Although Miles Franklin devoted her years in London, and particularly her Chicago years, to feminist causes, such as the right to vote and improved working conditions for women, those concerns are not the focus of her novels. Instead, her books are about the Australian experience, especially during the pioneer stage of the country’s development. Since that experience began for many pioneers in Ireland, she provides the context in which emigration from Ireland took place. Her books are saturated with details of the landscape, machinery, wildlife, and the rituals of domestic and agricultural chores. She is also adept at drawing class distinctions, defining the “squatocracy” or discussing the niceties of elegant living. Sprinkled throughout her novels are “asides,” insightful comments about persons and mores. For example, she elaborates on the phrase, “Masculinity leant heavily on beards,” ironically suggesting the importance of beards to macho Australians. At times, she offers ironic assessments of events, such as this description of homecoming parades after World War I:Brutalized and exhausted peoples, destitute of leaders of vision or followers of faith, groped in a limbo of shattered ideals and discredited philosophies. Nevertheless the welcome home celebrations were flattering to the survivors, and a relief to the spiritual lesions of the non-combatants who organized them.
Franklin had few illusions about governments.
The verisimilitude in Franklin’s descriptions is matched by her accurate transcription of the dialects her characters use. The Irish speech of Danny, the protagonist in All That Swagger, is especially interesting and entertaining; his pronunciation of “moind” for “mind” works well for comic effect. She also captures the nuances of formal English. Even the letters she includes in her novels reflect their writers’ background, class, and education. Since My Brilliant Career is written in the first person by Sybylla, the epistolary additions are also effective because they provide a means of knowing what other characters think and provide a balance against the egocentric Sybylla. On the other hand, All That Swagger, an epic, uses the omniscient point of view, giving readers the thoughts and opinions of many characters.
Franklin’s novels are also much concerned with the business of marriage, of “making good marriages,” and with marriage itself. Franklin never married, even though she had many suitors, and her views about marriage are reflected in her novels. Sybylla sees marriage as slavery, and that view is borne out by the marriages in Franklin’s novels. Chauvinistic males, even if displaying good character traits, unthinkingly commit insensitive acts. Danny does not get a priest for his dying wife and neglects Della when he portions out his estate. Harold, although willing to support Sybylla’s writing, does so in a manner reminiscent of Torvald condescendingly indulging Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879). (In an interesting switch from a typical romance, it is Harold, not Sybylla, who suffers when his love is unrequited.) The good men “just don’t get it,” or they are weak dreamers, like Harry in All That Swagger, or they are impractical spendthrifts, like Harry’s brother Robert, intent on preserving their image. The women are not much better. Aside from Sybylla, and from Della and Clare in All That Swagger, the women seem content to accept their lot in life, fulfilling their stereotyped roles. When Sybylla defies her mother, she soon finds that even her female supporters turn against her and urge her to behave the way a young girl should. A quotation from All That Swagger aptly and sardonically describes Franklin’s opinion of marriage: “The mating instinct brews a delirious spring, then follows a long summer and autumn, frequently of incompatibility.”
Franklin’s characters in All That Swagger tend to be one-dimensional: Harry, the dreamer; Robert, the spendthrift; Della, the independent woman. Since the cast of characters in that novel is so large, perhaps flat characters are inevitable. It is Franklin’s complex characters that attract the reader. Danny is certainly the most interesting character in the novel because he is so complex. A one-legged dreamer; a friend to the Aborigines; the savior of Wong Foo; an intrepid horseman; a comic figure with his ridiculous hat, his brogue, and his misfit entourage; an insensitive yet loving husband—he is the legend he becomes to his neighbors. Sybylla is bright, independent, talented, yet snobbish and selfish at the same time. She, like Danny, has as many foibles as virtues.
Franklin’s countless characters, some of them introduced to provide an amusing anecdote,...
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