Iconography: A Selection of Brilliant Careers
I wanted to write about at least one writer from the Southern Hemisphere for you. (I was going to also write about New Zealand’s Katherine Mansfield, but then Lindsay pipped me to the blog post!) I thought to myself, I’ve never read My Brilliant Career (1901), and that’s supposed to be one of the best feminist works to ever come out of Australia. An excellent topic on which to write, I surmised! This plan did not quite work out as I had expected. So let me tell you a little bit about Miles Franklin, and some other Australian women writers you, readers, may find of interest.
Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin was born in 1879 in country New South Wales, Australia's most populous state. She grew up on her family’s home station, moving about NSW with them, eventually to Sydney. She was an active feminist, working with Australian first wavers like Vida Goldstein and Rose Scott. After writing My Brilliant Career, Franklin worked as a nurse and then a housemaid, picking up freelance work with the Daily Telegraph and The Sydney Morning Herald under pseudonyms such as “An Old Bachelor.” Franklin moved to Melbourne, then the United States, and then England, but she came back to Sydney in the end. She died in 1954.
None of Franklin’s other works were nearly so successful as My Brilliant Career, her other hit being All that Swagger; after a long gap, it was published in 1936. The sequel to My Brilliant Career was My Career Goes Bung (1946), about the main character’s life in Sydney literary society. Franklin’s legacy continues through her stipulation in her will that her estate would establish the Miles Franklin Award, which has become part of the Australian consciousness as a major literary award. It is awarded annually to the "best Australian published novel or play portraying Australian life in any of its phases."
My Brilliant Career is an autobiographical novel about a young woman called Sybylla who yearns to write books, but keeps finding herself in romantic entanglements. She’s held to be ugly and undesirable by those around her, who nevertheless think she should be getting started on trying to snag a husband. Sybylla eventually gives up her shot at love in order to pursue the brilliant career she so wants. In theory, My Brilliant Career is inspiring, but, having now read it, I am given to wondering why it’s such a classic.
Sybylla is one of the more self-absorbed characters I’ve ever encountered, and so rude. She has such little regard for the Irish family who take her in that she teaches their children “proper” table manners and hits them when they’re made her pupils. And then there’s this from the introduction: “'Better be born a slave than a poet, better be born a black, better be born a cripple! For a poet must be companionless-alone!” Allow yourself to sit back, stunned, for a moment. That’s not the novel’s only comment about “cripples” and black people. (As a note, in Australia, “black” may refer to Indigenous Australians as well as people of African descent; Franklin is referring to the former here.) This is the marginalizing perspective being held up as iconic, distinctly Australian, and essential to Australian literature. Well, they got that right. The same goes for My Brilliant Career’s status as a feminist classic: that’s the kind of feminism that has been popular, a feminism that’s about white women’s careers and choices.
I don’t want to end on so frustrating a note, so I want to recommend you a few other women writers from this part of the world. Alyssa Brugman writes young adult fiction; my favorite of hers is Walking Naked. Kate Constable is another YA type worth checking out, as is Melina Marchetta. Ursula Dubosarsky is a sensitive, beautiful writer. Kate Grenville’s next book is always awaited with bated breath. Sally Morgan’s My Place (1987), about the discovery of her Aboriginal heritage, is essential. Oodgeroo Noonuccal is one of the best poets you’ll ever encounter. I hope Lucy Sussex and Karen Healey, as New Zealanders living in Australia, will excuse their inclusion, but they are both too excellent to pass up.
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