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Hilary McPhee

Reviews, Commentary, and Books

Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography by Jill Roe

When nineteen year old Stella Miles Franklin sent Henry Lawson the manuscript of My Brilliant Career, he recognized ‘a big thing’ – an Australian Story of an African Farm, he told George Robertson of Angus and Robertson. Olive Schreiner’s autobiographical novel had been an international sensation nearly twenty years earlier, and the Australian publisher still hoped for a home grown version. But Robertson procrastinated, preferring more ‘happy sentimentality’ in his native literature. My Brilliant Career was anything but sentimental. The story of a girl growing up on a failed selection in an imaginary Possum Gully near Goulburn, NSW, Sybylla chooses a career over marriage to an eminently suitable man who loves her and she him, in her Miles Franklin-ish way.

Blackwood of Edinburgh published the book in 1901 but cut the ‘anti-imperial sentiments’, without the permission of its ‘little firebrand author’ or of Lawson, who was keeping an eye on his protégée and on publication. British reviews were enthusiastic as if a hitherto unknown species of platypus had been sighted, but The Times was ‘incredulous that a girl in Sybylla’s circumstances could turn her back on wealth and happiness’. Australian reaction was slow and carping, the boundaries between autobiography and fiction too blurred for comfort, the author reprimanded for biting off more than she could chew. But A.G. Stephens of the Bulletin’s Red Page recognized the book’s authentic voice, declaring it the very first genuine Australian novel, full of sunlight. Stella Miles Franklin must have thought she was on her way, wherever that might lead.

But thirty years on it was still tough going and the way unclear. At a 1931 exhibition of Australian books in London, Miles Franklin spotted an old copy of My Brilliant Career, providing atmosphere like a bunch of gumnuts, in the display case of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, Henry Handel Richardson’s celebrated trilogy. Her chagrin can be imagined, but, typically, Miles Franklin kept her irritation to herself.

My Brilliant Career had been out of print for many years. Richardson had just been awarded the Australian Literature Society’s Gold Medal for the Best Australian Novel and British and American book clubs had taken the trilogy up in unheard of quantities. The last volume, Ultima Thule, had been proclaimed a work of genius by the London Observer.

Miles Franklin disagreed profoundly, finding Richardson’s trilogy ‘European, internationalist, not of the soil’. Henry Handel Richardson did not care for Miles Franklin’s work either – recognizing the symptoms of a writer chasing fashionable genres. Both women were writing historical fiction centred on Australia, but under very different conditions. Richardson had few close friends and an intense dislike of public life. She was economically secure with a devoted husband who sharpened her pencils. ‘To write is her joy’, said critic Nettie Palmer who admired them both. Miles Franklin had no husband, probably no lovers, but a great talent for friendship as her a massive correspondence attests. She worried about money always. Only in later life did rents on a couple of shops left her by her mother supplement her meagre royalty cheques.

Writing was rarely a joy for Miles Franklin. Perhaps it was when the little bush girl was dashing off her stories in the local vernacular. Maybe occasionally during her nine years of feminist activism at the Chicago Branch of the National Women’s Trade Union League of America when her articles were regularly appearing in the Sydney Morning Herald. But her diaries record dark times and deep despair as she struggled to write stories set in Chicago. She then moved to London where she would live for the next sixteen years, mixing with the liberal intelligentsia and expatriate writers, working for the dreary National Housing and Town Planning Council. Outlets for her journalism dried up but always Miles Franklin kept writing her novels and plays, revising and resubmitting, rejected again and again by the theatre and publishing worlds only cautiously emerging from the aftermath of war and depression.

Miles Franklin, taught not to whine, picked herself up and got on with it, ‘donning armour to cope with life’s disappointments’. This may partly explain her decision, in the mid 1920s, to put on the mask of Brent of Bin Bin, an amiable older man, a pseudonym revealed only to Mary Fullerton, a close friend. Read in England in 1924, Fullerton’s Bark House Days, her reminiscences of a Gippsland childhood, were a revelation for Miles Franklin, the catalyst, Jill Roe suggests, for her later formulation of an Australian national literature. ‘Can it mean so much to outsiders as it does to us whose mother tongue is in every syllable?’

Depressed and unwell in her late forties, Miles Franklin resigned her job and bought herself ‘a nice little Corona typewriter’ and began work on an epic novel. But now she was writing in the well-modulated but Australian voice of a squatter who declared himself interested in making ‘a record of the lives of people in an unworked part of the globe, units of a master race in our day, units of a great Empire’. Up the Country, finished in seven months, was knocked back several times before Blackwood agreed to publish what would become an historical sequence of six novels, ‘distinctively Australian’. Galsworthy’s Forsythe Saga may have been the model. From then on, Miles Franklin seems to have regarded publication under her own name as secondary to the greater task, the imperial project she set herself as Brent as Bin Bin, her ‘most important literary endeavour since My Brilliant Career’. Keeping the secret of Brent’s identity required elaborate postal and secretarial arrangements and the deception of close friends, but it gave Miles Franklin considerable freedoms and presumably satisfaction – and seems to have become as much a persona as pseudonym.

As Brent, she wrote to Sir Otto Neimeyer, the Bank of England’s adviser to the Australian government, sending him the recently published Back to Bool Bool hoping that it would help in a study of ‘the cross-currents at work in our Empire’. As Brent, she brought the book to the attention of Lord Beaverbrook as a potent force for drawing the Empire together. She had no qualms about comparing Brent’s work favourably with Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. Miles Franklin, social activist and writer, may have found a mask which liberated her.

Roe chooses not to probe the Brent persona too deeply, and Miles Franklin, who suspected psychologising, would have approved. She was even more scathing about the ‘new sexology’, the ‘great phallic renaissance’ for which she blamed Freud and his ‘dull and badly written’ studies. By urging women to behave like men instead of vice versa, the pre-war feminist challenge to the double standard was fatally undermined, she believed. Chastity was now mocked, and any hope of releasing women from the drudgery and danger of too many pregnancies was set back decades. Roe is illuminating on Miles Franklin’ attitudes to sex and intimacy with men, documenting but not speculating, backing off where Miles Franklin would have drawn the line.

Roe also chooses not to analyse the eugenically-based social and racial theories Miles Franklin’ seems to have absorbed and which informed her prescriptions for the New World. Her attitudes were those of the vast majority of the pioneer generation and remained common in Australia before Nuremberg, framing what Miles Franklin saw on her return to Sydney in 1933. After nearly a quarter of a century away, she at first hated ‘all the horrible old places and their aboriginal lack of progress’ but soon the beauty of the landscape moved her and she knew herself to be ‘indelibly, dyed in the wool ineradicably Australian’.

But in 1940, in a letter to anti-fascist Nettie Palmer, Miles Franklin gives vent to her feelings of isolation and despair over the war, ‘quibbling’, she tells Palmer, ‘about rich Jews and being sick of the paranoid slaughter of all the blue-eyed, fair-haired youth, German or British, and of the Islamic and Mongol hordes breeding and breeding.’ Her Liberal imperial mission was opposed to war, emphasised mutual aid between the women of the Empire and prided itself as being free of class prejudice – but it was also founded in a conviction that a White Australia was essential, as, presumably, were her notions of a native literature. Even European migration after world war two, from countries with high birth rates, was regarded by Miles Franklin as undesirable.

Jill Roe’s mighty biography of a woman who was pivotal to the culture during a formative period of Australian literary life is meticulous and welcome. Future researchers will bless her for the clarity of her narration and the copious documentation of the vast Franklin archive. A labour of love, it must have been, requiring such empathy and scholarship, that the biographer’s voice is at times as reticent as Miles Franklin’ own. Occasionally they are indistinguishable. Both describe time writing at the desk as ‘pottering’ – a Franklin-ish understatement for what often makes painful reading. ‘I can’t go on indefinitely without fruition,’ Miles Franklin wrote in her diary after another round of disappointments, but always she did, buttressed first by elderly patrons and then by beloved friends who encouraged and praised her.

She seems to have had no professional advice when she most needed it, no one to find a way to tell her the truth – that her plays were pedestrian and fiction uneven, creaking under the strain of being forced into the popular moulds which were then selling. Soon after My Brilliant Career was published she worked incognito as a maid in Melbourne then studied the ‘servant problem’ for a while in Chicago planning to write exposės. In a later era, Miles Franklin may have found a niche as a journalist or social critic.

As she aged, Miles Franklin believed that her life had been a failure, her writing not good enough. Perhaps if she had written less and published under her own name her fiction might have lasted – but her real legacy is to the culture. Miles Franklin worked prodigiously to refine the institutions needed to sustain an authentic literature, to nourish writing which presented Australia to the world from the inside out.

Australian literary life then was provincial and often malicious. Publishing was riddled with black-holes, constrained by the fixed positions of Empire and traditional copyright arrangements. She tolerated the tedium of committee work, mediating where she could the ideologically riven Fellowship of Australian Writers. She felt patronised by the emerging scholarly establishment in Australian literature, knowing herself to be under-educated. But, not trusting their ability to spot ‘the real thing’, she applied herself to broadcasting, lecturing and lobbying to establish the meaning, as she saw it, of a native-grown literature. While her harsh and undermining mother was alive, the modest house in Grey Street, Carlton, NSW had been a place from which she had to escape. But for the last sixteen years of her life, her ‘homestead in the suburbs’, with its vegetable garden and its chooks, its waratah cup for special guests, its piles of manuscripts and drawers full of letters, was her refuge and a place of pilgrimage for several generations of writers. Here, she began, again in secret, to salt away what would become a substantial legacy for fellow writers. Who knew better the restraints and frustrations of an underdeveloped literary culture, or that writers’ prizes make a difference?

Miles Franklin was a vain old bird who loved hats and longed to be painted for the Archibald by William Dargie but worried she’d be given a scraggy neck like the portrait of artist Joshua Smith. She turned down an OBE in 1937 at least partly because fellow writer Mary Gilmore had been made a Dame. She knew she was a national icon and would have been gratified that the prize which bore her name became Australia’s foremost literary award and the only one noticed abroad. The furious disputes which make headlines from time to time about the terms of her will would have been music to her ears, her definition of ‘authentically Australian’ always a work in progress.