This book (My Brilliant Career) has resided beneath a pile of my new, but similarly unread volumes, for three to four years. An “Aussie Classic”, it is a book I thought I should read for its literary merit but one I feared, when author Miles Franklin declared in the Introduction that it had no plot but was just a “yarn” about her own life, would have little ongoing interest for me. Not so.
She may have been just sixteen when she embarked on such an ambitious undertaking, but even at this age her story-telling skill, and her intimate insight into the rigors of farm life in country New South Wales, I found riveting. I loved her book. She rejected a factual autobiographical account, rich in detail but lacking in interest. She chose instead to relate the awakenings of the mind to the joys of the arts and living, and the heart to the stirrings of love and human affection, in contrast to the soul-destroying tedium of the life of the principal character Sybylla Melvyn.
Most autobiographies are somewhat egotistical records of the author’s life achievements. She openly admits to egotism. But her book is far from boastful. She is eloquent in defending her contrarian out-bursts and in doing so is self-deprecating to an extent which reflects a poor self-image largely a result her mother’s sermonizing, and want of understanding of her talents, and aspirations.
This is a romance contrary to the author’s denial, but it is one with a difference. Sybylla’s attitude to marriage reflects her mother’s experience of servitude to her husband and children in a largely loveless union. When a love-sick wealthy nearby property owner attempts to kiss her on her seventeenth birthday, she strikes him across the face with his stock-whip. Remarkably he does not retaliate, nor is his love for her diminished. I do not believe that all such events in the story are exactly autobiographical. I think it likely that there is literary licence and perhaps hyperbole.
The Introduction contends that the reader need “not fear encountering such trash descriptions of beautiful sunsets and whisperings of wind”. Yet in the last paragraph of My Brilliant Career is the most stunning description of a sunset you could ever read.
Miles Franklin’s revulsion for her life of boredom and stultifying menial chores, and her passion to create a more stimulating life for herself independent of the support of others, led her to reject marriage for a literary and public life career. It was a decision for which Australians can be grateful.
This tale of the harsh Australian bush, and those who struggled to eke out a living from it more than a century ago, is one of enduring appeal. She has made many other contributions to Australia’s literary heritage including the funding of the prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award, from her estate when she died in 1954 aged 75.