimes it’s melodramatic, but as a glimpse of life in the bush — where danger and beauty often go hand-in-hand — it’s a hugely evocative read.

11 thoughts on “‘My Brilliant Career’ by Miles Franklin”

  1. I haven’t read this novel since I was a teenager. At the time, it struck a chord. I remember having great respect for Sybylla, for refusing marriage and choosing her career. Until I read this, I’d thought feminism was an invention of the sixties. I hadn’t realised that there were women who wanted more than marriage way, way back in the 1800’s!
    I remember the movie, and feeling sorry for Sam Neill as he was so nice (!), but still championing Sybylla’s choice. It’s well worth a read, particularly for young women today.


  2. This sounds really good! I’ve never read anything from Australia from that era, so interested from the start. I’ll be putting this on the TBR!


  3. I read this a couple of weeks ago, spurred on by your ANZ Literature Month. I found it an inspiring read, that someone from that era with so little education, at that age, could write such a novel. You could forgive all of the rants and raves, I would have been ranting and raving as well. We are just so privileged to be born in today’s era where women do have opportunities.


  4. It is, indeed, a classic. I enjoyed reading it (though my editors brain did kick in and I would have liked to tighten some of it up, shock-horror!) It is quite an eye opening read and certainly captures a certain time / place in history that many of us have no knowledge of, which makes it an even more important read. It is like an historical document, no?


  5. Yes, its amazing to think she was denied the ability to use her intelligence, but this is still the case in so many countries around the world where women are denied the opportunity to do anything other than stay at home and produce children. Imagine how wonderful the world would be if we could harness 100% of the worlds brains instead of just those brains that happen to belong in mens heads!


  6. Glad to have introduced you to it, Lizzi. Note that its long out of copyright so you should be able to find a free digital version online. I got mine from, a site I highly recommend.


  7. I don’t know what to think.
    Jane Austen is one of my pet peeve but your words on Jane Eyre are so convincing that I’m lost!
    + I’m no longer a teenager 😉
    I’ve heard of this book since last year Australian LitMonth but I have not been able to decide whether to read it or not.


  8. Oh, please, do read it. It is such an insight into what life was like at that point in time. Despite living in remote locations people still had to abide by social mores to a ridiculous extend.
    Ive never read Jane Austen, so dont let that reference put you off.


  9. You’ve made me laughed with your: ‘Ive never read Jane Austen’ 😀 (neither have I… beyond page 2).
    Your details are really interesting and it’s ok, I’m going to read it.
    My library has a French translation but the translator seems to be specialized in Spanish (!). I love to read Australian books in their original version (your fault 😉 and there’s a lack a translators specialized in this English (translations from Aussie or NZ writers sounds like translations from British and American writers: it’s quite awful when you’ve tasted the original). So I’m going to enter your giveaway. As I’m going to lose (I’m not even able to win 2 euros at the lottery), I’ll have a whole year to buy and read it for your next Australian Month 🙂


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