Miles Franklin was the pseudonym for Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, one of Australia’s most distinguished novelists. She was born into the “squattocracy,” and she was the fifth generation of a pioneering family. Franklin’s novels draw on her upbringing in the Australian Bush, and the novels reflect her love for her homeland. They also reveal her iconoclastic nature: her devotion to women’s rights and her scorn of marriage as the only viable option for women, her contempt for filial duty, and her irrepressible spirit, which often led to behavior seen as unladylike.
Franklin wrote My Brilliant Career at the age of sixteen, though it was not published until she was twenty-two years old. The novel was greeted by the critic A. G. Stephens as “the very first Australian novel,” in the sense that it was the first to embody an Australian outlook in vigorous Australian idiom. Modern critics are still divided over its merit. Some consider it Franklin’s best, most original work. Certainly, her characters and her authorial stance were developed in this novel, and they did not progress greatly in future works.
The novel is the first part of the life story of Sybylla Melvyn, the daughter of a once-wealthy squatter family that has fallen on hard times. Franklin continues Melvyn’s life story in her later novel, My Career Goes Bung (1946). Although My Brilliant Career was not intended to be autobiographical, Sybylla’s life has some aspects in common with the early life of the author. The similarities did not escape Franklin’s relatives and neighbors. Many took offense at her sardonic portrayal of what they mistakenly believed to be their own lives and characters. Their response caused Franklin great distress, and she forbade the novel’s republication until ten years after her death.
The title My Brilliant Career is ironic; Franklin initially placed a question mark in parentheses after the word “Brilliant.” The high-spirited tomboy narrator, Sybylla, has a more than usual share of intelligence, talent, and maturity. Her ambitions reach far beyond her small-town life in the Australian Outback—but she finds no outlet for her gifts, and she is doomed to a frustrated and limited existence of mundane chores and unstimulating company.
This existence could easily be a recipe for a whiny character and a depressing story, but Sybylla is a tremendously vital and exhilarating creation. She tells her story with unerring humor and razor-sharp insight. While the storyline of My Brilliant Career is...
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