Classics Club: My Brilliant Career

Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career (1901)

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

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.

Classics Club List #37


9 thoughts on “Classics Club: My Brilliant Career

  1. I too thought of Anne Shirley when I read My Brilliant Career. I suppose the comparison is nearly inevitable! It is so unusual to read a novel like this, which seems to take every common trope about novels featuring ambitious girl writers in unfortunate circumstances and turn them inside out. I think it’s telling that this is the only story actually written by such a girl, rather than an older woman writing kind of inspirational fiction…

    For my Aussie reading, I am in the middle of reading the second volume in a double memoir, which I think you would also enjoy a lot. The Road from Coorain and True North, by Jill Ker Conway — she started her life on a remote sheep station and ended up a scholar and president of a university. They are so well written and fascinating.


    1. Yes, it is quite an unusual publishing phenomenon! I can’t think of a similar type of book by such a young author either.

      I actually read The Road from Coorain, and I think True North as well — you are right, they are excellent. I would like to reread them. When I went to Smith College for a year (did my Master’s there) I heard of the books because Conway had been the first woman president there not long before.


      1. Oh yes, so of course you’d have heard of her! I finished just the other night and it ends, as you know, with her move to Smith.


  2. Hm, I read My Brilliant Career and My Career Goes Bung as a late teen in the Virago editions but now I don’t think I’ve read them since. I wonder how they’d shape up now. Interesting thoughts. I certainly don’t remember the disgust that made her ill and wonder if I’d cope with whatever is described there now.


  3. I didn’t think of Anne Shirley when I read My Brilliant Career; I thought of Jo March/Louisa May Alcott. I think they really do have some re-life parallels. Alcott gives Jo the “happy end” but of course, Alcott’s real life turned out somewhat different.

    I agree that a lot of Sybylla’s yo-yo-ing emotions are the result of the book being written by such a young author but I agree with you that this is part of the power of the book and I was glad it was there, even though at times it exhausted me a little. 😀


    1. I think it was the (to me) more exotic British Commonwealth setting of Canada/Australia that made me link these in particular – the Concord of the Alcotts is too close to home! But you’re right, there are parallels there as well.


  4. Ooooh yay! I think you’ve absolutely nailed this review Lory, I’m so glad it’s here 😍 You’re spot on about Sybylla’s voice being a very thinly veiled version of Franklin’s own – apparently, Franklin had the book withdrawn from sale until her death, because she depicted some of her real-life friends and family just a little too realistically (and none too flattering-ly). The teenage angst is very raw, as you said it might have been more filtered had Franklin written it later in life, but that makes it very believable and authentic. So glad you got to this one! Will you look at picking up the sequel, My Career Goes Bung?


    1. Sure! If it were available immediately from the library I probably would have read it already, but as I have to limit my book purchases it will have to wait.


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