Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, the story of Sybylla Melvyn, an intense, passionate young woman growing up in the nineteenth century Australian Outback, is a phenomenal achievement for such a young author. Narrated by Sybylla in an autobiographical style, this novel consists of thirty-eight chapters, beginning with her earliest recollections of life in the Outback but focusing on her sixteenth through nineteenth years. An early landmark in feminist literature, My Brilliant Career is more relevant to contemporary audiences than it was to early twentieth century readers.

Sybylla Melvyn, born on a large estate in the Australian Outback, is the high-spirited, rebellious daughter of a wealthy landowner and a woman of aristocratic background. When Sybylla is nine years old, her adored father sells the family’s estate to try his hand at dealing cattle. Dick Melvyn’s poor business sense, coupled with heavy drinking, propels the family into poverty within a year and transforms him from “a kind and indulgent parent, a chivalrous husband, a capital host, a man full of ambition and gentlemanliness” into a “despicable, selfish, weak creature.” Sybylla’s heroic image of her father is destroyed, and her idyllic life disappears. Their existence at the new family home, Possum Gully, is harsh, and Sybylla, who longs for a “brilliant career” as a writer, foresees nothing in her future but mind-numbing, back-breaking labor.


(The entire section is 533 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Caddagat. Name of the homestead belonging to Sybylla’s grandmother, near the fictional town of Gool-Gool in Australia’s New South Wales state. Modeled on Talbingo, the home of Miles Franklin’s grandmother. Caddagat exemplifies everything that Sybylla loves in life: art, music, literature, education, and congenial companionship. Sybylla relates that she was born in this house and that her earliest and fondest memories lie within. At sixteen, Sybylla rejoices when her grandmother invites her to live at Caddagat for a while, because Caddagat represents a respite from the constant drudgery of hard work that Sybylla performs while her father squanders money on bad stock market investments and alcohol.

Initially, Sybylla expects to be treated as an unwelcome poor relation, but she is immediately installed in a small, pretty bedroom of her own and made the pet of the household, which includes her sympathetic Aunt Helen. Much description is given to the details of Caddagat’s physical environment, including books, artwork, and comfortable furnishings, all of which reassure Sybylla that she is no longer entrapped by the mean poverty of her parents’ home.

The land surrounding Caddagat similarly provides Sybylla with a soothing environment; it is not only beautiful, but also capable of supporting the horses and livestock indispensable to life in the Australian Bush. Sybylla is easily accepted into the circle of gracious and genteel friends on neighboring stations, and, most important, she finds at Caddagat...

(The entire section is 636 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

My Brilliant Career is an ironic title, for this first-person fictional autobiography makes the point that there were no brilliant careers possible for the vast majority of young women in Australia at the end of the nineteenth century. By focusing on the romantic and life adventures of its sixteen-year-old heroine, Sybylla Melvyn, the novel shows how grindingly oppressive life was on this recent frontier in the Southern Hemisphere, and how doubly oppressive it was for women. Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, which she shortened to the male-sounding name Miles Franklin, wrote the novel when she was herself sixteen, and the work has all the passion and verve of late adolescence, along with some youthful faults as well. The general plot follows the outline of Franklin’s own experiences, though the book is also fictional in its details.

Sybylla, like Franklin, begins life as a “little bushgirl,” a child surrounded by horses, stock, drovers, jackeroos (cowboys), and other inhabitants of the Australian Outback. She receives very little formal education, and only her love of reading and the arts makes her different from the other bush inhabitants, whose reading runs to farm price reports. Initially, life on a “station,” or ranch, is pleasant and interesting; however, Sybylla’s youthful existence declines in quality as her alcoholic and inept father drags her family into rural poverty in a dairy-farming area. The novel moves from this desperate life to the idyllic days Sybylla spends with her grandmother at Caddagat, then returns to grim (though sometimes darkly comic) pictures of life on a sheep station, and once again moves to a dairy farm. Along the way, readers are shown a wide variety of Australian social types and learn much about farming and stock raising during a drought.

The dairy-farming episodes take place in Possum Gully, a flat, arid area quite unlike the...

(The entire section is 780 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

For all the artistic and intellectual limitations that have troubled critics, My Brilliant Career remains a remarkable novel, a wonderful read, a superb picture of Australian life, and most important, an excellent window into the thinking of a young, intelligent feminist surrounded by hostile country and hostile people. The brilliance of Franklin’s achievement is not in her indictment of Australian provincialism (which her own work tends to belie) or in the feminist philosophy expressed throughout (which suffers when put into the vocabulary and psychology of a girl with limited experience) but rather in the portrait of Sybylla herself—protean, contradictory, smart as a whip, irritating, amusing, odd. Sybylla is certainly a great achievement, not for the value of her philosophy but for the sharpness and wit of the psychological portrait. It is patronizing to Franklin to harp on her tender age at the time of composition, yet that must figure in the evaluation of her achievement. Sybylla’s self-knowledge and awareness of others is simply remarkable given one’s knowledge of the author’s limited experience of the world, for even in a much older writer such insight would be admirable. One can forgive Sybylla’s petulant and immature behavior and focus instead on what she does have to reveal: the grinding millstone of passing days in the Australian wilderness.

Franklin’s contribution is not to feminist thought—whatever the advantages and disadvantages of marriage, few would advocate behaving as self-destructively as Sybylla does—but in its presentation of a voice not yet heard, that of a youthful, intelligent, witty young woman in circumstances that would seem to destroy all these qualities.


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Barnard, Marjorie. Miles Franklin. New York: Twayne, 1967. A lucid and comprehensive guide to Franklin’s life and works. An excellent starting point.

Callil, Carmen. Introduction to My Brilliant Career. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980. The essay establishes the initial modern perspective on the novel, a perspective debated since this reprinting.

Coleman, Verna. Miles Franklin in America: Her Unknown (Brilliant) Career. London: Sirius, 1981. Discusses the novels in relation to the author’s life.

Davis, Beatrice. “Tribute to Miles Franklin: A True Australian.” Southerly 16, no. 2 (1955): 83-85. Impressed by Franklin’s character, talent, and devotion to Australia, Davis provides a tribute and a chronicle in which she praises Franklin’s lyrical depiction of the Australian countryside, its pageants and traditions, and sympathizes with her criticism of the social order—in particular of the dull, drab, “hennishness” of women’s lives.

Ewers, John K. Creative Writing in Australia: A Selective Survey. Rev. ed. Melbourne, Australia: Georgian House, 1966. Ewers compares the works of Joseph Furphy and Miles Franklin. He finds Franklin’s My Brilliant Career true to Australia, with a clear vision of reality and a scorn of pretense, and advises...

(The entire section is 410 words.)