The Start of a Most Brilliant Career

I’ve had a copy of Miles Franklin’s classic Australian novel My Brilliant Career on my shelves for about six months now, having previously failed to read a library copy and a free Kindle version, but a recent catalyst finally induced me to pick it up and give it a go.  Tom, the amateur reader behind the deceptively-professional Wuthering Expectations, posted twice on it a few weeks ago, and his comments persuaded me that it was time to head out into the bush.  Care to join me?  Bring a hat, don’t forget the sunscreen – oh, and whatever you do, watch where you’re walking…

My Brilliant Career is set in the 1890s and narrated by Sybylla Melvyn, a woman looking back at her formative years.  The first ten years of her life, spent in the Australian bush riding horses and splashing around in waterholes, turn her into a bit of a tomboy, and when her father decides to move his family and take on a new career as a dairy farmer, she struggles to adapt to her new, dull existence.

Luckily, after several years of drudgery, she is rescued by her grandmother, who brings her back to her home area of Caddagat to live a slightly more refined existence.  Here Sybylla once again encounters books, society and men – in particular, the rich, sun-beaten and taciturn landholder Harold Beecham.  With a male protagonist whose emotions run deep below his rugged exterior, you could be forgiven for having fleeting thoughts of a Darcy or a Rochester.  Sybylla though is no Lizzie or Jane…

Franklin wrote the first version of the book when she was just sixteen, but apart from the odd over-flowery expression it’s hard to believe that this is the case.  My Brilliant Career is a superb depiction of life as a woman in the late 19th-century, a creature trapped by her gender in a stifling, unsuitable life.  The title is a sarcastic one, referring to Sybylla’s thoughts on the agony of her lot in life, destined (like her mother) to wear herself to the bone for nothing.

Despite her fiery nature, poor Sybylla has virtually no choice in the direction of her future.  Trapped in a poor existence by her father’s drunken ineptitude, she is shifted from house to house without ever having a say in matters.  If she could just resign herself to her fate, she knows she would be happier; however:

“…I am afflicted with the power of thought, which is a heavy curse.  The less a person thinks and inquires regarding the why and the wherefore and the justice of things, when dragging along through life, the happier it is for him, and doubly, trebly so, for her.”
p.30 (Text Classics, 2012)

It’s not as if she has any great prospect of escape.  If she needs any hints as to her probable future, the figures of her exhausted mother and her jilted spinster aunt should give her a glimpse of how she is likely to end up.

Sybylla, however, is not one to compromise.  She is a superb character, allegedly plain, but self-evidently intelligent, loving and very ambitious.  Like any Austen heroine, she loves her books and her dancing; unlike her English counterparts, she’s not averse to more masculine pursuits.  She’s just as at home on the back of a horse, or in the driver’s seat of a carriage, as she is in the ballroom – just don’t leave any whips hanging around…

Anyone who enjoys classic English literature will find a lot to like in My Brilliant Career as there are a lot of similarities with novels from the mother country.  The daily life inside the houses of the more well-off families is remarkably similar to that in many English novels, and (as mentioned) the importance of literature is just as prominent.  A scene where the family holds a feast for all the workers to celebrate the Prince of Wales’ birthday is also Hardyesque in its bringing together of all the social groups on the property.

However, this is not my home land, this is my adopted country, and My Brilliant Career, perhaps more than almost any other book I’ve read, really brings home the fact that Australia is a unique place.  Sybylla sets out on searing hot days, under impossibly blue skies, with magpies swooping on the unwary (which is a lot scarier than it sounds – trust me…).  Jackaroos abound – not small marsupials but men who work on gigantic cattle farms.  The temperature (still measured in fahrenheit in those days) is often over 100 degrees in the shade…

…and even sentences which could have been lifted directly from Austen are unable to escape their Australian influence.  If we look at a sentence (which Tom, again, got to first), a quick glance reveals a very Victorian scene:

“Several doors and windows of the long room opened into the garden, and […] it was delightful to walk amid the flowers and cool oneself between dances.” p.208

Austenesque?  Absolutely.  But the eagle-eyed among you will have noticed the square brackets in the middle of the sentence.  So, what exactly has been omitted?  Let’s look at the full sentence…

“Several doors and windows of the long room opened into the garden, and, provided one had no fear of snakes, it was delightful to walk amid the flowers and cool oneself between dances.” p.208

I think we can all agree that as wonderful as Saint Jane’s writing can be, her novels really don’t contain enough posionous snakes…

All in all, My Brilliant Career is worthy of the hype.  It’s a great book, precocious but profound, a feminist classic in which the heroine follows her own desires against the expectations of society, her family and the man who loves her.  You should read this – you’ll probably like it 🙂

Before I go, I’d just like to make a few notes on the text (no pun intended).  Text Publishing is a small press based in Melbourne, and in May this year they brought out a series called Text Classics.  The series comprises a few dozen famous Australian books, in a variety of genres, with introductions by celebrity fans of the books.  They have distinctive, yellow-based covers, and they cost just AU$12.95 each (with, as far as I can tell, free worldwide delivery).  In a country where you virtually need a mortgage to regularly buy books (and where life appears more Americanised every day…) providing affordable, quality, classic Aussie literature is a public service, and one I applaud them for – bravo 🙂  Anyone interested in literature Down Under could do a lot worse than checking out the Text Classics series as their starting point…

12 thoughts on “The Start of a Most Brilliant Career

  1. C.B. – Definitely. I wouldn't be surprised if it was the feminist reading challenge here in Australia that has pushed this in 2012 as Miles Franklin is *the* classic feminist author here.


  2. Tony: I have this (unread) on my shelf too. I rather liked the film version of this. No Aussie lit expert here, but it seems as though I've come across several Aussie bildungsroman novels with the same theme–rural to city.

    Cooking up an entry for your J-Lit month…


  3. I am so glad you got around to reading this Tony – there is nothing quite like it, in it's Aussie rawness. I wholeheartedly agree with your endorsement of the Text Classic catalogue. Another of their titles, Australian author Madeleine St John's The Women in Black is next in my reading pile. The introductions to these novels are a lovely touch.


  4. Oh good, I knew you would enjoy this book. I am sure some bad books have been written on the exact same subject, but the voice and, I don't know, stance of the narrator, her approach to the world around her, are unique and sometimes even brilliant. I guess that is another retrospective irony in the title!

    The Australianness of the book was exciting, too. I would be reading a scene and think, this could be, like you say, in an Austen novel, or it could be in Colorado, and then Franklin would toss in a detail to remind me, no, nowhere but Australia.

    “deceptively-professional” – once someone pays me, it's professional and I change my name.


  5. Tom – As a non-Australian Australian, the immediate identity of the book was the stand-out point for me – as Australian as a man in a big hat smiling as he produces an even bigger knife 🙂


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