Monday, December 3, 2012

I hit him again. - Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career

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.


  1. I wasn't aware that this was written at such a tender age... One I've had sitting on the shelves for far too long :(

  2. Not a word against Jane. I simply won't have it.

    I'll admit, I couldn't get through Anne - at any age. And, yes, okay, Little House on the Prairie is good fun, but, a little goody goody. I did kind of always liked Farmer Boy though, the descriptions of all the chores and work they did was wonderfully interesting. But they are not the same kinds of books as Jane Eyre and My Brilliant Career.

    Ah, Sybylla. She does kill you at the end, but in such a way that you can't help rooting for her, or worrying for her, young as she is, with her rigidly independent mind. Great book.

    Perplexing is the perfect word, for writer and character alike.

  3. Ah, I will give you some context. Believe me, there is no word against Jane Eyre here! It does reach a pinnacle of novelistic art! Here is where I argued that Little House on the Prairie in fact does the same. I invoked Edmund Burke and St. Augustine. Anne I have not read. I would love to see someone write about it as a work of art rather than a beloved stuffed bear.

    The Wilder and Brontë books are both among the desecrations I mentioned. I do not identify with the heroines or call the novels "comfort reads." They are both quite uncomfortable if read with attention. As is My Brilliant Career.

    Tony, Franklin's age is a little frightening. The novel has some passages of genuine adolescent self-pity (which of course could be non-genuine representations of ASP) but otherwise the narrator is confident beyond her age - and she is older than the author when she "writes" her "memoir"!

    1. Very interesting, Gentle Appreciationist.

      I have to admit when I read these books in my youth neither Burke nor St. Augustine jumped out at me. But it is an insightful argument to explain the enduring popularity beyond sentimentality.

      While reading your posts, I kept thinking of my favorite epiphany-of-the-sublime - Levin's in Anna Karenina. And, I am very sorry to do it because it's almost cruel, but if one compares Wilder to Tolstoy there you can see that although she may have reached a pinnacle, she does not reach the pinnacle.
      All the same, they are very lovely books that I now think even better of because of your essays.

      I never liked stuffed animals, so you clear up yet another mystery for me! Thanks!

    2. The mountain range of literature has many peaks. The summit of Little House on the Prairie turned out to be a lot higher than I had remembered.

      But you are right to invoke Anna Karenina. I often see praise so effusive that makes me think "Maybe you ought to recalibrate your instruments." Check the height of Mt. Karenina and re-scale the praise.

    3. Ha! It is not for me to tell anyone else not to be effusive.
      Besides, I love that you provoked a reason for my mind to wander over the fields of Russia, and lie down next to Levin for a bit. And that it came from the humble prairies of Wilder is all the more delightful. Why be stingy? Thank goodness for all the multitude of peaks! Sometimes singing the praises is the only thing that relieves the exquisite:

      "The pleasure, so exquisite as to be almost pain, which I derived from the books."

      Your blog is a pleasure and I have enjoyed this exchange. Thank you.

    4. I'm trying to determine if I could be the one to write about Anne as art. Hmmmm.
      While I don't necessarily beleive that analysis leads to a worsened relationship, it does change a relationship and Anne has always been there for me, through break-ups, moves, miscarriage, sickness, sleepless nights with crying infants. . . and I can't risk altering that relationship.

  4. The Little House books are often concerned with difficulty, and not even the overcoming of difficulty but just simply endurance, often without nobility. Pa is clearly the villain of The Long Winter, if I've got my books straight. They aren't cozy little novels.

  5. I guess the first one, Little House in the Big Woods, is actually pretty cozy, but it is establishing the idyllic pattern that will then be repeatedly disrupted. Plus the heroine is only four years old.

    The drought scenes in My Brilliant Career are strong:

    "The scorching furnace-breath winds shrivelled every blade of grass, dust and the moan of starving stock filled the air, vegetables became a thing of the past. The calves I had reared died one by one, and the cows followed in their footsteps."

    The summer of 1895; bad times in Australia.

  6. Nothing much changes. We're in a period of rainy years now, but a few years back there was a very dry spell, affecting farmers, crop, livestock and water storage...

  7. I would never have pegged you as someone who would be interested in this book. It is an interesting one though in all kinds of ways. And yeah, I wouldn't shake Sybylla either! I didn't realize Franklin was only 16 when she wrote this. An impressive accomplishment.

  8. This book is literature. I am interested in literature.

    Then again, you recently got a comment from a person who felt "soiled" by reading the deeply offensive Swann's Way so who knows, it is worth checking. People are weird.

    Maybe some day I'll take on Anne of Green Gables and mangle it like I did Little House on the Prairie. I assume Anne can withstand some pressure - it's available as a Norton Critical Edition.

  9. Oh, Anne can definitely take the pressure, and I'll look forward to discussing it with you, but the very fact that I almost wrote "I look forward to discussing her with you," suggests that I will not be a dispassionate analyzer.