September 2019 – My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
Reading groups generally choose their books from recently published offerings. Once in a while, a book that has been around for a while will make an appearance. However, Zion’s group may be one of the few that has traveled back to the beginning of the 20th century for a selection! In September, we read My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin which was first published in 1901. The title may sound familiar because there was a movie based on the book made in 1979 which launched the career of Australian actor Sam Neill. It was directed by Gillian Armstrong and also starred Judy Davis and Wendy Hughes.
Miles Franklin was actually Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, an Australian teenager who recognized she was more likely to be published if the editors thought the book was written by a boy. She submitted her manuscript to well-known Australian author Henry Lawson, who took it to his publishers in Scotland and wrote a forward to the novel. Due to the author’s authentic voice, many readers thought the story was autobiographical which Franklin denied. However, her life seemed to lend credence to the idea since she passionately avoided marriage and was a strong feminist.
My Brilliant Career was a challenging book to read for our group for a couple reasons. First, the Australian vernacular has its own timing and unfamiliar words (how nice that some devices allow the reader to hover over a word and see the definition!); second, it was difficult to find a sympathetic character in the book.
Sybylla Melvyn, the protagonist, is an imaginative teenager whose family is isolated in the Australian outback on a run-down farm, and who longs for a career and culture in the city. With memories of better days in her early childhood, she watches the hard life drain the refinement from her mother and turn her father into a drunk. Endowed with plain looks, Sybylla endures constant criticism and put-downs from her mother. Her only refuge is a visit to her grandmother’s estate where the availability of books, music, and intelligent conversation are a heaven and haven for her tortured soul. She easily forgets her siblings still enduring crushing poverty and makes her first acquaintance with eligible young men and the thrills of flirting. Harry, a successful rancher, becomes enamored of Sybylla’s sharp tongue and lively interest in life and proposes. Sybylla, who sees marriage as a form of slavery, wants nothing to do with the institution but is attracted to Harry (although her slugging him in the face seemed a strange way to us of showing her conflicted feelings). Her interlude comes to a crashing end when she is sent to be a governess to a rural family by her mother in order to help pay off a loan to her father. The abject poverty, intransigence of the children, and ignorance of their parents combine to bring Sybylla close to a nervous breakdown. After returning home, Harry finds her and renews his quest for her hand (he having gone through a reversal of fortune and a miraculous recovery thanks to a rich relative’s bequest). Sybylla chooses to remain where she is in hopes of still attaining that brilliant career.
It was a struggle for our readers to remember that the story was being written by a teenager thanks to the stilted style of speaking so common at the time. When viewed through the self-centered lens of a dissatisfied, immature, strong-willed teen on the cusp of adulthood, Sybylla’s actions and reactions were more easily understood if still leaving us unsympathetic. Our readers felt her mother’s character was a real piece of work, and we couldn’t identify with a woman who would degrade her daughter so regularly.
What the book had in abundance was an accurate description of bush life at the turn of the century as well as the lushness and bleakness of the Australian outback. The challenges of drought and fire were as prevalent then as now. The story effectively reflected the social mores of the time where women were still essentially property, and suitors were vetted by families based on their economic status and prospects. Good girls didn’t have stage careers or really any careers other than mother or teacher, and it was the daring girl who tried to break these patterns. Sybylla’s affection for her Uncle JJ was very real, and he was her depiction of a successful male down to the hint of tobacco and whiskey on his breath. The descriptions in the story also vividly showed the youth of the nation. Much like the immature Sybylla, Australia was breaking its bonds with England and emerging into adulthood to take its place on the world stage.
Surprisingly, the author showed a great deal of insight at a young age, and readers could find little nuggets of wisdom rising to the surface every so often such as her musing that true friends stick with you through hard times such as bankruptcy. It was striking that, despite all her talking and facility with words, Sybylla still could not come right out and tell Harry why she was dragging her feet about marriage. Yet, the social customs of that age had girls obliquely hinting at things without ever voicing individual opinions. Accustomed as we are to holding and sharing opinions on every subject, the story showed a world not far divorced from Victorian and Edwardian standards where women lived very constrained lives. Thankfully, much has changed.
Our journey back in time was not successful for everyone. Two readers didn’t finish the book due to the difficult language and their feeling the story wasn’t going anywhere. Of those who did read it, three gave it 1 thumb up, three gave it a knuckle up, and four gave it 1 thumb down. In October, Zion’s readers move from the early 1900’s to the 1950’s with Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.