Fiction – Kindle edition; Manybooks.net; 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.
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.