My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin (1901)

An Australian coming of age classic, My Brilliant Career was written when the author was just 16. It wasn’t a serious effort, but it became published leading to some problems for the young writer as readers perceived the book to be very autobiographical and since some of the characters weren’t particularly nice people, she received a lot of grief from this, and would not allow it to be published again until after her death.

It’s from the PoV of the protagonist Sybylla, a headstrong teenager who lives in the Outback with her family on a farm. Her father’s fortunes tend to rise and fall (mostly fall) related to his drinking, and so she is resigned to staying on the farm in the very limited capacity of young women at the end of the nineteenth century. However, she is extremely passionate about living her “brilliant career” as a writer, but cannot see a way to do it living with the social mores of the day. Young women had very few career options, especially in the bush, and so she was expected to find a relatively well-off
man and marry him and live the life of a Victorian-era Australian society woman.

This dichotomy between what she feels the world expects her to be, and what she herself wants to be, is the central motif throughout the story – she feels very isolated feeling, as she does, that she does not want to marry and live that life in a gilded cage.

Her mother despairs of her, and so Grandma asks her to come and live with her and her aunt for a long while. This is a wonderful avenue to freedom for Sybylla as it exposes her to culture, to music, to people who read more than the stock reports. While there, she meets and reluctantly falls in love with an eligible neighbor and she cannot believe that she could be loved by someone so wonderful. So, in the end, she feels that she has to choose: does she want to marry and live the life expected of her? Or does she want to be a writer? Sybylla does not see these as compatible and so it is an either/or situation.

Love’s trials are, of course, up and down, and at the end of the book, she makes her decision, but is it the right one?

I really wanted to sit Sybylla down and chat with her, as it turned out that her suitor understood her creative urge and would have given a writing life to her. However, she had made her mind up that marriage and writing were two unrelated things, and to have one meant that you could not have the other.  You can see the author’s immaturity in how the protagonist views life in very black and white terms when, obviously, if she had just listened to what was being offered, it would have been ok.

This was quite a good read in the end.  I enjoyed the journal aspect of the book, and am impressed at the age of the author when she wrote it. I can also empathize with her neighbors at being annoyed at how they were portrayed! I am not too sure why it’s such a classic apart from the fact that she has a very strong female protagonist at a time when women were to be seen and not heard – perhaps it is due to this early feminist angle?

Her life goes on to prove this feminist bent when she came to the US to work for the National Women’s Trade Union League of America in Chicago, and then later moved to England to work for another non-profit group. However, she herself did not get her “brilliant literary career” until she was in 50’s and returned to Australia. The Miles Franklin Prize was established later.

This was a Virago edition and I have had it in the TBR pile for ages – at least 20-something years. My mum bought it over when she visited one summer.

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