“ Author: Miles Franklin / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 14 July 1980 / Genre: Modern & Contemporary Fiction / Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group / Title: My Brilliant Career / ISBN 13: 9780860681939 / ISBN 10: 0860681939 „
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My Brilliant Career is an autobiographical novel from Australia. I first read it when I was a teenager; loving its feminist independence, but let down by the lack of traditional romance á la Cartland. I then re-read it 30 years later - and whilst I still loved it, I took a much more cynical stance, concentrating much less on the romance of the book and much more on the social statements and the historical commentary. I no longer desire traditional romance and fairytale endings - and this has helped me to appreciate the novel even more.
Miles Franklin wrote My Brilliant Career in 1901, describing her childhood growing up on a farm in New South Wales and her father's financial and emotional decline as the head of the family after his addiction to alcohol and gambling took over his life. Franklin's sixteen year old naivety never allowed her to consider the need to make her characters substantially different to those from her own history and as a result she was forced to withdraw the book from publication, after anger and outrage from her family and childhood neighbours made her regret her early creativity.
The novel has been enduringly popular, mainly due to the timeless vivacity of the main character Sybylla Melvyn - a talented, feisty rebel. Sybylla reminds me a lot of Jo, from Little Women. She has unruly red hair; she is perceived to be very plain; she scribbles her fictional stories obsessively; she cannot make herself conform to the feminine and gentle stereotype that her family desire. The location is 1890s Australia - Sybylla lives on a squatter farm with her aristocratic mother, her alcoholic father, and her eight siblings, living a life of drudgery but at the same time dreaming of a brilliant career, where her talent and creativity are recognised and rewarded.
In Australian history, 'squatter' referred to those who occupied large tracts of Crown land in order to graze livestock. Although they had no legal rights to this land, their status as Europeans allowed them to use the land without opposition. Unlike the modern connotation of squatting, the Australian squatter of the late 1890s was a person of a higher social class - often a breeder of cattle, and sometimes somebody with aristocratic connections (leading to this group becoming known as the squattrocacy). The story of Sybylla and her family, however, is about squatter life gone wrong; the outback is a harsh environment and quickly turns the riches of the Melvyn family to dust.
Miles Franklin brings the life of the impoverished squatter to life in the beginning of this book, describing the hard work, the dust, the heat and the endless struggle to keep the cattle alive. I particularly like one of these early scenes- the cattle are dying in the drought and the whole community pulls together in a desperate bid to keep them alive. In 105 degree heat, they work together to force the weak beasts to stand up, putting poles underneath them to force them to stand, again and again. The use of language is fantastic when you remember that this book was written by a sixteen year old. "A few light wind-smitten clouds made wan streaks across the white sky, haggard with the fierce relentless glare of the afternoon sun".
After Sybylla's father lets gambling and alcohol bring his family down to even greater depths, Sybylla is sent away in true Jane Austen style to live with her grandmother and aunt on the aristocratic 'Caddagat' property. All of a sudden she is whisked away from a life of hardship to live like a lady and to win the affections of very handsome and wealthy Harry Beecham. All of a sudden the story is about flouncy white muslin, picnics and carriage rides - but can Sybylla conform to the stereotype that this requires - or does her independent spirit and her creativity make her turn her back on this unaccustomed luxury? More importantly, will she sacrifice her independence for love?
I love the portrayal of aristocratic Australian life just as much as I love the portrayal of squatter life, and it is the contrast between the two that bring home to the reader the enormity of the choice that Sybylla has to make. Reading this as a mature woman, I found Sybylla's dramas and tantrums rather hard to take - reading it as a teenager, I completely identified with her, feeling the same anger and desire not to conform. I think that this is the secret of the book's success - readers of any age will identify with Sybylla and find themselves completely swept away by her feelings and ambitions. She is possibly one of the most engaging female characters ever created.
You can read this as a straight romance, you can read it as a historical documentary, you can see it as an analysis of class, you can see it as a first hand lesson in early feminism. However you read it, I guarantee that you will enjoy it!
In 1979 a film version of the book was released, produced by Margaret Fink, directed by Gillian Armstrong and starring Judy Davis and a young Sam Neill. Unusually, I found this just as enjoyable as the book. It was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe.
The original novel was published in 1901.
My edition of the book is a Virago Publication from 1980.
ISBN 0860681939, 232 pages.
It is still available as a Virago Modern Classic on Amazon, for £6.99.
The full online text version is available free of charge from Project Gutenberg at: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/11620