Do I have many readers left who, when thinking of the pinnacles of novelistic art turn to Anne of Green Gables and Jane Eyre and Little House on the Prairie for examples? I fear I have driven these people off, what with my irony and desecrations and what have you. If not, if they – if you – are still around, or if you know readers like this, I want to press a book into your – their – hands. Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1901) belongs on that list of books.
I want to steal a line from Stefanie at So Many Books: “Pride and Prejudice meets Jane Eyre in the Australian Outback.” Sybylla Melvyn is sixteen or so, funny, tough, ugly (or at least plain), smart, short, cussed, an outstanding heroine, although I came across JLS Hall at A Little Reading who found her “exasperating… sometimes you just want to grab her and give her a good shaking.” That would be a bad idea:
I calmly produced my switch and brought it smartly over the shoulders of my refractory pupil in a way that sent the dust in a cloud from his dirty coat, knocked the pen from his fingers, and upset the ink.
He acted as before – yelled ear-drum-breakingly, letting the saliva from his distended mouth run on his copy-book. His brothers and sisters also started to roar, but bringing the rod down on the table, I threatened to thrash every one of them if they so much as whimpered; and they were so dumbfounded that they sat silent in terrified surprise. Jimmy continued to bawl. I hit him again. (Ch. 29)
You shake her while I hide. I would run, but Sybylla can outrun me. The saliva is a reminder that Sybylla is at this point serving as a sort of governess for The Worst Family in Australia (“The tea and scraps, of which there was any amount, remained on the floor, to be picked up by the fowls in the morning,” Ch. 28).
Two big problems for Sybylla make up the novel. First, how to get off of her parents’ hardscrabble, drought-stricken dairy farm:
This had been their life; this was their career. It was, and in all probability would be, mine too. My life – my career – my brilliant career! (“A Drought Idyll,” Ch. 5)
The novel’s title is entirely sarcastic. The second problem is romantic, which I will leave aside except to say that Sybylla ends up making a truly difficult decision. The novel is as feminist as they come. If I had known nothing I would have guessed that My Brilliant Career was written by a young woman, it does feel young, so maybe the author was twenty-six, and there are passages, at least, which would have led me to guess a publication date decades after 1901. But no, Miles Franklin was sixteen! Several years younger than the heroine is at the end of the novel, even. The confidence with which the book is written, the skill, or at least instinct, is perplexing. She knew herself and kept her eyes open, and somehow knew how to knock it all into the shape of a book.