"Why do I write? Why does anyone write?" asks the teenage Sybylla, who dreams of pursuing a brilliant career as a writer, but, as she pens a book on "purloined paper", faces heartrending obstacles in 1890s rural Australia, from her family's poverty to societal misogyny. This impassioned debut novel by Miles Franklin – who bequeathed funds to establish the country's most prestigious writing prize, the Miles Franklin literary award – was written when its author was only 16 and glistens with precocious wisdom.
"I am afflicted with the power of thought, which is a heavy curse," writes Sybylla, whose intellectual and artistic talents are stifled in "stagnant" Possum Gully where she must toil beneath the burning sun, suppressing her "hot wild spirit". Lingering in the mind are Franklin's lush evocations of the Australian landscape, alternately loved and loathed. "My ambition was as boundless as the mighty bush in which I have always lived," writes Sybylla who becomes painfully stuck in the gap between aspiration and achievement. Drought means that "the cruel dazzling brilliance of the metal sky" oppresses her capacity to realise her inner brilliance.
Powerful tension develops between Sybylla's desire to fulfil her vocation and the feared shackles of marriage. Sent to live with her grandmother, she meets wealthy young Harry Beecham, who proposes marriage, but Sybylla is "utterly different to any girl" – and so too are her choices. Later, working as a governess, "the torturing maddening monotony" of life becomes a strain on her sanity.
The frustrations of family life are vividly illuminated by Franklin who was acutely affected, explains publisher Carmen Callil in her insightful introduction, by the "period of political and artistic ferment in Australia". First published in 1901, the novel was withdrawn due to "unwelcome notoriety" when it was critiqued as direct autobiography, but since 1966 it has never been out of print, and in 1979 was made into a film.
Franklin shines an intense light not only into the deep recesses of a bright young mind but on the dark corners of inequality caused by "the rope of class distinction". Indeed, the author is most searingly brilliant when depicting those who poignantly fail to achieve brilliance.
For the 1979 film, see My Brilliant Career (film).
My Brilliant Career is a 1901 novel written by Miles Franklin. It is the first of many novels by Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin (1879–1954), one of the major Australian writers of her time. It was written while she was still a teenager, as a romance to amuse her friends. Franklin submitted the manuscript to Henry Lawson who contributed a preface and took it to his own publishers in Edinburgh. The popularity of the novel in Australia and the perceived closeness of many of the characters to her own family and circumstances as small farmers in New South Wales near Goulburn caused Franklin a great deal of distress and led her to withdrawing the novel from publication until after her death.
Shortly after the publication of My Brilliant Career, Franklin wrote a sequel, My Career Goes Bung, which would not be published until 1946.
The heroine, Sybylla Melvyn, is an imaginative, headstrong girl growing up in rural Australia in the 1890s. Drought and a series of poor business decisions reduce her family to subsistence level, her father begins to drink excessively, and Sybylla struggles to deal with the monotony of her life. To her relief, she is sent to live on her grandmother's property, where life is more comfortable. There she meets wealthy young Harold Beecham, who loves her and proposes marriage; convinced of her ugliness and aware of her tomboyish ways, Sybylla is unable to believe that he could really love her. By this time, her father's drinking has gotten the family into debt, and she is sent to work as governess/housekeeper for the family of an almost illiterate neighbour to whom her father owes money. She finds life there unbearable and eventually suffers a physical breakdown which leads to her return to the family home. When Harold Beecham returns to ask Sybylla to marry him, she concludes that she would only make him unhappy and sends him away, determined never to marry. The novel ends with no suggestion that she will ever have the "brilliant career" as a writer that she desires.
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
A 1979 film version, produced by Margaret Fink and directed by Gillian Armstrong, features Judy Davis and Sam Neill in starring roles as Sybylla and Harry. Sybylla is a young woman with big dreams of becoming a well-known writer. She lives in the outback of Australia with her family struggling with the drought and monetary problems. Her journey to finding herself and making the hardest choices of her life begins when her mother says she can’t afford to keep her and sends Sybylla to her rich grandmother's house where she learns to love. But instead of pursuing love and becoming a rich housewife as expected, Sybylla does not wish to give up her big dreams of becoming a distinguished writer. She chooses a 'brilliant' career over love and getting married, getting a book published in 1901.
Allusions/references from other works
Western Australian band The Panics released a song of the same name on their debut EP in 2002, which is presumably named after the book.
Melbourne band TISM feature a spoken word diatribe titled "My Brilliant Huntington's Chorea" on the bonus disc from their 1999 album www.tism.wanker.com.
In the film Tomorrow, When the War Began (2010), Corrie reads the book and states that it is "better than the film."
- 1901, Australia, William Blackwood & Sons (ISBN NA), Pub date ? ? 1901, hardback (First edition)
- 1980, UK, Virago Press (ISBN 0-86068-193-9), Pub date July 14, 1980, paperback
- Miles Franklin (1980). My Brilliant Career. St Martins Press. ISBN 978-0-312-55599-3.
- Miles Franklin (February 1, 1987). My Brilliant Career. G K Hall & Co. ISBN 978-0-8161-4158-6.
- Miles Franklin (May 30, 2006). My Brilliant Career. Filiquarian Pub Llc. ISBN 978-1-59986-972-8.
- Miles Franklin (September 17, 2007). My Brilliant Career. Broadview Press. ISBN 978-1-55111-677-8.