Generous, passionate, creative, prickly, critical, self-doubting, ‘as paradoxical as a platypus’. Miles Franklin defies easy categorisation. Her books, letters and diaries provide evidence of a complex personality, one who often struggled, but who persevered with her life’s work: to redefine the meaning of Australian literature.
Between the publication of her debut novel, My Brilliant Career, and the posthumous sensation that was the establishment of The Miles Franklin Literary Award, Miles experienced as much failure as success. Though she sometimes despaired of ever achieving lasting respect as a writer, she is now acknowledged as one of Australia’s literary greats.
Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin was born at her grandmother’s home at Talbingo, New South Wales on 14 October 1879. The eldest of seven children, she spent the first happy years of her life at Brindabella Station. In 1889 Stella’s father moved his family near Goulburn where he thought he could earn a good living as a livestock trader. His efforts were unsuccessful; the family moved several more times, losing money with each move.
Despite financial hardships, Stella received just enough education to stimulate her lively mind. Ambitious, imaginative and restless, she was not yet 20 when she completed her first book, initially titled My Brilliant (?) Career. The question mark was later dropped, much to the author’s annoyance. Although the novel was rejected for publication in Australia, it was published in Britain by William Blackwood & Sons in 1901 under the name ‘Miles Franklin’.
Miles – as she was known from this point onwards – hoped to keep her gender a secret. But her mentor Henry Lawson put paid to this by announcing in the book’s introduction ‘that the story had been written by a girl’. As described in the sequel, My Career Goes Bung, the ‘girl’ was ill-prepared for her book’s reception, which ranged from neighbours taking offence at imagined insults to the gushing praise of Sydney high society.
Abroad and At Home
Following publication of My Brilliant Career, Miles met and befriended some prominent feminists, including Rose Scott and Vida Goldstein. These friendships kindled her interest in women’s suffrage and inspired her next adventure – a move to the United States in 1906. She spent nine years in Chicago working for the National Women's Trade Union League of America.
In 1915, the First World War drew Miles to Europe. During the war, she worked at a series of odd jobs in London and spent a year as a cook/orderly in Macedonia. Later she worked for the National Housing and Town Planning Council, an influential social organisation. During her years abroad, Miles Franklin produced many manuscripts, but only two were published.
Ageing parents and a yearning for ‘home’ brought Miles Franklin back to Australia in 1927. She struggled with the burden of caring for her parents as well as a lack of money, but her fortunes took a turn for the better in 1928 with the publication of Up the Country. This was the first of six books Miles published under the pseudonym ‘Brent of Bin Bin’ and she went to extraordinary lengths to keep ‘his’ true identity secret.
In 1936 Miles Franklin’s place in the literary world was confirmed with the publication of her book All That Swagger. It was hailed as an instant classic, winning the S. H. Prior Memorial Prize and restoring Miles to the forefront of Australian literature.
For the next twenty years, Miles devoted herself (as much as family demands and dwindling funds permitted) to promoting Australian literature. She won the Prior Memorial Prize again in 1939 and championed both writers who had inspired her – like Joseph Furphy – and the younger writers following her. This work culminated in a lecture series at the University of Western Australia (lectures posthumously published as Laughter, Not for a Cage) on the history and criticism of Australian literature.
Franklin’s diaries, which she kept for most of her life, hint at prolonged ill-health. Despite this, she lived to the age of 74, dying in September 1954. True to her wishes, her ashes were scattered on Jounama Creek at Talbingo where she was born.
It was only after Miles’ death that perhaps her greatest contribution to Australian literature came to light. Her will left provision for the foundation of a literary prize, originally intended to be called ‘the Franklin Award’. Its aim was the ‘advancement, improvement and betterment of Australian Literature.’
Miles was never wealthy; at times she struggled to make ends meet. The legacy must have meant years of scrimping and saving on her part. It is testament to her generosity that she noted in her will her hope that the prize would ease the financial burden of other authors.
Miles’ 1901 debut, My Brilliant Career, was an instant sensation. Almost as soon as the book appeared, the public wanted to know – were the heroine, Sybylla Melvyn, and the author, Miles Franklin, one and the same? Miles’ experience certainly inspired her first book, but there were long periods in her life when she despaired of having the ‘brilliant’ career of Sybylla’s (and her) dreams.
Eight years passed before Miles had her second novel published. Some Everyday Folk and Dawn failed to make the same impression as My Brilliant Career; The Net of Circumstance, published in 1915, was similarly unremarkable. (Though it is notable for being the first of Miles’ books to be published under a pseudonym, this time as ‘Mr and Mrs Ogniblat L’Artsau, ‘Austral Talbingo’ in reverse.)
Miles’ obession with aliases reached its peak with the invention of ‘Brent of Bin Bin’. As Brent, Miles published six well-received novels of the ‘Australian squattocracy’. There was much speculation as to ‘his’ true identity, but – in public, at least – Miles always denied that she was Brent. (The truth wasn’t confirmed until after her death.)
Miles tried her hand at a detective novel, at plays, and had some limited success with Old Blastus of Bandicoot, published under her own name in 1931. But she had to wait until 1936 for a success comparable with My Brilliant Career: the prize-winning All That Swagger. This was followed by My Career Goes Bung, a continuation of Sybylla Melvyn’s story – though with a twist. In it, the narrator claims to have fabricated many of the events of her earlier autobiography … Miles’ attempt to throw dust in the eyes of readers who were convinced she ‘was’ Sybylla?
Since Miles’ death, her works have gone in and out of print, in and out of fashion. The ‘Brent’ books have failed to find an audience in present-day Australia, though other works, most notably All That Swagger, have been re-issued several times. The most enduring success has been My Brilliant Career, never out of print since 1965. Gillian Armstrong’s 1979 film adaptation has helped to cement its status as a classic, not just in Australia, but worldwide.
Books (in order of publication)
My Brilliant Career – 1901
Some Everyday Folk and Dawn – 1909
The Net of Circumstance (as Mr and Mrs Ogniblat L’Artsau) – 1915
Up The Country: A Tale of the Early Australian Squattocracy (as Brent of Bin Bin) – 1928
Ten Creeks Run: A tale of the Horse and Cattle Stations of the Upper Murrumbidgee (as Brent of Bin Bin) – 1930
Old Blastus of Bandicoot: Opuscule on a Pioneer Tufted with Ragged Rhymes – 1931
Back to Bool Bool: A Ramiparous Novel with Several Prominent Characters and a Hantle of Others Disposed as the Atolls of Oceania’s Archipelagoes (as Brent of Bin Bin) – 1931
Bring the Monkey: A Light Novel – 1933
All That Swagger – 1936
Pioneers on Parade (with Dymphna Cusack) – 1939
Joseph Furphy: The Legend of a Man and his Book (with Kate Baker) – 1944
My Career Goes Bung: Purporting to be the Autobiography of Sybylla Penelope Melvyn – 1946
Sydney Royal: Divertissement – 1947
Prelude to Waking; A Novel in the First Person and Parentheses (as Brent of Bin Bin) – 1950
Cockatoos: A Story of Youth and Exodists (as Brent of Bin Bin) – 1954
Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang: A Tale of the Jumbuck Pads on the Summer Runs (as Brent of Bin Bin) – 1956
Laughter, Not for a Cage: Notes on Australian Writing, with Biographical Emphasis on the Struggles, Function, and Achievements of the Novel in Three Half-centuries – 1956
Childhood at Brindabella: My First Ten Years – 1963
On Dearborn Street – 1981