Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career (1901)
Here’s a book I’ve heard about for so long, but never read — the perfect pick for a Classics Club Spin, as well as a chance to take part in Brona’s Australian Reading Month event, and to represent another country in my Reading Around the World project. But even without all these side benefits, the story had enough to offer in itself, and I’m glad I finally delved into it.
It was a bit different than I had expected — various blurbs and summaries I’ve read present the narrator, Sybylla, as bravely attempting to choose a writing career over marriage, not an easy thing for a young woman in the early twentieth century. (I suspect these blurbs may be influenced by the movie version by Jane Campion, but I haven’t seen it, so I can’t be sure.) In fact, the book ends with Sybylla in despair after rejecting a good offer of marriage from a man she likes, but does not love, thus apparently dooming herself to a life of peasant drudgery. Far from resolving to become a writer, she expresses contempt for her own talent and dismisses her efforts so far.
Though throughout the story there are frequent references to Sybylla’s longing for an artistic life, given her time and circumstances, a “career” is never a serious option for her. The title is sufficiently ironic, without the “(?)” she wanted to add (till her publishers nixed that idea).
Sybylla was described by some readers as “a frustrating heroine,” and I could see why. Certainly she is a very frustrated young woman. Though she escapes from her poor, trodden-down family to live with her wealthier grandmother, she doesn’t want to admit that this can only be a brief respite, given to her as an opportunity to make a decent match. Her longings for other things, for music, for creativity, have no outlet in the Australian bush, and only make her unhappy when she’s not dreamily ignoring her actual prospects.
In this state she drifts into an engagement with a decent young man who is probably enticed by her difference from other girls, but with whom marriage would never work — a fact that she finally, painfully, has to face and to communicate with him. She is then punished for her discontent by her own mother, sent to drudge for a family even grubbier and lacking in culture than her own. She only escapes when disgust makes her physically ill.
What a bitter, woeful tale, you may think! Yes, in a way, but Sybylla’s voice (a thin disguise for Franklin’s own, one can’t help but assume) often speaks with keen irony, a sharp bush-honed sense of humor, and a knack for observation that helped pull me through. Published when the author was barely out of her teens, the novel is rough-edged and sometimes self-indulgent. With a bit more distance, a more mature perspective, the raw emotion and painful teenage confusion of the novel might have been mitigated. But some of its power might also have been lost.
Frequently the book made me think of a darker, Australian version of Anne of Green Gables. There was the girl heroine with a taste for music and a talent for writing, brought from a life of toil to a more genteel home; there was the conflict-ridden romance; all amidst a dramatic natural setting on the edges of European immigrant civilization. But Anne never loses her home at Green Gables, and she doesn’t torture Gilbert with her own confusion in quite such an extreme way, either. Anne goes to college, but also finds true love; Sybylla goes back to the cows on the home dairy farm and gives up on marriage. Their fates, in the end, diverge utterly, with Franklin’s account the more realistic, if less reassuring.
Reassuringly cozy it may not be, but My Brilliant Career is a book with a unique and memorable persona, an author-heroine I will not easily forget. Against Sybylla’s pessimistic predictions, her creator, at least, did indeed become a writer, leaving her mark upon the world of literature — maybe not the “brilliant career” of a teenager’s dreams, but a real and impressive story of one woman’s struggle to make her voice heard.