This is torture. Two dead white women whose books feel like friends — and I am already deep in subjectivity. They sort of map my life. Once a fierce nineteen year old like Miles Franklin’s Stella/Sybylla, I was determined not to get snagged in convention or my mother’s life. I once loved a brilliant Mahony of a man whose life and death followed something of the same dark passage. I was sent to wander the National Gallery once in search of paintings for the paperback covers of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony — which in 1969 had just been declared by the UK company good enough to wear ‘Penguin livery’ — as they called it back then.
Both books are now in Penguin Classics and are slugging it out in a tournament that feels more like kick-boxing than tennis. Judging literary awards can be a snitch, choosing what gets published, no problem. A tournament is something else again. There’s staying power, performance, the roar of the crowd on the day.
What the books are about matters and though written more than twenty years apart by very different women who didn’t much admire each other, they have much in common. Both are disturbing portraits of strong women trapped by fate or circumstance as the booms and busts of the second half of the nineteenth century tear lives apart. Both were written when Australianness as affliction and privilege was endlessly debated. Both probe something crucial about this place, the fundamental sources of colonial tensions and our ambivalences.
Henry Handel Richardson, at the peak of her powers, was writing from the outside looking back, looking in, living mainly in England, researching family letters, drawing on her father’s harrowing experiences. She was a skilled historian, psychologically astute, brilliant on disintegration and death and what was once known as character. Published between 1917 and 1927, the superbly structured Fortunes was acclaimed throughout the English speaking world as the great colonial trilogy. Miles Franklin thought it ‘European, internationalist, not of the soil’. My Brilliant Career (the publishers removed Miles’ question mark after Brilliant and modified her anti-imperial sentiments) divided readers from its publication in 1901. English critics found it to be devoid of literary value, too emotional, too ‘of the bush’, to be taken seriously — and so carping was the Australian reaction that its young author withdrew the book from circulation. My Brilliant Career, memoir-as- first-novel, sometimes strains after effect, caricaturing, not quite sure where it’s heading nor how it will end. But Sybylla of Possum Gully delights in her own resilience and quirkiness, not attempting to explain the physical repulsion that causes her to lash out whenever a man touches her, even her great marital prospect who promises love, security and a writing room.
As always, the critical and the visceral response to powerful writing are in play — the tournament is located in my head. Right now, I’m with Sybylla, full of life, bouncing along in her boots made for sparring, outrageous, curmudgeonly, railing against fate. Fortunes is a masterpiece which has had its day and will have it again and again. My Brilliant Career might just be having it now. Go Miles.
WINNER: MY BRILLIANT CAREER
Jess: I thought that by this stage of the tournament, I’d know everything there is to possible know about the books in question, but it turns out there is always more to find out about our brave competitors. I feel as though the discovery that My Brilliant Careerwas originally called My Brilliant Career? changes EVERYTHING for me, and I don’t even know why! Maybe I’m just drawn to the power of sarcastic used punctuation. In any case, Also, learning that Miles Franklin once described The Fortunes Of Richard Mahony as ‘European, internationalist, not of the soil’ adds an important element of unexpected inter-text bitchiness that has been lacking from the competition so far. I wonder what Henry Handel Richardson would have to say in response to this statement — perhaps she would cattily mutter something about Franklin not standing by her question mark when push came to publishing shove? We’ll never know. Either way, these two tomes have clearly kick-boxed their way into judge Hilary McPhee’s heart, and after some brutal jabs and cross stomps, competition favourite Miles Franklin has once again emerged, bloodied and battered but grinning victoriously, from yet another fight.
Ben: Indeed, My Brilliant Career does seem to have something of the unstoppable cannibal cyborg about it — in fact, what a shame Miles Franklin did not live long enough to see the advances in technology that would have allowed her to write the cannibal cyborg novel that she surely had burgeoning within her. But still, this novel seems to be doing very well on its own merits, and like you, I was glad to see Franklin engage in a bit of trash talk — in a tournament you want to see the competitors get all up in each other’s grills, and Franklin has proven herself not only a skilled writer, but a masterly grill-getter-up-in. But let’s not neglect to acknowledge how well The Fortunes of Richard Mahony did to get so far. Not being of the soil was probably a major handicap, but like Sir Edmund Hillary, who climbed Mount Everest despite having only one leg, Richard Mahony overcame its crippling Europeanness to put up a more-than-creditable performance, and the fact it will forevermore be known as ‘the loser book’ shouldn’t take away from that. What I was stunned by was the revelation that critics found My Brilliant Career to be too ‘of the bush’: clearly they had little experience of book tournaments, as being of the bush is a positive boon in this arena, and I am backing Franklin to go all the way here. I only wish the publisher hadn’t removed the question mark. ‘My Brilliant Career?’ would have been awesome, in my imagination at least: ‘My brilliant career?’ gasped Sybylla. “WTF?” She could see she was dealing with a real arsehat here.’
Posted by Judy Horton
17 November at 06:04PM
In no way should The Fortunes of Richard Mahony be called the loser book. It is profound and clever, and to say it is not of the soil is like saying Frank Moorehouse shouldn’t win the Miles Franklin because his books aren’t about Australia.
The family the nation and the individual and the effects of each on the other are all subject to Richardson’s close scrutiny. I am shocked that so hightly regarded a publication as meanjin should not understand the importance of this book.
Posted by Whispering Gums
18 November at 10:17PM
Oh dear, you clever entertaining commentators, I don’t think you read McPhee properly. Franklin wanted her book to be titled My brilliant? career … how very postmodern, or something, of her, how even more sarcastic or self-deprecating. And how very boring of the publisher!
And Judy, do you really think Meanjin doesn’t understand the importance of Richardson’s book … it was Franklin not Meanjin who described it as “not of the soil”, and don’t you think the commentators have their tongues firmly in their cheeks when calling Mahony “the loser book”.
Oh, and go the bush!