My Brilliant Career is a thoroughly Australian novel, which depicts Australia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a deeply difficult, yet beautiful country. Characterised by its frank portrayal of hardship and oppression, Franklin’s writing reflects the social and political movements of federalism and female suffrage, emphasising the disempowerment of women in Australia while celebrating the Australian working class and natural environment with a strong sense of patriotism. The plot of the novel and the headstrong protagonist, Sybylla Melvyn, mirrors the upbringing and experiences of the author, Miles Franklin, whose real name was Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, as a woman deeply inspired by the arts and literature, and who ultimately resolved never to marry.
The Draining Force of Poverty
“Some there are who argue that poverty does not mean unhappiness…Let poverty force them into doing work against which every fibre of their being revolts, as it has forced me, and then see if their lives will be happy.”
Franklin’s vivid and detailed descriptions of living in poverty, particularly at Possum Gully, portray it as a condition which drains the vitality of those afflicted. Sybylla narrates the physical and mental toll of poverty during her time “dairying”; as “hands and arms” unused to arduous physical labour “swelled, so that [their] sleep at night was often disturbed by pain.” The extent of strenuous labour is further outlined in the character of Jane Hazelip, who bemoans the “slavin’, an’ delvin’, an’ scrapin’ yer eyeballs out from mornin’ to night” that leaves her physically exhausted and mentally frustrated, with “and nothink to show for your pains”.
For Sybylla, the anguish of poverty goes beyond endless, gruelling labour, as it also strips her of her passion. The “third part of [her] which cried out to be fed” equates her lack of access to music and art as a deprivation akin to starvation, limiting her ability to – in her own eyes – survive at all. Franklin imbues the text with an overall commentary on the pervading ignorance in poverty, but without disdain for the “lower life”, yet an acknowledgement that ““When the body is wearied with much toil the desire to cultivate the mind, or the cultivation it has already received, is gradually wiped out.” Sybylla’s rejection of religion and growing “rank and sour” cynicism in early childhood furthers Franklin’s deeply depressing characterisation of what poverty does to the soul.
Additionally, Franklin enhances the stinging effect of poverty by contrasting it with possibility: “the torture of a broken ideal.” The appearance of Everard Grey, who offers opportunity and wealth to satisfy Sybylla’s ambitions of the stage, engenders a sense of crushing defeat when such plans are foiled. Mrs. Melvyn exemplifies the consequences of a fall from wealth, as once a “full-fledged aristocrat”, Sybylla observes, despite limited sympathy for her otherwise callous mother, how “the heavy work told upon [her] gentle, refined mother…[who] grew thin and careworn, and often cross.” Through the Melvyns’ misfortune, and Harold Beecham’s sudden financial losses and gains, Franklin establishes financial stability as acutely precarious, exploring the implications of this volatile wealth as creating“the most stinging kind of poverty…“that which still holds up its head and keeps an outside appearance.”
Political and Class Consciousness
“Bravely you jog along with the rope of class distinction drawing closer, closer, tighter, tighter around you: a few more generations and you will be as enslaved as were ever the moujiks of Russia”
Franklin’s My Brilliant Career examines the stratified nature of early colonial society, focusing in particular on the heavy burden placed on Australia’s working class. Sybylla’s experience in the public education system, and the outburst between an inspector and her teacher, Mr Harris, demonstrate how the toll of labour prevents the peasantry from accessing education. Sybylla thus develops a view of poverty as a failure of government and society, condemning “the iron ungodly hand of class distinction [which] has settled surely down upon Australian society—Australia’s democracy is only a tradition of the past.” Franklin is no less scathing of the individual members of the upper class who do nothing to further the plight of the poor, instead benefiting off of their powerlessness, as Sybylla observes the rich to be “bloodsuckers who loll on velvet and satin, crushed from the proceeds of human sweat and blood and souls.”
Conversely, Sybylla has extreme respect for the working class of Australia and prides herself on her egalitarian values. In the early pages of the novel, Sybylla declares her “organ of veneration” “flatter than a pancake, because to venerate a person simply for his position [she] never did or will.” Despite Sybylla’s clear rejection of societal stratification, she nevertheless perceives the peasantry to be willfully unenlightened in order to ensure “their ignorant contentment”. However, Franklin undermines this perspective through the character of Joe Archer, the jackeroo who “talked literature and trash”, implying that Sybylla’s artistic appreciation is, unlike her own conceited interpretation, far from unique among the Australian working class.
Beyond the question of culture and sophistication, Franklin strongly establishes throughout the text the intrinsic value of the working class, and solidifies their identity as a collective. The ending of the novel minimises Sybylla’s ambitions and personality, focusing instead on her status as a “peasant, a part of the bone and muscle of [her] nation.”, minimising the importance of her as an individual and instead combining her Australian identity and experiences with poverty to form and entirely new conclusion on what makes her special. The clarification that “earn[ing] [one’s] bread by the sweat of [one’s] brow” is what “man was meant to do” elevates peasantry to a noble, moral status, adding finality to the novel’s disdain for the disparity of the rich, and contrasting humanisation of the poor. Franklin’s perception of the working class is ultimately shaped by the context of Australian society, as this class consciousness is imbued with a deep sense of patriotism.
Insecurity & The Human Desire to be Loved
“Why was I ugly and nasty and miserable and useless—without a place in the world?”
Despite her intellectual capability, Sybylla is displayed as a deeply insecure individual. The belief that she “possesse[s] no qualities that would win either…pride or love” causes Sybylla great anguish, as Franklin includes consistent exclamatory lamentation of her appearance or vague hatefulness throughout Sybylla’s internal monologues. In addition to heaped criticism of herself, Sybylla uses others around her as examples of loveability, to strengthen the belief that she, by virtue of being different, must therefore be hated. This is true of both characters with close relationships to Sybylla, such as Gertie, and also of strangers, such as Blanche Derrick, as Franklin demonstrates that completely diverse individuals can we weaponised by an insecure mind. In particular, Franklin outlines how the tendency of women to compare themselves and each other, rooted in the commodification of beauty as a “valuable article” in the “marriage market”, shatters female confidence and creates division within female relationships.
Franklin utilises Sybylla’s insecurity, and the attitudes surrounding the responsibility of women to be marriageable, in order to critique the idea that love must be earned. Sybylla’s boisterous behaviour and intellectual interests are, as exhibited by the litany of men who pursue her, not an obstacle to her accessing romantic love, nor do they prevent her platonic and familial relationships with other women, such as her sister and Aunt Helen. However, as she does not conform to traditional standards of feminine behaviour, she develops a perception of failing to be ‘loveable’, engendering a deep sense of personal deficiency and inner turmoil as she is “hungry for love”. Sybylla equates her ability to find genuine personal connection with the abstract sense of female ‘value’ in the sphere of marriage, a discord which Franklin emphasises in order to condemn the expectations, placed under threat of loneliness and ostracisation, upon Australian women.
Being Loved vs. Being Understood
Franklin establishes within Sybylla a constant tension between the desire for others’ love and a certainty that those same surrounding people do not understand her. These feelings of being misunderstood fester, depriving Sybylla of healthy relationships and the feeling of being loved that she so craves. In describing the filial relationship between Mrs. Melvyn and Sybylla, Franklin employs a cold metaphor of a “piece of machinery which, not understanding, [the] mother winds up the wrong way, setting all the wheels of [the child’s] composition going in creaking discord.” The implication from Sybylla’s perspective is that such isolation and conflict is inherent in her being, in the way she was made, and is therefore an irreparable divide between her and the maternal figure she ultimately admires as a “good woman”.
The protagonist’s sense of ostracisation is enhanced by her experiences of oppression in society. The consistent objectification of women, by characters such as Frank Hawden, who intends to marry Sybylla before he sees her, or the harassment of Jane Hazelip by James Blackshaw, found Sybylla’s assumptions that men are incapable of perceiving her true worth. These assumptions are echoed in other female characters, such as Jane, who “don't think much of any of the men around here”. The expectations of other women to conform to gender roles which Sybylla rejects also place a strain on her relationships, in particular with her mother and grandmother.
Additionally, Sybylla’s experiences in poverty shape her view of marriage, as she insists “[her] love must know, must have suffered, must understand.” Despite her apparent preparedness to support Harold Beecham when he loses his fortune, his regaining of wealth coincides with her reconsidering their future entirely. This extends too to platonic relationships, where Sybylla yearns for “a friend – one who knew, who had suffered and understood.” Franklin’s repeated intertwining of suffering and understanding demonstrates the extent to which poverty forges an identity separate from the rest of society, creating an isolated sense of self which haunts Sybylla even when transported into wealth and lifted from the poverty of her past.
Franklin thus establishes a divisive society, and a conception of womanhood and peasantry which is inherently exclusive. These entrenched ideas of being ostracised, even when only in the past, mean that Aunt Helen’s admirable, optimistic advice – that “there is any amount of love and good in the world, but you must search for it” and that “being misunderstood is one of the trials we all must bear” – falls on utterly deaf ears.
The Curse of Ambition & Its Clash with Womanhood
“In it I lived a dream-life with writers, artists, and musicians. Hope, sweet, cruel, delusive Hope”
Despite a strong support for Sybylla’s intellect and “dreams”, Franklin portrays ambition as a source of unhappiness. The “cruel fiend – ambition! desire!” instigates cycles of hope and crushing defeat, which turns Richard Melvyn from a “fine fellow…a kind a indulgent parent, a chivalrous husband” to a “slave of drink, careless,..dirty and bedraggled…he seemed to lose all love and interest in his family”. This trend of tantalising hope is repeated in Everard Grey, whose “opinion gave [Sybylla] an intoxicated sensation of joy”, and who offers her a chance to fulfil her dreams of artistic pursuits. He too disappears, representing the fleeting, illusory hope that Sybylla’s dreams might ever be achieved.
Franklin contrasts the futility of these ambitions with the harsh realities of life, particularly as Sybylla flits between clutching mentally to her “dream” and shifting her mind “back to dairying”, forced to confront the reality of her impossible aspirations. Thus, Franklin exposes a new layer to ambition’s tragedy: not only is it generally futile, but particularly tragic when societal and economic constraints prevent its realisation. Sybylla’s financial circumstances do not allow for the “years of training and great expense” that are required for her to pursue music. Additionally, the expectations that Sybylla follow a traditional path for women at the time – that is, in essence, to be married – eliminate her from being able to pursue the stage, even when Everard Grey offers to “bear the expense [himself]”. As Sybylla’s grandmother claims she “would rather see her shear off her hair and enter a convent”, Franklin explicitly portrays a deeply conservative attitude regarding the appropriate role of women as a severe limitation on Sybylla’s ambitions. Indeed, the character of Everard represents this contrast of genders, as he, like Sybylla has been taken in by her grandmother, and is able to pursue his chosen career, yet the same woman denies her own granddaughter, who she has also taken in, those same exact opportunities. Franklin utilises these almost identical storylines to outline how precisely Sybylla’s fate is altered because she is “a woman…the helpless tool of a man – a creature of circumstances.”
Powerlessness of Women & Concept of ‘womanliness’
“As I grew it dawned upon me that I was a girl—the makings of a woman! Only a girl—merely this and nothing more.”
The society of My Brilliant Career is doubtless one which brutally constrains the ability of women to exert influence and control over their own lives. Franklin outlines this in every stage of life, as Sybylla’s father correctly ascertains that, despite being a toddler, “the rubbishing conventionalities which are the curse of her sex will bother [Sybylla soon enough.” Readers witness as young women, Sybylla and Jane Hazelip are pursued by men who they are not interested in, unable to reject them in a manner which ceases the men’s endless attempts. Sybylla is even punished for her rebuffing of Frank Hawden, as he utilises the expectations of ‘womanliness’ against her, accusing her of “flirting”, thus “disgracing the name of woman”, weaponising societal imbalances to soothe his wounded pride. The deep unfairness of Sybylla’s punishment is but a small example in the novel, which Franklin litters with cynical displays of female disempowerment.
Franklin additionally paints a backdrop which demonstrates the continuity of such oppression through the histories of her female cast. Sybylla’s mother, despite correctly “[feeling] dubious of her husband’s ability to make a living”, is unable to prevent her husband from plunging her family into poverty. Even as he relinquishes all his male responsibilities, “failing to fulfil the obligations demanded of [the head of his family]”, Mrs. Melvyn can do nothing, forming the first example that substantiates Sybylla’s view: “A woman is but the helpless tool of a man – a creature of circumstances.” Franklin echoes this evidence of powerlessness in Aunt Helen, whose “life was wrecked. She had been humiliated and outraged in the cruellest way by the man whom she loved and trusted”, and he was able to disempower her precisely because Australian society perceives divorce to always be the fault of the wife, removing ramifications for her husband, and adding to Helen’s emotional burden. Thus, the foundation of Sybylla’s maternal relationships, and her own childhood experiences, craft the image of a society that utterly disenfranchises women, teaching her that her position as a woman is inherent to a position of complete dependence. Sybylla’s schizophrenic horror when she strikes Harold Beecham reveals the implicit power of this messaging, as in an instance of her regaining power after an unwanted advance, she is torn between her own righteousness and desires, and the subconscious messaging that suggests her reclamation of physical power is “unwomanly”. Nevertheless, Franklin posits Sybylla as ultimately rebelling against these conventions, as her eventual rejection of marriage is a rejection of the vulnerability entailed in womanhood.
Disappointingly, Franklin portrays the enforceability of such rigid limitations as coming primarily from women themselves. As a child, it is Sybylla’s mother who “remonstrated, opined [she] would be a great unwomanly tomboy” while “[her] father poohed the idea”, indicating a disparity in the expectation that Sybylla adhere to gendered expectations of compliance and softness at a young age. This is displayed as a generational cycle, as “[Sybylla’s] grandmother is one of the good old school, who believe[s] that a girl’s only proper sphere in life [is] marriage”, portraying how, even in a matriarchal family, where maternal relationships dominate family dynamics, women perpetuate their own disempowerment further, onto their children and others in society. In this way, Sybylla’s refusal to marry and have children is also a refusal to continue this cyclical reinforcement of values which have caused her, and the other women in her life, such hardship.
Suffering Forging Identity & Finding Solace in Patriotism
“Would that I were more worthy to be one of you—more a typical Australian peasant—cheerful, honest, brave!...My ineffective life will be trod out in the same round of toil—I am only one of yourselves, I am only an unnecessary, little, bush commoner, I am only a—woman!”
Sybylla’s experiences with poverty and her struggles with female disempowerment render her pessimistic and sour, and this suffering forms an integral part of her self-conception. In general, this “hard uncongenial life” is a source of deep bitterness for Sybylla, as Franklin crafts a character with “pitiless cynicism…encrust[ing] [her] heart”. The imagery of the heart being tainted indicates again how the hardening of Sybylla’s soul is an irreparable change, and however unfortunate, demonstrates it is at the core of her identity. Her observations that “women…[are] forced to sit with tied hands and patiently suffer”, or that “dairying means slavery” continue Franklin’s condemnation of a society which causes the subjugation of so many.
This is offset, however, by Franklin’s correlation of suffering to an Australian pride. As Lawson remarks in the preface, Australia is a country “where people toil and bake and suffer and are kind”, intertwining the difficulties and hardship of peasant Australian life with a sense of patriotic unity. As Franklin ends her author’s note, she defines herself as “one of a class”, defined by “individuals…which have not time for plots in their life, but have all they can do to get their work done”, once again finding solace in an Australian identity which necessarily encompasses toil. This glorification of work combines “a great love and pity” for the “sunburnt brothers” and “daughters of toil” that are unequivocally defined by Franklin as the “bone and muscle of [her] nation”, which she dearly cherishes.
Religion & Justice
“In a vain endeavour to slake that cruel thirst my soul groped in strange dark places. It went out in quest of a God, and finding one not, grew weary.”
Throughout My Brilliant Career, Franklin criticises contemporary attitudes to religion through Sybylla’s turbulent relationship with her faith. Religion, specifically Christianity, is intertwined with patriarchal figures and subsequently Sybylla’s lack of agency, as Sybylla reflects on her childhood by likening her father to a religious figure in whom she has lost faith. Additionally, the Melvyns are plunged into poverty by the bishop, who, when “[they] begged for time…answered by putting in the bailiff and selling everything [they] possessed.” Even the consistent invocation of God by Sybylla’s mother as a power which would “soften” her frames religion as a weapon of enforcing societal expectations. Thus, Sybylla’s childhood characterises religion as enhancing the oppressive forces of patriarchy and class.
The inability to act in the face of cruelty echoes throughout Sybylla’s witnessing the “great suffering” of animals, a a damaging force to her belief. While she physically “turn[s] her head away”, she cannot ignore the “poor innocent animals”, “ask[ing] God what He meant by this…why are they tortured so?”. The reverberating silence, and continued hardship of herself and others engenders a deep disillusionment within Sybylla, which Franklin uses to undermine the societally expected views of unquestioned faith. Sybylla’s constant questioning of her belief and reflection on suffering in the world is thus positioned as a natural consequence of her intelligence and curiosity, as Franklin suggests refutation of a religion which is unjust.
While Franklin’s questioning of religion is gentle, she more vehemently condemns the corruption of religion, and religious institutions, by greed. The priest, in particular, is as symbolic of false religious generosity as he is of the insidious corruption engendered by a desire for money. Additionally the M’Swats, who are framed as contemptible characters, hold the “ idea [that] religion, pleasure, manners, breeding, respectability, love, and everything of that ilk, was the possession of money.” In Sybylla’s quest to “[fight] against unbelief” she eventually reconciles her dissatisfaction with religion as, in fact, dissatisfaction with the suffering of the poor, wishing that “a preacher might arise and expound from the Book of books a religion with a God, a religion with a heart in it—a Christian religion, which would abolish the cold legend whose centre is respectability, and which rears great buildings in which the rich recline on silken hassocks while the poor perish in the shadow thereof”. The criticism of the idea of “respectability” in particular demonstrates how religion had become synonymous with societal standards, a conflation which Franklin resolves through a condemnation of institutionalised religion, and blames its greed and ignorance to suffering as the cause for its own undoing, and the driving away of people from their faith.
Form & Features
My Brilliant Career is a cross-section of Australian society, as Franklin moves through settings with strikingly different class dynamics. These changing environments highlight both the lack of agency and mobility that exist, in particular for the working class and women, as well as fostering a sympathetic outlook for those that suffer in the poorer districts of Australia. For Sybylla, these experiences demonstrate how, although happiness is not necessarily guaranteed by wealth, unhappiness is certainly brought by poverty. Additionally, the dramatic changes reveal the deeply rooted insecurities, and the stubborn ambitions, of Sybylla which, despite the upheaval in her life, remain unchanged.
Bruggabong: The setting at the novel’s opening, where Sybylla recalls accompanying her father, is mentioned mostly in contrast to the boredom of Possum Gully, where she spends the remainder of her childhood. The change in setting between the first and second chapter of the novel establishes this convention which Franklin employs throughout the text to emphasise Sybylla’s emotional journey and shifting class experiences.
Possum Gully: “My first impression of ’Possum Gully was bitter disappointment—an impression which time has failed to soften or wipe away.” Sybylla’s time at Possum Gully is characterised by her family’s struggle in poverty, the disintegration of her relationships with her parents, and the development of her deeply cynical outlook about herself, her relationships, and society.
Caddagat :“Caddagat, the place my heart fondly enshrines as home. Caddagat, draped by nature in a dream of beauty. Caddagat, Caddagat! Caddagat for me, Caddagat forever! I say.” Sybylla’s leaving Possum Gully for Caddagat is nothing short of a miraculous transformation. A complete contrast to the manual labour and poverty on the dairy farm, her time at Caddagat allows Sybylla access to music, education and the arts in a way which poverty denied her before. Additionally, in Aunt Helen Sybylla finds a figure of female support and friendship, combating the deep loneliness and isolation she had experienced at home.
Barney’s Gap: “One wild horrified glance at the dirt, squalor, and total benightedness that met me on every side, and I trembled in every limb with suppressed emotion and the frantic longing to get back to Caddagat which possessed me. One instant showed me that I could never, never live here.” As Sybylla is forced to leave Caddagat to work for the M’Swats, Franklin indicates how poverty casts a shadow over even the best opportunities in Sybylla’s life. Cynically, the trend of My Brilliant Career is that chances for Sybylla to achieve her dreams inevitably disappear, and reiterate Sybylla’s complete lack of agency over her own life.
Sybylla’s strong protagonist voice is a key stylistic feature of My Brilliant Career, and while the audience are positioned to be sympathetic to Sybylla’s analysis of the unfairness present in Australian society, Franklin also undermines her narrator by displaying, occasionally, her unreliability.
- Sybylla’s deep insecurities about herself create projection onto other characters, assuming that their professions and feelings are false without any evidence. Franklin contrasts the reality of what happens with Sybylla’s internal monologue to showcase how insecurity is blinding.
- Sybylla’s commentary about the Australian peasantry is, at times, generalising and unjustifiably. While not at all condemnatory, the condescension with which Sybylla declares the ignorance of all peasants (besides herself, though her definition of herself as within that class wavers) is challenged, in particular by the character of Joe Archer.
Use of Letters as a Device
Franklin regularly employs the use of letters to highlight Sybylla’s physical distance from the people and places she desires. When Sybylla is forced to leave Caddagat, it is letters which keep her in contact with her grandmother, providing a glimmer of hope that she may be able to return to the life which she loves. However, it is also letters to her mother which crush that hope, insisting that Sybylla stay and work for the M’Swat family.
The enduring presence, then, of both Caddagat and Possum Gully during Sybylla’s life indicate how her ties to wealth and poverty continue to influence her experiences. Desperate to escape the scarcity and hardship of Possum Gully, and equally pining after the luxurious comfort of Caddagat, Sybylla demonstrates how class experience shape a person’s goals and expectations. Thus, Franklin portrays the crushing tragedy of experiencing what one wants and subsequently being deprived of it, condemning a society which so severely limits the agency of young women.