Well-behaved women seldom make history, wrote laurel Thatcher Ulrich in 1976. Having spent this past year or so reprising or catching up on all sorts of classic literature for young readers, I’m quite convinced that the same is true of literature. If there’s a common thread among the books I’ve read, it’s that their protagonists care not a whit for propriety. For a book to unfold in a way that interests the reader, after all, something has to happen. It’s little wonder, then, that some of our favourite heroines are those who court mischief at the turn of every page, rail against the stifling confines of social expectation, and have a tendency to respond to every “why?” with “why not?”
Renowned Australian author Miles Franklin is one such woman, and her best-known character Sybylla Melvin, of My Brilliant Career, is another. Whether the two are largely one and the same has been robustly debated over the years, with Franklin’s family having had such misgivings about the similarities between the author and character’s lives that Franklin asked that the book be withdrawn from publication until after her death. Nevertheless, although Franklin’s literary mischief might have seen her struck from the Christmas card lists of her family, it’s certainly seen her placed in good stead on the Australian literary scene. In addition to the posthumous republication of My Brilliant Career, the author also stipulated in her will that an annual sum should be put towards a literary award for Australian writing. The Miles Franklin Award has since gone on to become the best-known and most prestigious of Australian literary awards; a new women-only award named for Franklin’s first name, the Stella, will hopefully match its predecessor in prestige and import.
So what is it about My Brilliant Career that has seen it endure more than a century after its initial publication and even through its publishing siesta? I think that most of us would agree that it’s the rambunctious, passionate voice of young Sybylla and the way in which her potential for greatness is so painfully juxtaposed against a repetitive, culturally devoid existence in rural NSW. It’s a voice that is both a plea and a cry to arms, and there’s such youthful fervour in it that you can’t help but feel for Sybylla. No one wants to see potential squandered, particularly due to nothing more than the forces of circumstance, and there’s something in her fiery, determined manner–and her temperamental foibles–that make you long to see her overcome the obstacles of her background and see her achieve the “brilliant career” she so longs for.
Despite Sybylla’s clear aptitude for the creative arts, her days run about as contrary from this predilection as imaginable: her dream of writing a novel is set against endless monotony of milking the family cow and undertaking her daily chores. There’s such a sense of purgatorial hopelessness to the setting, with Sybylla’s family scarcely eking by: the immense effort they apply to their farm work is quickly undermined by both the brutal environment and Sybylla’s father’s drunken foolishness. Little wonder Sybylla is set against marriage. She’s seen how her mother’s lot in life is entirely tied to Sybylla’s father’s, and how her own is potentially to be yoked to that of a husband:
“It came home to me as a great blow that it was only men who could take the world by its ears and conquer their fate, while women, metaphorically speaking, were forced to sit with tied hands and patiently suffer as the waves of fate tossed them hither and thither, battering and bruising without mercy.”
Sybylla, curiously, seeks solace in what she perceives as her own ugliness, an attribute that both torments and frees her. Being homely in aspect means that she’s seen as no great catch, and therefore exists largely outside the narratives of marrigeability of her time, but simultaneously it offers her the freedom to pursue her own dreams. But if the advances of the men around her, including the eligible Harry Beecham, are any indication, Sybylla is far more becoming than she deems herself. Perhaps it’s that these men see something more to her than her looks, or perhaps it’s that she’s hiding behind a mistruth in order to excuse herself from the possibility of marriage and the stifling of her potential that this would entail. She is sure that Frank Hawden, for example, is only interested in her because “he had arrived at that overflowing age when young men have to be partial to some female whether she be ugly or pretty, fat or lean, old or young.” Similarly, she sees Harry Beecham’s advances as fickle and fleeting, and accepts his proposal largely because she expects him to renege upon it.
But while Sybylla’s fortunes seem to be on the up after being sent to her grandmother’s property, one that’s in far better shape than her parents’, and offers her some semblance of cultural and intellectual opportunity, things eventually take a turn back towards her unfortunate beginnings. Her father’s debts have reached such a point that Sybylla is sent off to work as a governess on a squalid property owned by a man who her father owes money. Again, Sybylla’s circumstances are dictated by a man: it’s little wonder that she cruelly tells Harry Beecham that men are little more than “bothersome appendages” that come with a marriage title. Women, she tells him, will marry for property and social standing, with the man himself a scarce-considered extra; and yet, the very act is a dangerous one that strips a woman of opportunity and ties her to the whims of her spouse.
Sybylla has thus far done little to be considered “well-behaved”, and her subsequent actions only elevate her among the ranks of the heroines we can only admire: her final choice regarding Harry Beecham is one that will probably see audiences divided. Although she may seem sometimes flailing and irrational in her behaviour–and indeed, the story often runs away with itself–it’s worth remembering that we’re reading about a teenage girl, and a girl who, at that, is struggling under the weight of creating a self that conflicts with pretty much all of the norms of the time.
And yet, critics might argue, she shows little indication of being on the path towards the “brilliant career” she has so vocally longed for. Others might argue that she’s thrown it away through her own choices. But in my opinion she has positioned herself to begin that journey in another way: by recognising the rights and opportunities that women should be able to claim. Through her strong opinions about marriage and through seeing herself as standing outside the paradigm of beauty and “womanliness” by which her peers are judged, she’s opened up a possible new narrative for herself, and for other women as well. Quite a step towards a brilliant career, if you ask me.
With thanks to Text Publishing for the review copy
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