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Miles Franklin (October 14, 1879 – September 19, 1954) was an Australian author of novels and nonfiction, born Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin. Her best-known novel, My Brilliant Career, is the story of a teenage girl growing up in the Australian bush who longs to break free as her own person.
Franklin’s literary career was long but uneven, alternating great gaps with almost feverish output. A need to support herself compelled her to work in a number of odd jobs, though she often made use of her experiences in her storytelling. Critical reception of her work was also variable, and being quite sensitive to criticism, she occasionally used pseudonyms.
Early life and My Brilliant Career
Franklin was descended from Australian pioneers. She was born on her grandmother’s land near Talbingo Station and grew up on a small cattle farm owned by her father near Tumut. Later, the family moved to to Goulburn to farm dairy cattle. Originally, Franklin wished to study music, but that proved impractical, so she turned to writing. Some of the experiences of monotony and frustration that defined her girlhood on a farm made their way into her first novel, My Brilliant Career. She was only 18 years old when she finished writing it in 1899, and it was published in 1901 by Blackwoods of Edinburgh.
My Brilliant Career tells the story of Sybylla Melvyn, a high-strung, imaginative girl from the Australian countryside. When her parents fall on hard times, they send her to live with her grandmother in another part of the country. There she meets Harold Beecham. Convinced that she’s ugly and useless, Sybilla is surprised when the wealthy young man proposes marriage, but declines. Sybilla is then farmed out to be a domestic servant for a family to whom her father owes money. Despondent, she has a breakdown and returns to her parents’ home.
Beacham tracks her down and reiterates his proposal. Sybilla, determined to become a writer, once again refuses him and vows never to marry. Readers are left to ponder the possibility for themselves, for the story is open-ended.
My Brilliant Career was an immediate success, though the consequences for its author were mixed. Some of the novel’s fictional characters were only thinly veiled, causing a bit of uproar in Goulburn. Some saw the book as an attack on rural life. Most critics praised the book, however, including one who described it as “a warm embodiment of Australian life,” and “a book full of sunlight.”
Life in the U.S. and England
Franklin set off in 1906 to make her way through life in America. Settling in Chicago, she’d all but given up on the idea of becoming a writer, and began doing secretarial work for the National Women’s Trade Union League of America. Though at the time she fervently rejected labeling herself as a feminist, her work with the trade union brought her into contact with members of the feminist movement who were campaigning for women’s suffrage and agitating for better working conditions for women. One of those was Alice Henry, a fellow Australian who was in the U.S. to help further the suffrage movement. She and Franklin became close lifelong friends.
Her brief stint as a domestic servant served as the basis for her subsequent book, Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909). In the interim years, she wrote a sequel to My Brilliant Career titled My Career Goes Bung, but it proved too far ahead of its time and wasn’t published until some forty years later, in 1946.
In 1915, Franklin moved to England. Like a few of her fellow female authors who contributed to World War I efforts, she did her share. First working in slum nurseries, she later joined the Scottish Women’s Hospital Unit. Under their auspices she became an ambulance driver and served as a cook in a 200-bed tent hospital in Macedonia.
Books by “Brent of Bin Bin”
In the 1920s, Franklin traveled back and forth from Britain to Australia, always by way of the U.S. During this period, she wrote a set of historical novels set in the Australian bush and published them under the odd pseudonym “Brent of Bin Bin.” She worried that nothing she did would ever live up to the success of her freshman effort, My Brilliant Career, and may have also felt that an assumed name would shield her from negative reviews.
Under this pseudonym, Up the Country (1928), Ten Creeks Run (1929), and Back to Bool Bool (1931) came out in quick succession. This suite of Brent of Bin Bin novels would grow to six volumes, but the remaining three wouldn’t appear until the 1950s.
See also: Quotes by Miles Franklin
Return to Australia
Franklin returned to live permanently Australia in 1932, and began writing under her own name once again. All That Swagger, considered her best-known work second only to My Brilliant Career, was published in 1936.
Once she had settled back into her home country, Franklin became deeply involved in the Australian literary community. Residing in Carlton, NSW, she became a member of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, and supported literary journals such as Southerly. She was a mentor to young writers and entertained other authors in her home. She also engaged in a number of literary collaborations including a 1939 novel, Pioneers on Parade, co-written with fellow Australian writer Dymphna Cusack. She published a trio of non-fiction works, though none became as well known as her novels.
Though Franklin had a number suitors throughout her young adulthood, she never married nor had any children. In 1937, she was nominated as Officer of the Order of the British Empire, an honor she declined.
Death and legacy
Miles Franklin died in September, 1954 in New South Wales, Australia, of a coronary occlusion at the age of 75. In her obituary in the Melbourne Age, she was described as follows:
“In her lifetime, petite, slim Miles Franklin of the ready smile and quick, bright eyes always carefully parried inquiries. She is quoted as having remarked to a friend on one occasion, ‘I have always enjoyed a little mystery.’
In a recent study of Miles Franklin, Henrietta Drake-Brockman said of her, “There are no half measures about Miles Franklin. Her heart is as wide as her country’s ‘back paddocks,’ her pride as tough as a well-tanned hide, and her honesty of conviction as bright and clarifying as sunlight.”
Indeed, she seemed to like to remain a bit inscrutable. A friend who donated some of her papers to the Melbourne Library said of her: She hated humbug. She was a good friend, who did good by stealth.”
She bequeathed her estate to fund the Miles Franklin Literary Award, given annually to “a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases” In 2016, the award was valued at approximately $60,000 in U.S. dollars. The first award was given in 1957.
A charming Australian film version of My Brilliant Career was released in 1979, reviving interest in Franklin’s life and works.
A novel titled On Dearborn Street was published in 1981. A love story peppered with plenty of American slang, it reflects Franklin’s years in the U.S.
More about Miles Franklin on this site
- My Brilliant Career (1901)
- Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909)
- Old Blastus of Bandicoot (1931)
- All That Swagger (1936)
- Pioneers on Parade (1939)
- Up the Country
- My Career Goes Bung (1946)
- Miles Franklin Goulburn: A Self-guided Walking Tour – Goulburn, Australia
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