Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career, 1901
For many readers, their first and perhaps only encounter with My Brilliant Career will have occurred in high school. Written when Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin was just 19 years old, it is often considered a ‘young adult’ novel, and its author’s name may now be more widely known for the prestigious literary prize she endowed. Yet Franklin’s youthful debut retains an impressive relevance for contemporary readers, and its distinctive voice, critical self-referentiality, parodic genre-play and proto-feminism reveal Franklin as a writer of precocious maturity and insight.
Set during the 1890s, My Brilliant Career follows the trials and tribulations of its narrator and heroine, Sybylla Melvyn, whose family falls from relative wealth into dire poverty as a consequence of severe drought and her father’s alcoholism. Sybylla is an intelligent, ambitious teenager, horrified by the future proscribed for her as a woman, wife and mother, and secretly longing to become a writer.
As well as being an accomplished work of literature in its own right, the novel is perhaps equally fascinating in relation to its publication and reception history. After being rejected by a series of Australian publishers, it was first published in the United Kingdom with the assistance of Henry Lawson. However, Franklin withdrew it from publication in 1910 and suspended re-printing until ten years after her death. This was perhaps due, in part, to the hostility the novel provoked from Franklin’s family, who interpreted it autobiographically despite the markers of self-conscious play that characterise the novel’s narratorial perspective. Franklin died in 1954, and the novel was re-issued in Australia in 1966. It spoke clearly to the emerging feminist movement, which it pre-dated by decades, and has remained in print ever since.
This masterclass will closely examine the novel itself, as a significant and enduring work of literature, and will also consider the issue of the conflation of its author and its protagonist-narrator – an issue which continues to plague primarily female novelists today.
Emily Bitto is an award-winning and widely published writer of fiction, poetry and non-fiction. She has a masters in literary studies and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Melbourne. Her debut novel The Strays (2014) was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, and the published novel went on to win the Stella Prize in 2015. Emily’s second novel Wild Abandon (2021) won the prestigious Margaret and Colin Roderick Prize in 2022. Emily has taught literary studies and creative writing at various institutions over the past decade and is currently a tutor and course advisor at the Faber Writing Academy.