Ellan Read

sometimes witty book reviews

My Brilliant Career

First published: 1901
Found: Among my mother’s old school books
Pages/read time: 319, four days


I am afflicted with the power of thought, which is a heavy curse. The less a person thinks and inquires regarding the why and the wherefore and the justice of things, when dragging along through life, the happier it is for him, and doubly, trebly so, for her.

Unlike my opinion of many Australian authors, my mother ensured that I was suitably endeared to the works of Miles Franklin from a very young age. I had, however, not picked up My Brilliant Career after attempting before I was ten. I am sad it took me so long to go back, but grateful that I had left it until a time when I feel confident enough in my own reading opinions to definitively say this book is a bloody ripper.*

Written when Franklin was yet a teenager, this rollicking Australian pastoral adventure was first written as a love story to amuse Franklin’s school friends. She subsequently submitted the manuscript to Australian’s literary hero Henry Lawson who himself took it to his own publisher in Edinburgh. The piece was such a hit that it’s popularity managed to filter through to the rather inexperienced reading public of the author’s home town. The (perhaps) erroneously perception of the likeness of characters to members of Franklin’s own family caused her to retract the work from publication until after her death. The ‘damage’ was done, however. My Brilliant Career earned a place in Australia’s literary highlights quickly and with endurance.

Sybylla Melvyn is forward thinking, intelligent girl, stuck in the monotonous grind of poverty and general dreariness that was rural life for whites living in late nineteenth century Australia. Her family eventually sends her to live with a wealthy aunt, where her spirit of adventure and keen mind find ample occupation and stimulation respectively. The love interest, a station-owner named Harold, turns up but Sybylla is blissfully unaware that she is a) conventionally attractive as well as unconventionally intelligent and b) that Harold would be interested in that.

I don’t believe there is a God”, I said fiercely, “and if there is, He’s not the merciful being He’s always depicted, or He wouldn’t be always torturing me for His own amusement.

Then there are a couple of chapters of anguishing ‘do-you-me/don’t-you-know’ before Sybylla is sent to work for an even poorer family than her own – mostly to support her father’s drinking habit. Here our protagonist is subjected to the horrendous fate of hum-drum-woman’s work in a filthy house surrounded by disgusting children. Harold does stuff-all** to actually remedy this. She manages to get back to the family home and is further subjected to menial labour and mind-numbing conversation (or lack thereof entirely) from her parents, siblings and neighbours. Then Harold turns up, the proverbial hits the fan and it all ends completely as you didn’t expect.

Life itself is anything beyond a heartless little chimera- it is as real in its weariness and bitter heartache.

What is particularly delightful is that Sybylla’s love affair with her own intellect is far and away more interesting than her dealings (it’s not ‘infatuation’, whatever the die hards think) with Harold and a potential future as station-owner’s-wife. Indeed, unless it was marketed as a love story (I chiefly blame the 1977 film adaption starring Judy Davis and Jurassic-Park-Neil for this), one would sooner call it a slice-of-life novel depicting the life of a woman on the cusp of the early feminist movement than a romance. Am I being fanciful? No, I’m not. Note this quote, taken directly from the author’s own introduction:

This is not a romance — I have too often faced the music of life to the tune of hardship to waste time in snivelling and gushing over fancies and dreams.

Do not avoid this ‘Australian classic’ because I very, truly think it is one.

Reading suggestion: Find a veranda on a warm evening surrounded by several hundred cicadas to ready on to really set the ambiance.

*For those not versed in classic Australian slang, ‘bloody ripper’ does not mean ‘horrifically akin to Jack the Ripper’ but rather: ‘super mega fantastically awesome’. Speaking of slang, there is quite a lot of it in this novel. If you have country-Australian upbringing/relatives you should get by alright, but others may have to resort using this Australian slang dictionary.***
** Stuff-all = nothing
***While looking for that link I also discovered that The Australian Government has devoted an entire official web-page to the less than glamorous origins of our, quite frankly, chauvinistic slang heritage. On ya ‘Straya.****
**** On ya ‘Straya = Excellent work, Australia

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This entry was posted on May 1, 2017 by in Australian, Bit of Both, Classics, Women Authors and tagged , , , , , .

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