Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
The protagonist (Sybylla) of My Brilliant Career by (Stella) Miles Franklin is complex. She is intensely sensitive about her looks (with scenes reminiscent of Anne of Green Gables, although Franklin’s book was published 7 years before Montgomery’s). Sybylla considers herself ugly but can’t bear to hear anything honest about her looks from anyone else. Contrary to her self image however she draws admiration from 3 different men, two of whom make propositions to her, indicating that she is actually beguiling, or the men are desperate because of the remote location and paucity of eligible young women or Franklin is writing out her teenage fantasies.
Provided a woman is beautiful allowance will be made for all her shortcomings. She can be unchaste, vapid, untruthful, flippant, heartless, and even clever; so long as she is fair to see men will stand by her, and as men, in this world, are “the dog on top”, they are the power to truckle to. A plain woman will have nothing forgiven her. Her fate is such that the parents of uncomely female infants should be compelled to put them to death at their birth.
Franklin’s evocations of the Australian bush are fresh, accurate and tinged by emotion. First published in 1901, the novel was withdrawn due to “unwelcome notoriety” when it was critiqued as direct autobiography, but since 1966 it has never been out of print, and in 1979 was made into a film. I’ve linked to some great reviews of this book at the bottom of this page so rather than rewrite what others have already done so well I’ve tried to offer some fresh thoughts on this interesting, provocative and memorable book.
My ambition was as boundless as the mighty bush in which I have always lived
Sybylla is frustrated by the lack of options for women in rural Australian life, especially for those who have average looks but above average intelligence. Sybylla is contrary and inconsistent. The story is quite raw and would have benefited from careful editing and revisions. It’s easy to imagine that Stella Miles Franklin shaped Sybylla around her own character if we consider the similarities between the lives of the author and her protagonist.
I am afflicted with the power of thought, which is a heavy curse. The less a person thinks and inquires regarding the why and the wherefore and the justice of things, when dragging along through life, the happier it is for him, and doubly, trebly so, for her.
Sybylla has a lovely, carefree childhood in a comfortable home that is visited constantly by interesting people so that captivating conversation is always available. Her father becomes greedy and itchy for a change and through a preventable chain of events he plunges them into a form of poverty. For Sybylla’s mother, who is essentially from a family of landed gentry, the change is catastrophic and the drudgery and insistent work deadens her. To survive, the family starts to dairy farm but the terrible drought and associated pests push them to the brink of financial survival. The descriptions of the relentless nature of dairy farming were familiar to me. I grew up on the land and down the hill from our dwelling was my uncle’s dairy farm. I watched them as they toiled to milk their cows at dawn and dusk with myriad hard physical chores in between and never a day off or vacation. My cousin since realised that he could improve milk productivity if he milks in the pre dawn and again 12 hours later, meaning that neither the humans nor cows have had a solid night’s sleep in over 10 years. When friends and my husband talk romantically about moving to the countryside and becoming self sufficient I shudder. They don’t realise how exceptionally hard it is to try to survive, let alone thrive on the land. This is the second book we’ve read this year for my book group that amply illustrates the vicissitudes of life on the land. The other was Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living.
We (999 out of every 1000) can see nought in sunsets save as signs and tokens whether we may expect rain on the morrow or the contrary, so we will leave such vain and foolish imagining to those poets and painters- poor fools!
When I was growing up I never heard my uncle’s family or my own family complain about the hardships and difficulties of the farming life. It’s true that we always had enough to eat whereas Sybylla’s family teetered on the brink of poverty. However, I think that the reason that Sybylla complains so much is that she was accustomed to a life of comfort and leisure and chose not to adjust to her new circumstances. For this reason I failed to connect to Sybylla and constantly wished for her to make the most of her situation rather than mope and to realize that by moping she made it more difficult for her mother. I empathised strongly with Sybylla’s mother and also wanted to shake some sense into Sybylla. It wasn’t fair that she treated her daughters differently but I think that Sybylla was selfish. When she went to live with her grandmother in the lap of luxury she didn’t once mention her family who continued to live in poverty. She simply swanned around, dressing up as a woman, chatting with men, reading everything she could lay her hands on and didn’t spare a thought for how they were coping or how she could be helping them. In this sense it was obvious that the book was not only about a teenager but also by a teenager.
Men are clumsy, stupid creatures regarding little things, but in their right place they are wonderful animals. If a buggy was smashed to smithereens, from one of their many mysterious pockets they would produce a knife and some string and put the wreck back to order in no time.
I was confused about what the stylish and cultured Everard Grey from Sydney saw in the prickly and changeable Sybylla. I also found it strange that we didn’t hear about him again after Sybylla’s mother sent her to work as a governess. While the dirty home of the M’Swats was undoubtedly repugnant to spoilt Sybylla I couldn’t understand why she complained so much and had that strange collapse rather than make the most of her time there. Another similarity to Anne of Green Gables was the way that she beat the son with a stick (like Anne’s Jonah Day).
I am proud that I am an Australian, a daughter of the Southern Cross, a child of the mighty bush. I am thankful I am a peasant, a part of the bone and muscle of my nation, and earn my bread by the sweat of my brow, as man was meant to do. I rejoice I was not born a parasite, one of the blood-suckers who loll on velvet and satin, crushed from the proceeds of human sweat and blood and souls.
She had a high opinion of herself and treated her admirers unpleasantly. Poor Frank Hawden she struck, taunted, and abandoned on the road when he alighted to open the gate. Harry Beecham she injured on the face with a whip when he dared to try to kiss her after she accepted his marriage proposal. I found it inconsistent that Sybylla’s aunt was so nice and understanding with her tempestuous behaviour while she was living there but after one indiscreet letter from Sybylla her aunt cut her off entirely. How can these two extremes be reconciled?
Men are queer creatures, they have the most wonderful brains in some ways, but in little things they are as stupid as owls. It is no trouble to them to master geology, mineralology, anatomy and other things…but they couldn’t sew on a button or fix one’s hair to save their life.
This is a spectacularly well written and brave novel for a 16 year old girl living in the isolation of the Australian bush in the 1890s to write. I resoundingly applaud Stella and if I have been critical above in my comments it’s only out of a desire for perfection. This novel is still relevant and captivating to all and provides a unique insight into the mind of a teenage girl. The audacity of Franklin to have her protagonist Sybylla reject the security of marriage over a life of uncertainty and drudgery made my jaw drop. I found it very hard to imagine a positive future for Sybylla but Franklin was determined to write a feminist response to the romantic novels of the time like Pride and Prejudice. Not only did Franklin challenge the establishment in terms of women’s roles she also challenged religion, capitalism and class structure. What a brave woman especially for her time!
I studied him attentively all the while. What were his ideas and sentiments it were hard to tell: he never expressed any. He was fearfully and wonderfully quiet. Yet his was an intelligent silence, not of that wooden brainless description which casts a damper on any company, neither was it of the remorse or dreaming order.