Her letters, selected from a repository of a lifetime of dedicated and energetic correspondence, reveal an exceptional epistolary talent. Not only do they provide a record of the extensive literary and cultural network Franklin established and fostered in that correspondence, which spread throughout Australia and overseas, but they also stand as an important literary document in a mode that feminist criticism has recovered and recognized as having cultural significance as well as importance to both writers and readers. Franklin's reputation was amplified, too, with the release of the acclaimed 1979 movie production of her first novel. The motion picture, also called My Brilliant Career, was directed by Australian Gillian Armstrong and generated widespread public interest in both the novel and its author.
Franklin's name has a central and lasting place in Australian literary history through her endowment of Australia's most prestigious and, until recently, richest national literary prize, the annual Miles Franklin Award, which she envisaged as having a status similar to that of the Pulitzer Prize. She willed her estate for this purpose upon her death, having always lived frugally and often in reduced circumstances, especially in her later adult life, in order to establish and fund such an award. The terms of the prize, "for the novel for the year which is of the highest literary merit and which must present Australian life in any of its phases," have periodically been the subject of public contention, as judging panels struggle with the issue of the relative Australianness of works being judged. The requirements are revealing, however, of Franklin's ardent nationalism and lifelong support of Australian literature and Australian writers. The first winner of this award, in 1957, was Patrick White with his novel Voss (1957).
Stella Maria Miles Lampe Franklin was born on 14 October 1879 at her maternal grandmother's property, Talbingo. Her mother, Margaret Susannah Helena Lampe Franklin, seven months pregnant with her first child, had traveled for two days on horseback over the 110 kilometers of snow-covered mountainous country that lay between Talbingo and the even more isolated valley in the Brindabella mountains where she and the child's father, John Maurice Franklin, had settled after their marriage in 1878. Earlier, Franklin's paternal grandfather, Joseph Franklin, had bought squatting rights to Brindabella station (farm) and leased two adjoining runs, Bramina and Bin Bin. He and two of his sons, John Maurice and Thomas, settled in the valley, in the Monaro district west of Canberra, where they built their homesteads, ran cattle, and raised horses. Here Franklin spent the first ten years of her life, with treasured visits to her beloved grandmother at Talbingo. Surrounded by a loving extended family and enjoying a great deal of physical freedom, the child learned to ride almost as soon as she could walk and to understand and love the Australian bush. These experiences and environments, physical and emotional, had a definitive effect on Franklin's later life and on her writing.
When Franklin was ten, her parents moved their growing family to a small dairy holding, which they named Stillwater, at Bangalore near Goulburn. Here the country was flatter and more settled, and schools were available for the children's education, previously taken care of by a tutor they shared with their cousins. He and Franklin's mother, a well-educated, widely read woman, fostered a love of literature in the precocious child. Franklin writes that she was brought up on "Shakespeare, the Bible, Dickens, Aesop's fables." She always regretted leaving the wild country of her childhood, later equating the move from Bin Bin to Stillwater with the expulsion from paradise. Two of the chapter titles of the autobiography she wrote at the end of her life, Childhood at Brindabella: My First Ten Years (1963)--"Return to Paradise" and "Exit from Eden"--call on the myth of Eden, and paradisaic imagery is dominant in the text. Other commentators have noticed that Franklin uses the structure of Paradise and the Fall not only in the autobiography but also in her autobiographical novels, most strikingly in her first one, My Brilliant Career--a structure always represented as an absolute shift from an idyllic, innocent, utterly happy state to one of absolute misery, penury, and degradation.
The last words of Childhood at Brindabella, "Farewell happy childhood!" signal the change in Franklin's environment as a life change. Later she alluded to this change as one in the family's social and economic status, encapsulated in the literal descent from the mountains, where they enjoyed the standing of pioneering upcountry squatters, to the low country and the hard labor required of life on a small selection (farm), where farmers were known as "cockatoos" who scratched for their living. In her biographical study of Franklin's years in the United States, Verna Coleman records Franklin as writing of leaving the Brindabella Valley in these terms: "I was going to a life changed in situation and routine, a life more restricted in territory, finances and social association." The bitterness of this expulsion is doubled by another, suffered when her grandmother arrived to take the child to her beloved Talbingo. Franklin's ecstacy during this visit is matched by her anticipation of its being her last, reinforced by constant reminders from her grandmother that she would have to return home to help her mother after Christmas and by similar reminders that she was growing up and that the freedoms enjoyed in her childhood were now being curtailed. In her critical biography Miles Franklin: The Story of a Famous Australian (1988) Marjorie Barnard suggests that from the time Franklin left the Brindabella Valley, she thought of herself as an exile and existed in a state of "permanent homesickness"; for Franklin, Paradise and the Fall are not followed by re-creation or the possibility of it. If there is no recovery from the Fall, the state of bewildered disillusionment remains constant, and this set of metaphors and Franklin's understanding of her position within that structure and its consequences can be traced as a narrative effect in much of her fiction.
While her formal schooling was brief, Franklin was encouraged in her writing by her English teacher. Franklin's first interest was in music, for which she showed an exceptional aptitude. But living in the bush meant the advanced teaching she needed was not available; at the same time, the family's economic situation could not support that need. After being recommended unsuccessfully for a government teaching appointment in 1896, Franklin went to her uncle's property to teach his children. When she returned the following year, her name was again put forward for government teaching, again unsuccessfully. At this time she began writing fiction, helped by the editor of the Goulburn Post. Later, driven by her frustration at what she saw as the unending and fruitless toil of the small farming life on the selection, at the family's economic circumstances, and at her position as a young woman in what was then a man's world, the increasingly rebellious Franklin wrote her first, now classic, novel, My Brilliant Career, in part to voice those frustrations. In the preface to My Career Goes Bung: Purporting to be the Autobiography of Sybylla Penelope Melvyn (1946), written as a sequel to the first novel but not published until many years later, Franklin describes her beginnings as a writer:
I must have been nearly thirteen when the idea of writing novels flowered into romances which adhered to the design of the trashy novelettes reprinted in the supplement to the Goulburn Evening Penny Post. These stories, secretly devoured, presented a world enchanting to budding adolescence. . . . An Englishman, [the newspaper editor] to whom some of these lucubrations were shown, directed me to the Australian scene as the natural setting for my literary efforts. The idea sprouted. Huh, I'd show just how ridiculous the life around me would be as story material, and began in sardonically humorous mood on a full-fledged novel with the gibing title My Brilliant (?) Career.
All these influences are evident in the novel, which is parodic and ironic, and at the same time intensely romantic; it conveys serious but also sentimental nationalist and socialist values, which are often put forward in a strident manner. The narrative is full of divisions and contradictions, much as Franklin's character was. She is described as an idiosyncratic person, often wayward and full of conflicting impulses. Franklin chose to publish under a male pseudonym, as did many of her female contemporaries, using her grandfather's name of Miles. From this time on, Stella became Miles to all but her immediate family. Her eventual publisher dropped the query that was part of the original "gibing title" for the novel, de-emphasizing the ironies of the story of Sybylla Melvyn--a talented, intelligent, exuberant, and independent young woman whose ambitions are thwarted by the quite different prescriptions for men's and women's lives. By choosing not to marry despite being wooed by an extremely desirable suitor, Sybylla enacts a striking statement in relation to the presumption of her society that marriage was the aim and fulfillment of women's lives.
Resemblances between Sybylla and Franklin abound, and many of the details of Sybylla's young life are equivalent to experiences Franklin had. Sybylla enjoys an idyllic early childhood on her parents' station, but a change in their fortunes necessitates a move to a dairy farm at "Possum Gully," where her father takes to drink, her mother endeavors to retain her genteel standards, and her younger siblings lack education and opportunities, as she does. Sybylla becomes embittered by the graceless toil demanded by the farm and finally by the deprivation a drought brings. This life is contrasted with a long period Sybylla spends at her grandmother's station homestead, where she enjoys a cultivated life in beautiful surroundings and the attention not only of her grandmother but also of a devoted aunt and uncle as well as admirers. In turn, this interlude is interrupted when her mother calls on Sybylla to become governess to the children of the McSwat family, neighbors of the Melvyns, to whom Sybylla's father owes money. In the meantime, her younger, prettier, and more compliant sister is preferred as a companion by her grandmother. All these and more circumstances, including her observation of the McSwat's filthy, uncultivated environment as representative of the lives of those tied to the daily grind of what she calls in the novel the "peasantdom" of the bush compared to its "swelldom," encourage Sybylla in a belief that she is enslaved to a malign and sarcastic fate. Her only identification at the end is with those Australians--honest bush folk who toil for the future of their country--and the book is dedicated to them.
My Brilliant Career is a "Federation" text, a signpost text in Australian literary history. The coincidence of its publication in 1901, the year that the six Australian colonies became federated as an independent commonwealth, is matched and reinforced by the political sentiments it espouses. The book shows the influence on its author of her growing up during the last decade of the nineteenth century. Marked by their intense nationalist politics, the 1890s were also the decade during which the literary expression of nationalist politics was being hailed as an original and definitively Australian mode. This political and literary nationalism is strongly evident in the novel, and it is endorsed in the preface by Henry Lawson. Lawson was then and remains one of Australia's best-known writers, and he was preeminent in the group who were self-consciously writing the new literary culture for the new nation. Franklin had sent her manuscript to three publishers, each of whom rejected it. In desperation, she forwarded it in 1899 to Lawson, one of her literary idols, asking for his help in its publication. About to leave for England, Lawson agreed to take the manuscript with him, and his influence was crucial in its eventual publication.
There is a gap between the profoundly masculine nature of the nationalism of the 1890s and the 1900s, the values of which Franklin reproduces in many different aspects of her text, and the youthful feminism she also struggles to express through her heroine's desire for independence and agency but also for love, a desire that the narrative claims as valid. That this gap is seemingly not apparent either to Franklin or to her narrator-heroine makes this text especially interesting to readers of today. Its conflicting narrative politics convey in a quite poignant way the gendered exclusions Australian nationalism practiced at the time and the effects they had on women's lives, even those women who, like Franklin, were developing and calling on feminist principles. While those conflicts are not resolved or even admitted in the fiction, which tries to encompass both nationalism and feminism, their existence allows for an insight into the necessarily divided lives of politically aware women at this time. Lawson's preface alludes to the split in the novel but ignores its significance, remarking (both condescendingly and arrogantly, as many contemporary feminist critics have pointed out): "I don't know about the girlishly emotional parts of the book--I leave that to girl readers to judge; but the descriptions of bush life and scenery came startlingly, painfully real to me, and . . . as far as they are concerned, the book is true to Australia--the truest I ever read." In her introduction to the 1980 Virago edition of My Brilliant Career, Carmen Callil argues that despite Franklin's sharing the intense socialism and nationalism of 1890s writers whose work she admired, in this novel "she revolted . . . against the role of women in their scheme of things, against the 'dullness and tame hennishness' of women's lives," disavowing the nationalist writers' view of women's place. She held to this position "then and forever," as Callil says; but the contradictions it raised for her are also apparent.
Reviewers at the time were also struck by the "Australianness" of the book--its true-to-life quality. One of the most influential literary figures of the time was P. R. Stephensen, literary editor of The Bulletin, the journal that supported, encouraged, and shaped the new nationalist writing. His review, "A Bookful of Sunlight," refers to Franklin's novel as "the very first Australian novel to be published. . . . My Brilliant Career is Australian through and through; the author has the Australian mind, she speaks Australian language, utters Australian thoughts, and looks at things from an Australian point of view absolutely. . . . Her book is a warm embodiment of Australian life, as tonic as bush air, as aromatic as bush trees, and as clear and honest as bush sunlight." Yet, as well as receiving admiration, Franklin also suffered from the notoriety the publication of her novel brought her. A possible reason she always refused to have it republished and in her will embargoed any publication for ten years after her death was her concern at the time of its publication that the novel was being read as straightforwardly autobiographical by many of those who knew her. Stephenson's review takes this position, in a critical maneuver characteristically used by male critics of women's writing, which sees that writing as a simple transposition of the life into the narrative: "'Miles Franklin' has simply turned her girlish diary into a book; she has made literature out of the little things that lay around her--and this is what gives the book its value. . . ." A review by Havelock Ellis in 1903, which judges the book as having "psychological interest, the interest that belongs to the confessions of a Marie Basghkirtseff of the bush; but something more than emotion is needed to make fine literature; . . . and [we] are left at the end with only a painful sense of crudity," wounded Franklin deeply, and this opinion is also often held to be behind her refusal to allow republication.
Despite the critical admiration of the novel in Australia for its representation of bush life, understood at the time as the essential element of an emerging Australian national identity, contemporary critics have argued that the text expresses a profound ambivalence about life in the bush, which it always invests with either positive or negative emotion. This ambivalence is apparent in all aspects of the narrative. Characterized by its ebullience, it is also notable for its dramatization of a set of inner conflicts generated through Sybylla as first-person narrator. The polarized narration veers between the genres of social realism and romance. Sybylla seeks both romantic love, which at that time meant a woman's submission to a man, and the independent realization of her female self through the brilliant career she desires. There is her nationalism: "I am proud that I am an Australian, a daughter of the Southern Cross, a child of the mighty bush," but she also wishes to leave the bush life, where men and women who have intellectual or artistic interests are out of place, women especially so: "she is not merely a creature out of her sphere--she is a creature without a sphere" and yearns after cosmopolitan centers and cultures. Performing a kind of Jane Eyre role for much of the text--she constantly characterizes herself as small, plain, and poor--Sybylla is nevertheless capable of transformation into an entrancing beauty. Referring to herself as socially negligible, "only--a woman," in an ambivalent acceptance of the secondary status assigned her sex, Sybylla also demands that ambition is available to women as it is to men. The final elegy to the emergent nation is imposed on these and many other contradictory narrative structures, bringing them to a close, but not resolving them in any way.
My Brilliant Career is unquestionably the work of an extremely young writer, one who attempted to write, as Franklin says, again in the preface to My Career Goes Bung, a "burlesque of autobiography" and to create a heroine who "was to be the antithesis of conventional heroines." Her wit was mistaken for realism. In her critical biography, Barnard expresses a conventional, 1960s view of the status of the book: "My Brilliant Career is very uneven both in its writing and in its general attitude. It is a book of great promise and little artistry. It lives on by dint of affection." Such an opinion is reiterated in many evaluations of Franklin's work, particularly of this novel. In the new critical histories of Australian literature being written during the 1960s, its style is typically referred to as clumsy, clichéd, and jargon-ridden; its plot, as confused and awkward. In the 1980s, feminist critics tended to read the novel as a depiction or projection of the writer's psyche, or as autobiographical and as posturing and confused, in ways that now seem to different degrees limiting. More recently it has been suggested by postmodern feminist or postcolonial critics that their reading tactics, used in relation to Franklin's work, would admit its subversive and often parodic qualities. By not looking for unity and coherence, such reading practices would understand fractures and disjunctions not as a fault of the work or its author but as an indication of the power of dominant masculinist and nationalist ideologies and a way of contesting these power structures. A range of contemporary critical attitudes toward questions of literary value and toward ideas about reading and writing that have recently become available open the novel up to productive rereadings. At the same time, its significance as a cultural text has been recovered, signaled in its republication by the feminist publishing house Virago.
One of these significances is located in the representation of Sybylla Melvyn as a potential "new woman" for the new century. Although she is thwarted in all her desires by her environment and circumstances, Sybylla attempts to define the possibility of freedom and agency for women of her class, as well as the desire to achieve both love and ambition. Sybylla represents a major shift from the typical heroine of the colonial novels by such writers as Rosa Praed and Ada Cambridge in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. There is little or no common ground between these heroines' genteel environments and the cultivated landscapes they inhabit and their dilemmas--which are centered around making the right choice of husband--and the concerns and contexts that describe Sybylla in My Brilliant Career and indeed those that preoccupy and situate the female characters in Franklin's later novels. This shift in representations of women refers to that taking place in Australian society at the turn of the century, where women were being enfranchised and calling for recognition of their right to other areas of independence.
After the publication of My Brilliant Career , Franklin moved to Sydney and spent some time in Melbourne, attempting to consolidate her life as a writer by fostering patrons and friends. She had already begun another novel, "On The Outside Track" (which much later provided the basis for Cockatoos: A Story of Youth and Exodists ); then wrote a sequel to My Brilliant Career, "The End of My Career," which became My Career Goes Bung; and a third novel, Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909). None of these manuscripts was accepted by the various publishers she sent them to. During this time, Franklin wrote sketches adopting a second pseudonym, Mary Anne, using among other topics her experience of working for periods of time as a maid, commonly known as a "mary anne." She met Joseph Furphy, whose Such is Life (1903) Franklin had read and admired enormously. The two became friends and correspondents. Franklin left Australia in 1906, disillusioned with her lack of continuing recognition as a writer and still in search of her own brilliant career, taking her manuscripts with her. She traveled with introductions from prominent Australian feminist activists and writers she had met over those few years, women such as Rose Scott and Vida Goldstein, to like-minded American women. Franklin lived in the United States, mostly in Chicago, for the next nine years, working with Australian feminist labor leader Alice Henry and her American colleagues, much of the time for the National Women's Trade Union League. Among various duties, she managed the league's national office in Chicago and later coedited its magazine, Life and Labor, writing particularly for the book review, literary, and interview pages. At the same time, she participated in many areas of political activism on behalf of women, including relief work and strikes for labor and wage reform. Drusilla Modjeska argues in her study of Australian women writers of the 1920s to 1940s, Exiles at Home (1991), that the feminism of Life and Labor had a major influence on Franklin's fictional writing. It promulgated what Modjeska calls a kind of female humanism, which formed a major aspect of the feminist thought of the early decades of the twentieth century in America and Australia. Aligned with social democratic and liberal politics, "female humanism" proposed an ideology in which women acted as agents of social control.
Overworked and often ill, Franklin struggled during this time to continue with her own writing. When she was settled in Chicago, she returned to Some Everyday Folk and Dawn, virtually finished before she left Australia, and began trying to find a publisher for it. She wrote an unsuccessful five-act play, "The Survivors"; at least two novels, The Net of Circumstance (1915) and On Dearborn Street, which was not published until 1981, long after her death; and a quite remarkable range of unpublished plays and stories. Some of that material was reworked into later novels. During this time, Franklin met and was influenced by a group of writers from the American Midwest who came to Chicago and began something of a literary renaissance marked by their belief in regional writing and literature as an expression of a search for personal liberation. Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and Ben Hecht were among these writers. Franklin was also part of a theatrical revival, and for some years afterward wrote plays, none of which was produced.
Some Everyday Folk and Dawn is set in Noonoon, which is a palindrome. This fictional town is reminiscent of Penrith, on the Nepean River thirty-four miles from Sydney, the area to which Franklin's family moved from Stillwater to settle on another small holding where Franklin's father probably grew fruit and where Franklin wrote the first draft of the novel. Noonoon is the setting for a romance between Dawn and Ernest Breslaw, a visitor to the town and a friend of the narrator. The romance is promulgated by the unnamed first-person narrator, an actress with a broken heart who has taken refuge in the town. She is unstinting in her admiration for Dawn, described by Barnard as an "insufferable girl, nineteen years old, orphaned in romantic circumstances and brought up by her grandmother, Mrs. Clay." A mixture of stilted romance, melodramatic moments, and social propaganda--large sections of the prose are devoted to a discussion of the benefits of women having the vote and to a description of the Commonwealth election in which they voted for the first time-- Some Everyday Folk and Dawn was Franklin's only attempt to write a romantic novel, perhaps in the hope of its becoming a best-seller. But its prose is often pretentious, its plot trivial, and its characters wooden, while by 1909 its suffragist politics were no longer notable, at least in Australia. It was not successful when it was published and was soon forgotten. Barnard calls it a "museum piece."
However, despite this history and the dearth of critical attention to the novel, its 1987 republication by Virago gives it a contemporary cultural significance, as well as suggesting a feminist, historical reading. It focuses on two major issues--the question of marriage for women (Will Dawn marry, and if so, how will that marriage benefit her?) and the question of women's political responsibilities. (Dawn is outspoken on women's right to citizenship and what that will entail for them.) The novel conveys Franklin's increased knowledge of and experience in feminist politics, the central concerns of which, at the turn of the century, were the position of women in marriage and the vote for women. Through her narrator, Franklin explores the marriage question thoroughly. As Jill Roe points out in her introduction to the Virago edition of the novel, the marriage market was in a state of chaos by the end of the nineteenth century, "particularly in new societies, where mid-Victorian notions of 'the gentleman' proved elusive, and both demography and economics made the marriage market disorderly." In a small colonial Australian country town, those factors were more starkly evident, and it is the question of women's rights at the time of the formation of the new nation, rather than the romance, that is the serious center of the narrative in such a reading. The narrator is established as an observer and commentator, both on the lives of the women of Noonoon (she finds that "they were unanimous in their evidence against the married state under present conditions") and on the way those lives might be improved ("the thoughtful student of life . . . will know that notwithstanding the great epoch of female enfranchisement the workers for the cause of women have yet no time to rest").
After the indifferent reviews of Some Everyday Folk and Dawn, Franklin did not publish again under her own name until 1931 and began to take extraordinary lengths to hide her identity behind pseudonyms and elaborate denials of her identification with them. Valerie Kent's research yields nearly twenty pseudonyms adopted by Franklin during her writing life, which, having begun so promisingly with the publication of My Brilliant Career, was marked by evasiveness and in the American years by a history of rejection from publishers and disinterest from critics. The Net of Circumstance was published using the elaborate pseudonym Mr. and Mrs. Ogniblat l'Artsau, which derives from Talbingo. In many ways a conventionally romantic novel, it nevertheless undertakes a serious exploration of aspects of "the woman question" and asks how women of conviction can find love that is not too compromising of their principles. The protagonist, Constance Roberts, struggles with the consequences for women of living alone and not marrying, a state that meant foregoing the satisfaction of bearing children as well as dealing with constraints on female sexuality. Much as Franklin did, Constance wishes to be a mother but also craves an independent existence; having met Osborne Lewis in the first chapter, she spends two years making the difficult decision to marry him, becoming quite ill in the process. Franklin herself suffered a breakdown during her early years in Chicago, as a result in part of just such struggles with life decisions, and she never married. In the novel, the disparity between the working out of the romantic plot and the interest in issues concerning women's lives (which are taken up in long, authorial disquisitions) leads to serious narrative imbalances and often extreme dullness. This imbalance was one many feminist writers struggled with in the period before World War I. Franklin, like others, argued that fiction, especially the novel, could act as an educative vehicle for social reform, but when those reformist elements were not integrated into the fiction, the result was often a level of overt didacticism. The Net of Circumstance demonstrates the dangers of using fiction as propaganda, but much of Franklin's unpublished and published work of the Chicago period takes up those issues that were preoccupying women such as herself at that time--issues to do with female sexuality, motherhood, and the ways women could live independently of men.
Exhausted after her years of grueling social work in America, Franklin left for London late in 1915, vowing never to attend another sociological meeting. She worked at various jobs, then left for Macedonia in 1917 with a unit of the Scottish Women's Hospitals organization as an assistant cook. There she spent six months in a tent hospital, and her notes on this experience became plays, short stories, and articles with a Macedonian background, including an unpublished documentary novel, "Ne Mari Nishta." She returned to London, where she was ill for some time with malaria, and resumed her precarious existence, working often with the National Housing and Planning Commission, publishing articles on Macedonia, and embarking on a new novel, "Sam Price from Chicago," which was never published. In the early 1920s, inspired by John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga (1922), Franklin began working on a series of novels in the style of the family chronicle, which she published under the male pseudonym of "Brent of Bin Bin." Franklin never admitted that this pseudonym was hers, despite much speculation that she was Brent and despite her playing with that persona, even writing letters as Brent of Bin Bin to friends. She finally published six novels in this series, and all were written by 1933. During this time, she returned to Australia twice for visits--once for a few months in 1924 to revisit the country of her early childhood that she was beginning to write about in the Brent of Bin Bin novels (returning to London in 1925); she then returned again in 1927 for two more years. In 1932, however, she returned to Australia permanently. It remains a paradox, as Modjeska remarks, that Franklin spent nearly ten years sitting in the British Museum "producing Australian nationalist novels."
The Bin Bin novels were published out of the order of their chronology. Up the Country (1928) is the second in the sequence; Ten Creeks Run (1930), the third; and Back to Bool Bool (1931), the last. The book now recognized as the first in the series, Prelude to Waking , was not published until 1950; while the fourth and fifth, Cockatoos and Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang, were published after Franklin's death, in 1954 and 1956 respectively. The history of publication of these later novels is one of submission and rejection, until the last three came out under the imprint of Australian publisher Angus and Robertson. This publication was according to an agreement made between Franklin and Beatrice Davis, a famous Angus and Robertson editor, that they would publish all six of the Brent of Bin Bin novels.
To discuss each novel according to its place in the sequence is clearer and more productive than to follow the dates of publication. Prelude to Waking has only a tenuous connection to the later novels in the series, is the least successful, and remains little read. Even Jill Roe, Franklin's most knowledgeable contemporary historian, describes this last novel as "a good example of a brittle, snobbish, clumsy and entirely unconvincing romantic production." In another attempt to reach a British readership, Franklin used a London setting and constructed a cast of artificial characters around an appallingly involved Mayfair plot. Nigel, the pompous narrator of the novel, thinks of writing a sequence of novels about Australians. They will be set in the past, because memory and the patterning memory gives may replace in his own life the futility he is suffering as a result of his experience of World War I and his abhorrence of marriage. Merlin, the Australian heroine, has some redeeming features, and as Roe says, the novel is historically interesting, proposing as it does that the vitality of the colonies may be a restorative for the shock and exhaustion of the aftermath of war in the British metropolis.
The rest of the novels in the series return to Franklin's most loved setting, the location of her most successful fiction--the high Monaro country where she spent her early childhood--and to the men and women who pioneered that country, whose lives and values she idealized in her fiction. They are not those people who settled the "easy country," available to colonists with privileged social status and money, but those who pushed into the hard country and whose experiences and endurance forged the type of the national character. The books in the Bin Bin series chronicle the history of some half dozen families who settle in this general area, which is also treated in All That Swagger (1936). They recount a profusion of events arranged according to a loose chronology and are packed with an enormous cast of characters, affording a sense of the growth of the social fabric of an Australian pastoral community. Their focus on Australia's pioneer history and life in the bush remains central to all Franklin's writing from then on. Up the Country traces the patterns of settlement of the first families in the Monaro region and some of their life events; Ten Creeks Run and Cockatoos tell some of the stories of the second and third generations of those families, until many of the young people leave Australia for Europe and America; Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang follows one branch of the third generation; and in Back to Bool Bool the third generation returns to its regional and family origins. Cockatoos is the novel in the series that is most autobiographical and has thus been linked with My Brilliant Career, My Career Goes Bung, and Childhood at Brindabella--all of which depend on the same basic material experience and thematic preoccupations. It is dedicated to "Sybylla Melvyn, the legendary and temerarious," and it tells the story of Inez Milford, who, like Sybylla, suffers her life in a dull colonial bush backwater while yearning for a different kind of life she imagines in a green and fertile England. She, too, writes a novel about a girl much like herself, which is published, but unlike Sybylla, she does leave Australia--for the United States, not England--before the end of the novel, escaping the entrapment and frustration of her life.
Although the pioneer saga, almost by definition, is a masculine genre that focuses on founding fathers and on patriarchal family structures, much attention is paid in this series and in All That Swagger to the part women played in pioneer life. These "daughters of the soil," as they are called in My Brilliant Career, are strong and stalwart; their fortitude is often seen as more important than the swagger of the men and an essential ingredient in the success of the pioneering community. As Modjeska points out, the "primary area of conflict" in the Bin Bin novels is "that between the sexes." As in My Brilliant Career, women who do not marry or who marry unwisely, as well as all those who have an artistic temperament, are casualties of this society, but the matriarchs have a powerful role to play, and significant power struggles take place between women and men. In Up the Country, Rachel, the matriarch, pays outward homage to male dominance, but there is no doubt that she controls the family, and through it the community. The formation of the new egalitarian bush society that the early novels follow is not, however, analyzed in relation to class and race. Again according to Modjeska, "the idealised bush society is treated as homogenous"; this treatment, of course, is necessary for Franklin's vision of Australian society as a harmonious whole--the vision these texts attempt to achieve. While Danny Delacy, the patriarch of All That Swagger, who is described as "a pioneer of Australian democracy in its levelling aspects," has as his trusted companions both an Aboriginal man and a Chinese man, Doogooluk and Wong Foo, respectively, they are token figures in relation to the central representation of the striving white community, whose values include the charitable treatment of Aboriginal people and less successful whites, but who relegate these groups to the far background.
Several of the Bin Bin books have authorial notes that indicate ways of reading this series: in much the same way the prefatory author's note to My Brilliant Career warns that this story is simply a yarn, not a highly developed narrative. A prologue to Up the Country ends with an authorial aside that adopts the unusual metaphor of "possuming" to describe the yarning structure of the book. Possums, it says, will "run up and down every branch [of a tree] in turn before returning to the main trunk" if they are disturbed. Conveyed in a typically joking manner, this directive warns readers not to expect a linear narrative with a coherent line of development but one that leaps about. It stretches beyond this text to include the other novels in the series, which are interconnected but do not necessarily follow a traditional chronology and that relate a history made up of minor events and life details. The author's note to Ten Creeks Run contemplates the problem of reproducing the ordinary lives that crowd Franklin's fiction. Again, the advice she gets from "one old philosopher" is just "to yarn along," and given the nature of life, which as she reminds herself is "the most discursive and fragmentary experience," she proceeds. As part of the layers of commentary with which Franklin surrounded her fiction, such directions become another fictional layer. They insist that these narratives reproduce real life and are at the same time "discursive and fragmentary"--those qualities that contemporary literary theory thinks of as textualizing postmodernity; Franklin's fictional methods go against the marketing and critical reception of her work that for so long sought to conventionalize it.
At its best, her writing in these novels and All That Swagger conveys the impression of a flow of talk, rattling along, full of surprising and sometimes infuriating detail, fresh and invigorating, lapsing into extravagant self-indulgence, sometimes embarrassingly artificial and clichéd, often opinionated, but always eccentric and individual. Laughter, Not for a Cage: Notes on Australian Writing, published in 1956 after Franklin's death, comprises eleven essays prepared from ten of her talks on aspects of Australian literary culture. The collection was reviewed by Australian poet Douglas Stewart as "impish and earnest, reticent and outspoken, homely and lyrical, shrewd and full of odd cranks and quirks, vigorous, individual, democratic in principle and aristocratic in impulse, ardently Australian and alarmingly feminine." Although Stewart's alarm at Franklin's feminism is not shared by all her readers and critics, his description of her writing illuminates its boldness, its originality, and its extraordinary mixture of impulses. These are the qualities that Franklin brought to her correspondence, too, leaving in her letters a unique record of her life and times as well as a rich body of work in a genre the literary significance of which, particularly in terms of gender, has only recently been recognized.
While Franklin was writing the Bin Bin series, two other novels, Bring the Monkey: A Light Novel (1931) and Old Blastus of Bandicoot: Opuscule on a Pioneer Tufted with Ragged Rhymes (1931), were published using Franklin's own name. Bring the Monkey is a comic thriller set in England. It has a female narrator who is unusually sophisticated and assured for Franklin's fiction, and who has a glamorous friend. A murder and a jewel theft at a country estate are precipitated by a monkey; a pilot and a movie star are part of the action; and despite the slight pretensions of this novel, it still conveys Franklin's views on women and love, preoccupations that are part of all her writing. More importantly, an exploration of female friendship--between the observer-narrator and her close friend--underpins the mystery plot, satirizing the masculine narrative conventions of the genre, as well as introducing the possibility that women's friendship might be a subject of fiction. At this time, Franklin was sharing a flat in London with Mary Fullerton (an expatriate Australian writer), Fullerton's English friend and companion, and the friend's pet monkey, who inspired the monkey of the novel. Fullerton's friendship sustained Franklin in the period before she returned to Australia and later when she was often poor, lonely, and disappointed at the reception of her writing. Old Blastus of Bandicoot is a play turned into a novel. Converting plays to novels was a habit of Franklin's: she was a frustrated playwright who, it is thought, wrote more than twenty playscripts. This whimsical novel is even slighter than Bring the Monkey and most amusing when it uses dialogue with stage directions added. In it, the complications of a superficial love story and minor political tensions are resolved when a bushfire gives the blustering lover some credibility.
All That Swagger , another of the pioneer novels Franklin wrote during this intensely creative period from the early 1920s to the mid 1930s, has been regarded as defining the possibilities of the saga as an Australian narrative form. Harry Heseltine, for instance, refers to the novel as giving "the saga its characteristic shape and qualities." "Swagger" in the title is used as a noun and, according to Franklin, "All That Swagger simply means the bravado of the bravura days--a little dash, a little extra virility which carried them through hardship and loneliness." Although All That Swagger was well received and has the reputation among some critics of being Franklin's best novel--Heseltine calls it the "cornerstone of her achievement"--it has not attracted the contemporary critical attention that has been paid to My Brilliant Career.`- Spanning a period of time from the 1830s to the 1930s, the novel moves from Ireland to the Murrumbidgee and Monaro districts of New South Wales. Danny Delacy, the central character, is an Irish immigrant; his life and its events motivate the plot as he brings his young bride to the new colony, becomes a successful squatter, and founds a dynasty of several generations. By choosing to use an Irish rather than an English pioneer patriarch of the family that extends through generations in the novels, Franklin could avoid dealing with issues of Australia's colonial relationship to England and the problems it would raise for her own nationalism and egalitarianism.
The romanticism of the familiar story of the poor Irish migrant who makes good in a new land is overlaid by the romanticism with which Franklin invests pioneering life and the swaggering figures of her mounted bushmen. Lacking a structure apart from the chronology into which it packs its myriad events, this narrative ostensibly belongs to the vigorous, eccentric figure of Delacy. However, it also tells another story of pioneer life, cutting across that of the progressive realization of the ambition of the early pioneers and their contribution to the ideal of national unity it proposes. The connection between the males in each generation is not smooth and continuous: Danny is "thrust aside by his sons as foolish" when he dies; his eldest son, Robert, cannot sustain the family property, Burrabinga, and it falls into the hands of "the British-Australian Properties Limited," outsiders who do not have the knowledge of the country or how to run it; another son, Harry, cannot help his own son, Darcy, who has to begin again on a small selection with his wife; and Darcy's son Brian leaves the land and becomes an aviator. However, when he returns to the land at the end of the novel, the vitality of the new world is seen as his inheritance: "Australia had sent him abroad to the best in the old world, had welcomed him home effusively. Here he was. He stretched himself on the warm clean earth and exulted in the fact of being born to this. . . ." Despite the problems of the past, the promise of the pioneer days lives in Brian.
Franklin's other consistently underrated novel is My Career Goes Bung. This second autobiographical fiction is at once sequel and riposte to My Brilliant Career, as well as providing a commentary on its intention and reception. Its narrator and heroine is Sybylla Melvyn, also living at Possum Gully, but she is older and shrewder than the first Sybylla, displaying none of her histrionics and little of her adolescent emotion. This Sybylla achieves an ironic distance from the events of her narrative, establishing an historical perspective lacking in My Brilliant Career . The narrator of My Brilliant Career is often melodramatic, whereas the narrator in My Career Goes Bung is comic, displaying a wry sense of humor. At the same time, the second novel clarifies the parodic intention and burlesque effects of the first. Both narratives muse on the act of writing autobiography, question the whole practice of writing and authorship, and confront traditional literary traditions, as these narratives depend on oral forms that are repetitive, wandering, and wayward.
While the implied author of the first novel is caught up in the act of dialogue with the self, which its claimed status as adolescent autobiography requires, this older narrator, who names herself as the author of My Brilliant Career, reflects on her earlier narration. According to Joy Hooton, she is "telling the story of herself telling the story of herself," caught up in a cycle of fictions of the self, much as Franklin was in her use of pseudonymous authorial identities. There is a consistent movement between the two novels: in My Career Goes Bung, the mother constantly asks Sybylla "how could a girl without EXPERIENCE write a book?" Such examples reinforce the effect of the second Sy bylla's narrative, as its internal ironies move out to inform the first. Hooton points out, however, that the second Sybylla's capacity for self-aware observation does not extend to the sense of injustice the narrators share, which she calls their "resentment of lost status." She traces this loss to the class hierarchy that is apparent in both texts, despite their narrators' avowed socialism and repeated paens of praise to the worker/peasants who will build the new Australia. Sybyllas one and two are each frustrated by the lack of recognition of their patrician status, acquired through their function as poets, and their enforced economic and cultural deprivation brought about through life circumstances each claims to be beyond her control.
Not published until 1981, On Dearborn Street apparently takes its title from the name of the Chicago street where the Women's Trade Union League had its headquarters. It is reminiscent of Franklin's other Chicago novel, The Net of Circumstance: both were written at much the same time, and the plots, characters, and settings of both novels are similarly artificial. Like Constance in the earlier novel, Sybyl Penelo in On Dearborn Street attracts two rich, handsome suitors who compete for her hand. She, too, is antipathetic to marriage, as she explains to Calvary, her most persistent lover, because of her sex fastidiousness. In another overstated formulation of a late-nineteenth-century ideology of gender relations, Sybyl sees men as ravening creatures whose lustful natures debase women, who have a natural predisposition to chastity. While in My Brilliant Career many aspects of the romantic plot seem to send up its generic conventions, this novel and Net of Circumstance are at once much more serious and much sillier, with female characters who claim their desire for love and passion, but whose emotional responses are typified by neurotic repressiveness and negativity, while denial and renunciation are set up as the goals of human life. As has been suggested earlier, this representation may be the result of attempting to portray the problems of the "new woman," who aspires to both independence and love. The only possible resolution of this dilemma, for Franklin as for other early feminist writers, is to reinvent marital politics so that women have the option of a platonic relationship within which to express their emancipated spirit.
After All That Swagger Franklin did not write another major text. Her literary work after her return to Australia was devoted to revising manuscripts and attempting to get them published. In her only collaboration, she worked with Dymphna Cusack on a novel, Pioneers on Parade (1939), a farcical narrative sparked by the women's involvement in the 1938 Sesquicentennial celebrations and their mutual amusement at the pretension, pomposity, and snobbery of many of the activities and those who took part in them. Modjeska suggests that a key to understanding Franklin's "literary development" can be found in the "conflict of her ex-patriotism and her Australianism." This conflict is perhaps the most important one in her life history and forms a major theme in much of her writing. Always conscious of the significance of the country's literary culture and committed to her belief that the pioneering history she revered and the bush country she loved held both the key and the promise of a democratic Australian society, documented in its literature, Franklin spent much of her time after her return to Australia consolidating a nationalist literature. She worked for a range of cultural projects, including the Commonwealth Literary Fund and the Fellowship of Australian Writers; wrote and spoke on contemporary Australian writers she admired; and with Kate Baker, Joseph Furphy 's literary executor, edited a collection of reminiscences of Furphy that included some of his letters. She gave advice and assistance to many young writers and on her death endowed Australia with its most generous and prestigious literary award. Miles Franklin's writing forms an important and enduring part of Australia's literary heritage, always offering new ways of reading the culture it depicted and the values it conveyed.
From: Bird, Delys. "(Stella) (Maria Sarah) Miles (Lampe) Franklin." Australian Literature, 1788-1914, edited by Selina Samuels, Gale, 2001. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 230.