Thursday, October 20, 2016

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

Waltzing Matilda is a song I taught my students when I was a music teacher at a Title One public school years ago (Title One means over a third of the school population lives under the poverty line).  We sang it as we learned to play the guitar.  Waltzing Matilda is the unofficial national anthem of Australia.  You can listen to Slim Dusty singing it here.

You can learn the meaning and origin of the song here. was an interesting book. I read it on the recommendation of an Australian blogger I follow because I have not read much, if any, Australian literature. (You can visit Carol's blog, Journey and Destination "down under" or click on the link here.)

Therefore, I do not know whether Franklin's book reflects Australian culture or just or her own thoughts and ideas.

Amazingly, she wrote this while a teenager. The writing is wonderful. Her descriptions of farm life and the Australian countryside are fantastic! But then again, that might explain the immaturity of the protagonist.

The story takes place in the 1890s and is about a young girl, Sybylla, who is sixteen and hates her life. Well, don't all sixteen year old girls.

But Sybylla is slightly different. She hates living on a farm, hates the work, hates the people she's surrounded with. She's a "thinker" and they're not. Her mother is beautiful, but thinks the highest ideal for a woman is to marry and have children. This is anathema to Sybylla who has dreams of a brilliant career. I'm not sure in what, writing or music I suppose.

Her family's farm goes under and Sybylla shakes her fist at her father and at God and all of life. Her mother talks of sending her out to work somewhere. But then her grandmother invites her to come live with her. She meets her aunt Helen who persuades her she is not as ugly as she believes herself to be.

Her life is full of tea parties, dinners, and flirtatious young men. To most of them Sybylla is rude if not out right odious. Her Grandmother and Aunt Helen find her behavior shocking but her Uncle Jay Jay thinks its hilarious.

There is one man, Harold Beecham, who stands up to her challenge, although why he bothers with her I don't know, because she acts like a perfect imp to him. And I'll stop right there so as not to give away anything.

I really did not understand this novel. Sybylla is a nasty brat with no redeeming character as far as I can see.

The story is supposed to have a wonderful feminist message. Well, if hating men and believing the only way a woman can be strong and independent is to never get married or have a family, and thinking you're smarter than everyone else, it does.

But I wonder where that thinking comes from. I am strong and independent and the greatest joy I receive in my life is my family. I wouldn't give my husband or son up for anything.

In my view, strong and independent by Sybylla's terms means to be self-absorbed and rude.

I'd be interested in other people's opinions because it is possible I'm missing something.

On a side note, Miles Franklin was so upset to realize that readers thought she was basing her story on her real life that she removed the book and did not allow its publication until after her death.

Unfortunately for her, she got to expose her immature teenage years to the world while the rest of us get to blissfully forget about them.

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  1. I don't think you're alone in your opinion! Just about everyone I'm know who's read the book thinks Sybylla needed a good slap but she did write well. I also thought she described the land and its harshness very well. Thanks for the mention above. Much appreciated.

    1. Hi Carol: It is an interesting story and I guess one needs to remember that even though she was a prodigy, she was only a child after all. I hear she wrote another book and I'm wondering if it is worth reading.

  2. Great review Sharon.

    You raise some really interesting points here. In my opinion questioning convention, rejecting what one deems to be invalid in society etc. is a good thing for a person to do. However, we see it turn into its own form of intolerance for some. Taken too far it also can turn into narcissism. I know people that this has happened to. It sounds as if this is the case with Sybylla.

  3. Hi Brian! I'm not sure how much Sybylla reflects Miles Franklin's own character but Sybylla was very immature, head strong and angry at everybody and everything without really knowing why. I haven't read anything else by the author so I don't know if her characters improved or not.

    I agree with you that we shouldn't mindlessly follow how we were raised. Everyone has to come to a point where they think through their culture and environment and to do so without becoming contemptuous of those who see things differently.

    I am noticing this with some daughters of friends of mine. They are going to a prestigious school and their attitude towards those of us back home has become decidedly arrogant. Hopefully they will grow out of their opinion of us and realize that we all were once college "know it alls".


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.