My Brilliant Career

My Brilliant Career, Miles Franklin, 1901

  • Australia, #5
  • Borrowed from Camden Library, London
  • Read May, 2014
  • Rating: 4/5
  • Opening Line: “Boo, hoo! Ow, ow; Oh! oh! Me’ll die. Boo, hoo. The pain, the pain! Boo, hoo!”
  • Recommended for: People who find “Happily ever after” a little bit suspect (especially those who have a sneaking suspicion that it’s the princess who’s getting the raw end of the marriage deal)

I was pleasantly surprised by My Brilliant Career. I shouldn’t have been–Miles Franklin is one of Australia’s most celebrated writer, and her reputation is based largely on this book. But the jacket description made me think it was going to be a light-hearted social satire and I was imagining something in the vein of early Evelyn Waugh, a style that I find only mildly entertaining. That and the fact that the book was published when Franklin was only twenty meant that I was unprepared for the great maturity and deadly seriousness of the book’s subject matter. The plot is about Sybylla Melvin, a girl growing up in the outback with dreams of being a writer, whose family suffers a reversal of fortune (as seems, judging from the plots of several other books from my Australia list, to have been wildly common in Australian settler days), resulting in a life of drudgery and hardship which means Sybylla barely has the time or energy to dream about writing, let alone to do it. She has the opportunity to escape her poverty by marriage to a wealthy, handsome, and loving man who is incapable of seeing her as an equal–or, really, as an independent being at all. The crux of the story comes down to whether it is possible to have a truly loving relationship when there is fundamental social inequality between the parties, and whether it is more important to be independent or happy. It’s truly prescient, and while we might hope that such issues are no longer relevant to heterosexual marriage, the truth is that our society still contains fundamental inequalities that have unfortunate repercussions for our personal relationships. I think women now (at least in industrialized countries) have more options–most of us don’t have to choose between a life of poverty and freedom or a life of captive luxury–but we are still circumscribed by our expectations of gender roles. Breaking out of these predefined roles can be difficult and painful, and Franklin gives beautiful voice to this struggle.

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New York 2006
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