My Brilliant Career Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)

Miles Franklin

Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)

My Brilliant Career, essentially a nineteenth century novel embracing a twentieth century sensibility, had an unusual publication history. Perceived by its readers to be autobiography rather than fiction, the book brought such an unwelcome notoriety to its young author that she withdrew it from publication. In fact, the public’s reaction to her book so disturbed Miles Franklin that she left her native Australia for nearly thirty years, and My Brilliant Career did not appear in print again until well after her death, in 1966. Clearly, the novel was ahead of its time—too disturbing for an early twentieth century audience uncomfortable with the feminist sentiments expressed by its rebellious narrator.

As a notable early example of feminist literature, My Brilliant Career parallels another novel, The Awakening (1899), by Kate Chopin, whose heroine chooses to end her life rather than live within the strictures of society. These novels both reveal an understanding of the repercussions of being female in a “man’s world,” which did not begin to be widely understood and written about until nearly sixty years later, in works such as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) and Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970).

My Brilliant Career is more closely akin to twentieth century coming-of-age novels than to any contemporaneous works. Sybylla Melvyn, like Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), questions the most basic assumptions of her society and her elders, and she suffers a nervous breakdown when the realities of life in the adult world prove more than she can bear. The novel’s authentic adolescent voice and autobiographical tone also recall Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl (1947), which expressed the depth of adolescent passions.