'My Brilliant Career' by Miles Franklin is one of those books that has been on my radar for years. I think I should have read it when I was a teenager. It is like the antithesis of John Green, who is lovely, don't get me wrong, but his books are all about relationships, and despite the appearance of early death in many of his novels they are mostly romantic depictions of teenage-hood. I did see the film many years ago and its version of the story is slightly different from the events related in the book. I had assumed there was a biographical element to the story but apparently, although the life and people she describes are close to her own it was written to entertain friends.
It tells the story of Sybylla, eldest child of a poor family living in outback Australia. After an almost idyllic beginning the family move in her early childhood and her father's attempts at cattle dealing leads to them becoming almost destitute. They lived a harsh, merciless life, battling drought, pests and the father's alcoholism, but Sybylla is saved by going to live with her grandmother and begins to have other ideas about where her life could go. Despite claiming ugliness and an utter lack of social graces she is courted by Harold Beecham, a local landowner, whom she agrees to marry when she is twenty-one. Her good-for-nothing father borrows money from an old acquaintance, and in exchange, to pay the interest, sends Sybylla as tutor to the man's children. It is worse than being at home, nothing to break the monotony of heat and boiled beef. She has a break down and is finally released from her obligations, and returns home to drudgery. Harold regains his lost fortunes and comes to claim his bride, but she knows it is not what she wants from life and reluctantly rejects him. Despite the intellectual poverty of her existence she knows somehow that there is more to life, that the world is bigger and that she can be something more than the narrow openings that are apparently on offer to her. She berates herself throughout the book, but has quite an astute self-understanding. I liked this about her, and I think my teenage self would have liked her too. But what I think my teenage self needed was her utter rejection of romantic notions and how resolutely, as a woman, you have to pursue your own life. I remember how much I found myself swept along by what was expected of me, how hard it is to fight expectations. While Sybylla is loyal to her family and accepts her obligation to help support the family, she is single-minded in her assertion that she will have a brilliant career and that she wants to write. I felt sad that the father who loves and supports her as a small child, who fosters her sense of adventure, becomes a burden and shame to his family, his role in her life seems to just end overnight as he sinks into alcoholism. She is wild and passionate and unconventional, and yet in the way she talks about gender roles she is very much a product of her time. When I read books from this era I always find myself grateful for the progress fostered by the feminist movement. This quote comes from near the end of the book, when Harold visits them at Possum Gully, but it shows so nicely the strict social boundaries of the time:
"I knew the appearance of Harold Beecham would make quite a miniature sensation, and form food for no end of conjecture and chatter. In any company he was a distinguished-looking man, and particularly so among these hard-worked farmer-selectors, on whose careworn features the cruel effects of the drought were leaving additional lines of worry. I felt proud of my quondam sweetheart. there was an unconscious air of physical lordliness about him, and he looked such a swell - not the black-clothed, clean-shaven, great display of white collar-and-cuffs swell appertaining to the office and city street, but of the easy sunburnt squatter type of swelldom, redolent of the sun, the saddle, the wide open country - a man who is a man, utterly free from the least suspicion of effeminacy, and capable of earning his bread by the sweat of his brow - with an arm ready and willing to save in an accident.
All eyes were turned on us as we approached, and I knew that the attentions he paid me out of simple courtesy - tying my shoe, carrying my book, holding my parasol - would by put down as those of a lover.
I introduced him to a group of men who were sitting on a log, under the shade of a stringybark, and leaving him to converse with them, made my way to where the women sat beneath a gumtree. The children made a third group at some distance. We always divided ourselves thus. A young fellow had to be very far gone ere he was willing to run the gauntlet if all the chaff levelled at him had he the courage to single out a girl and talk to her.
I greeted all the girls and women, beginning at the great-grandmother of the community, who illustrated to perfection the grim sarcasm of the fifth commandment. She had worked hard from morning till night, until too old to do so longer, and now hung around with aching weariness waiting for the grave. She generally poured into my ears a wail about her 'rheumatisms', and 'How long it do be waiting for the Lord'; but today she was too curious about Harold to think of herself." (p.217-8)
The book ends without any real expectation of change for Sybylla, she sees her life going on, trapped by her family's poverty. The harshness of the life led by most settlers in Australia is very vividly portrayed. Life was tough for most people 100 years ago, something it's good to be reminded of in the struggles of modern life. The book complements quite nicely My Antonia that I read last summer, a similar tale of rural life in America but narrated by a young boy.