Friday, September 24, 2021

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

Exasperating romance in the Australian bush
Originally published in 1901, My Brilliant Career is the debut novel of Australian author Miles Franklin, who despite the male-sounding name is actually a woman. The novel is narrated in the first person by Sybilla Melvyn, a teenage girl who, like Franklin, grew up on a farm in New South Wales and dreams of being a writer. Franklin, in fact, was only a teenager when she wrote the novel and was about 21 when it was published. My Brilliant Career is one of the most popular works of Australian literature from the Victorian Era. From an American perspective, I would imagine that the novel occupies a similar position in the Australian canon as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women holds in American culture. Both books make proto-feminist assertions of feminine independence, but My Brilliant Career also contains nationalist sentiments that probably make it even more beloved to Australian readers.

The pleasant surprise of My Brilliant Career is that the title is meant to be ironic. The reader soon finds that Sybilla’s career is in fact far from brilliant. This isn’t one of those rural regionalist novels that gushes about what a wholesome joy it is to grow up on a farm in the boondocks. Sybilla makes it clear just how hard of a life a farm girl had to endure in the Australian bush, particularly when born into a poor family. She expresses a genuine loathing for her surroundings, her daily duties, and even to members of her own family. Her father is a drunkard; her mother a shrew. Dad’s ill-conceived business dealings keep the family in perpetual debt. The antipathy that Sybilla expresses towards rural life is a refreshing change from typically idyllic depictions of bucolic life in Victorian literature. Even more surprising, Sybilla is a confirmed atheist who doesn’t hesitate to foist her godless views upon the reader. Such a heretical heroine would be almost unheard of in British fiction of the era.

These promisingly unique aspects of My Brilliant Career make it all the more disappointing when, after the first few chapters, the story veers into yet another conventional Victorian romance. Every bachelor who meets Sybilla immediately wants to marry her. By her seventeenth birthday, she has already had no less than five suitors striving for her hand. Despite constant assertions of her own ugliness, Sybilla is arrogant enough to vehemently reject her admirers. Although the reader is no doubt supposed to admire her self-reliance, she really comes across as unnecessarily rude and unpleasant. The one contender who seems to win the matrimonial lotto doesn’t get off any better than his rivals. While an independent spirit is a commendable quality in a young woman, there’s nothing to admire about the way she strings this poor guy along, plays mind games with him, and at one point even physically assaults him. In the Victorian age it was a point of honor for a gentleman to put up with all manor of unreasonable behavior from the woman he loved, when really he should have just spotted the red flags, turned around, and walked the other way. The conclusion to this miserable courtship is unforgivably predictable.

The novel closes with an epilogue that shares the pessimistic and cynical tone of its initial chapters. Such wry passages are the most refreshingly charming aspect of the book, but the romance was quite off-putting. Franklin doesn’t seem to recognize that spunkiness, male or female, doesn’t have to mean conceited, uncivil, and spiteful. My Brilliant Career does, however, provide a colorful inside look at life in the Australian bush. Perhaps that’s why Aussies love the book so.

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