Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Provided one has no fear of snakes - My Brilliant Career and Australia

Sybylla Melvyn, the young heroine of My Brilliant Career  is like us:

The pleasure, so exquisite as to be almost pain, which I derived from the books, and especially the Australian poets, is beyond description.  In the narrow peasant life of Possum Gully I had been deprived of companionship with people of refinement and education who would talk of the things I loved; but, at last here was congeniality, here was companionship.  (Ch. 9)

I presume a bit, but she is, right?  Books are a precious commodity in the Australian bush.  Sybylla is horrified whenever she finds herself stuck in a house without books.  And here she finds herself, after a long reading drought, in a house with books:

... my attention was arrested by what I considered the gem of the whole turn-out.  I refer to a nice little bookcase containing copies of all our Australian poets, and two or three dozen novels which I had often longed to read.  I read the first chapters of four of them, and then lost myself in Gordon, and sat on my dressing-table in my nightgown, regardless of cold, until brought to my senses by the breakfast-bell. (Ch. 9)

What does Sybylla like to read?

The regret of it all was I could never meet them – Byron, Thackeray, Dickens, Longfellow, Gordon, Kendall, the men I loved, all were dead; but, blissful thought! Caine, Paterson, and Lawson were still living, breathing human beings – two of them actually countrymen, fellow Australians! (Ch. 9)

Hall Caine has appeared at Wuthering Expectations before, having written The Deemster, one of the 100 best novels of all time; he is from the Isle of Man.  Otherwise, the names less familiar to me are Australian, members of the first great generation of Australian literature:  Banjo Paterson, who wrote “Waltzing Matilda,” Henry Lawson, Adam Lindsay Gordon, Henry Kendall.  Other than some random facts about Paterson – I don’t forget a name like Banjo Paterson – I know nothing about these writers.

But the Australians are the ones the narrator returns to throughout the book, giving me the pleasure of meeting an unknown literary tradition.  That is the tradition she wants to join, and presumably does join, given the evidence of the text of the novel, memoir for Sybylla, novel for Miles Franklin.  Henry Lawson actually wrote the preface to the novel, published when Franklin was twenty-one.  A proud literary nationalist, he emphasizes the Australianness of the book and the author – “the book is true to Australia”.

A digression - to me, this is the most perfectly Australian sentence in the novel: “Several doors and windows of the long room opened into the garden, and, provided one had no fear of snakes, it was delightful to walk amid the flowers and cool oneself between dances.”

Amazingly – I mean, it seems amazing given that I only know her as a sixteen year old – Miles Franklin is herself now at the center of Australian literature as a pioneering female author and the founder of the premier Australian literary prize.

If anyone would like to tell me about Franklin’s other books, I would enjoy that.  The sequel to My Brilliant Career has a fine title:  My Career Goes Bung.


  1. OK, you've got me hooked - I'm starting 'My Brilliant Career' tonight :)

  2. 1896 or so, published 1901. Banged out over the course of three weeks, or so the author says.

  3. Three weeks!!! I wonder if there is a connection between the fact that in a place with so many books, the number of great authors she has read is so high. When people one only a few titles, do they tend towards classic literature. Were these small libraries she found kept for reading or for show? A terrific book, in any case. Will you go on to the sequal?

  4. I loved that Sybylla was such a reader. I've heard My Career goes Bung isn't as good but I hope to get around to reading sometime anyway. If you don't know about her, you might want to take a look at Whispering Gums. Every Monday she does a feature on Australian literature and she's mentioned Franklin a number of times. She's the one that got me to read My Brilliant Career in the first place.

  5. I don't actually believe that "three weeks." A draft in three weeks, I believe that. But the book was not published for six years, leaving time for revision. Just my guess.

    That is an interesting observation, that given the lack of books, each individual book counts for a lot. Although I do not remember her mentioning anything too old. Vanity Fair would have been 47 years old, the most recent Dickens novel only 25 years old.

    As for the sequel, as Stefanie says "sometime anyway."

    Miles Franklin inevitably comes up a lot at Whispering Gums, given her place in Australian literature, and especially given the prize she created.

  6. As an Australian I am ashamed to say I have not read this book. Paterson and Lawson are both still well known in Australia and I remember studying their work in high school, but I have not read them since.

  7. I figure a lot of Australians who have read My Brilliant Career were assigned it in school at some point.

    1. I don't remember if I read it at school, or if I only read it around the time that I was going to school, but it was always floating around in the ether expecting to be read. It's a permeating book.