My Brilliant Career was Australian author Miles Franklin’s first novel, written when she was a very young woman and published in 1901 when she was just 21 years old. Prior to publication the author wrote to Australian writer Henry Lawson asking him to review her manuscript and provide her with advice, which he did. Lawson went on to write the preface to My Brilliant Career where he described Franklin as “a little bush girl” who had “lived her book.”
The story was told in the first person by Sybilla Melvyn, who was a sixteen-year old living with her parents, brother and sister at Possum Gully, a small farm near Goulburn in New South Wales when the story began. The family had been living at Possum Gully in poverty since Sybilla’s father had taken to drinking after losing almost everything from speculating in stock. Sybilla, who remembered happier times when her father had owned three stations in the Tidbinbilla Ranges, was homesick for the family’s old life in the mountains and was desperately unhappy and bored with the never-ending drudgery of farm and housework at Possum Gully.
Like many relationships between teenage girls and their mothers, Sybilla and her mother failed to understand each other’s character and butted heads constantly, so when Sybilla’s grandmother asked her to stay with her at Caddagut, her mother’s family home in the mountains, Sybilla was delighted.
Apart from wishing she was pretty and knowing that she wasn’t, tomboyish Sybilla thrived at Caddagut, where she was surrounded by books and music, loved and made a pet of by her grandmother, her aunt, uncle and the community in general. It wasn’t long before Harold Beecham, the richest, handsomest and most eligible man in the district fell in love with Sybilla and proposed marriage to her.
Sybilla wasn’t in love with Harold and wanted a brilliant career of her own, as either a writer, singer or as a performer, but she agreed to marry Harold on the proviso that they keep their engagement a secret and wait until she turned 21 to marry, in the hope that Harold would fall in love with someone else before then.
When Harold lost all of his money and property Sybilla felt honour-bound to remain true to him, despite Harold offering to release her from her promise to marry him. Then, when Sybilla’s father’s finances went from bad to worse (I can’t be the only person to have noted that a high proportion of the men in this story are terrible business men), Sybilla was obliged to work as a governess/housekeeper to the dirtiest, most illiterate family that ever lived, far from either Caddagut or Possum Gully. After eventually suffering a mental breakdown in service Sybilla returned home to Possum Gully.
Harold, who was possibly the luckiest bloke this side of the Murrumbidgee, inherited a pile from a woman who had loved his father back in the day, so he bought his station back and went in search of Sybilla at Possum Gully, who, despite being terribly unhappy and not seeing anything better in her future, took the opportunity to tell Harold as offensively as possible that she didn’t want to marry him.
The story ended without any hint of what Sybilla might do next, or with any hope that she would be able to escape the monotony of life at Possum Gully, although many years later a sequel, My Career Goes Bung was released.
My Brilliant Career should be required reading for all teenage girls. Not only was Sybilla’s story enormously entertaining, as she was an impulsive and headstrong character who as a result was constantly having to apologise for her dreadful behaviour, but she was also funny and clever and true to herself. She wanted what she wanted and wasn’t prepared to settle for less. Miles Franklin is celebrated as a feminist but there is a message in this character for everyone.
The story was written by Miles Franklin to entertain her own friends. It isn’t perfect, and it is easy to see that the story was written by a very young woman, one who liked melodrama and fun and excitement.
However, the settings are written so truly that I could see and smell and touch Sybilla’s beloved Caddagut, as well as her detested Possum Gully. The excitements of bush life were described so well that I felt a part of them, whether it be the thrill of seeing a snake on the road, the smell of smoke and the haze from a bushfire threatening the district, or the interest that comes from being part of a wider community with all sorts of things going on from the excitement and fun of attending bush races, to having a chat with everyone you know after the weekly church service or lively conversations and cups of tea with neighbours and friends who wouldn’t think of passing by without stopping in.
Modern readers will recognise the racism in the book. Aboriginal people are described using derogatory terms and have negative qualities attributed to them, as are Chinese, with one character suggesting to Sybilla that his casually offensive comments wouldn’t offend a Chinese man as the Chinese man didn’t have any feelings to be hurt. The story is a product of its times, although Sybilla at least disagreed with the character who said that the Chinese man didn’t have any feelings.
The author went on to endow the Miles Franklin Literary Award, an annual prize given for literature about Australian life in any of its phases. Recently the Stella Prize came into being as an annual award given to a female Australian author.
It has been far too long since I’ve read My Brilliant Career or any of Miles Franklin’s other works.
My Brilliant Career was book thirty one in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2022.