Miles Franklin was angry about her schooling

Miles Franklin in 1902 by Norman Lindsay
Miles Franklin in 1902 by Norman Lindsay

Miles Franklin was angry about her schooling, or as she saw it, her lack of schooling. Nathan Hobby’s recent posts (here and here) about Miles Franklin and Katherine Sussanah Prichard reminded me how deeply Franklin felt about her lack of education compared to that of her contemporaries. Franklin (b. 1879) had a tutor till age 8 when her father left the family property up-country at Brindabella to take up a smaller farm at Thornford near Goulburn NSW, then attended the local one teacher school until her ‘Intermediate’, presumably year 10. Tellingly her best friend, poet and suffragist Mary Fullerton (b.1868) was educated similarly at a bush school in Gippsland, Vic.

In contrast Prichard (b. 1883)and her brothers attended state schools in Melbourne, although she only sporadically for the first few years, then at 14 she won a half-scholarship to South Melbourne College, a private secondary school for boys and girls, with the intention of matriculating and attending university. Prichard matriculated, even passing mathematics!, but her accountant father’s chronic (relative) lack of money meant she was unable to go on.

In her last years at school, Prichard had become friends with Nettie Higgins (b. 1885), later Nettie Palmer, who attended and matriculated from Presbyterian Ladies College (PLC). Palmer “enrolled at the University of Melbourne in 1905, where she graduated in 1909 as a Bachelor of Arts, with a Diploma of Education. In 1910, with the financial help of [her uncle, High Court Judge] Henry Bournes Higgins, she travelled to London to further her studies in French and German, and to Berlin and Paris to prepare for the International Diploma of Phonetics, which she was awarded early in 1911. She returned to Melbourne and received her Master’s degree in Arts from that university in 1912.” (intro to Nettie Palmer, edited by Vivian Smith, UQP, 1988).

PLC was alma mater to two other notable women. Vida Goldstein (b.1869), leader of the suffragists in Victoria, attended for the last three years of her schooling, matriculating in 1886. Goldstein met Franklin in 1905 and gave her the references which led to Franklin working from 1906 onwards with Australian Alice Henry in Chicago in the national Women’s Trade Union League. (Henry “attended several schools in Melbourne, matriculating with credit from Richard Hale Budd‘s Educational Institute for Ladies in 1874”. ADB).

Ethel “Henry Handel” Richardson (b. 1870) is possibly PLC’s most famous ex pupil, and used her experiences there to write The Getting Of Wisdom (1910). Her widowed mother, postmistress at Maldon Vic (where my great grandfather at the same time was a farmer and trader in gold stocks), somehow not only raised the money (or had retained enough of her late husband’s money) to support Richardson as a PLC boarder for four years, then Richardson and her younger sister as day girls for one more year but then further managed to take the girls to Europe where they both attended the Royal Conservatorium at Leipzig to study respectively piano and violin. Richardson graduated with honours in 1892.

Richardson made a comfortable marriage and eventually came to be regarded as the premier Australian writer, following the publication of Maurice Guest (1908) (see ANZLL’s review here) and the three books making up The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (1930). Franklin’s bitterness perhaps reaches its peak when she compares herself with Richardson. I have read a number of accounts of Franklin visiting Richardson (in company with Nettie Palmer I think) in the 1930s when they were both living in London but in a hurry today can only find this account in the intro to The Diaries of Miles Franklin, edited by Paul Brunton (2004) “with exactly 2s 6d to do me for everything after my board was paid for two weeks, I looked around the quiet withdrawn room with a piano (my God, my hunger for a piano –atrophied now) and five books in twenty years and I had produced seven (four of them published) in four years during interruptions, tragedies of what was practically twenty-four-hours-on-duty-per-day regime and so distressed by the noises that forbade sleep – well – I was not a hero-worshipper in that direction”. (MF Feb. 1932). Later, in the lectures published as Laughter, not for a cage (1956) Franklin writes of Richardson, “Self-centredness, in which she had been grounded by her mother’s and her sister’s lives subserving hers, and invincible self-confidence, fostered by her self-effacing husband, at length harvested some grain from a dark, cositive talent.”

Like Richardson, Franklin had musical ambitions. In her youth she had a remarkable voice and took singing lessons in Goulburn (ascribed to her heroine Ignes in Cockatoos (1954)) but tragically the exercises she was given damaged her vocal chords and her hopes of going on to the stage were dashed. And I have no doubt this contributed to her envy.

Of Franklin’s male contemporaries Joseph Furphy (b. 1843), whose biography Franklin wrote, Joseph Furphy, The Legend of a Man and his Book (1944), was educated at local schools in Kangaroo Ground and Kyenton, Vic. Norman Lindsay (b. 1879), who fictionalized his boyhood at Creswick, Vic in a series of books commencing with Redheap (1930) went to Creswick Grammar and Martin Boyd (b. 1893), who wrote and rewrote his boyhood in a number of books including The Montforts (1928), Lucinda Brayford (1946) and the Cardboard Crown (1952) went to Trinity Grammar in Melbourne.

15 thoughts on “Miles Franklin was angry about her schooling

  1. What an interesting overview. Education was such an issue for these generations. My current chapter is on KSP’s school years, and it culminated in what was a tragedy for her – despite winning four subject awards in sixth year in 1902, she gave up university ambitions to look after the household in 1903. She never got over that, especially with Hilda Bull, Nettie Palmer and Christian Jolie Smith all going on to uni.


  2. Thankyou. We are often told that women didn’t go to uni, but it seems it was at least a possibility.
    I thought initially that KSP’s South Melbourne College was the precursor to MacRobs girls high so I’m glad I looked it up before committing myself in print.


  3. It’s a long time since I’ve read it so I could be not quite right about this, but I recollect that Jill Roe’s exhaustive bio of Miles Franklin makes the point that Miles Franklin’s lack of success in getting her prolific work published could be attributed to this lack of education. Roe is quite blunt about much of MF’s later oeuvre being unpublishable. She says that MF did not have the disciplined writing skills that journalism or academic study would have taught her, she did not have an open mind about or an understanding of other writing styles, and she did not have a mentor to guide her (which she might have had if she had had a decent education).
    This manifested itself for example in her rejection of modernism. She was stuck back in the kind of writing that had been popular when My Brilliant Career was successful, and she did not really move on, churning out the same kind of rural stories that had had their day. I have looked at some of these and they are really quite painful.
    Which is why I have always admired her so much for her generosity in setting up the MF. She beggared herself so that she could leave enough money to set up the prize, to support Australian writers writing about Australian life in any of its aspects. It makes me livid that people today criticise the terms of her prize, she knew exactly what she was doing and her concerns about the need to have Australian stories told are just as valid today as ever they were.


  4. For my dissertation I was reading MF for content rather than style, so I really need to re-read, particularly her later works. However, I think you would agree she started out very brightly and was consciously attempting to forge an Australian style, and I think, had the makings of great writer. I will write at length in the future of the relationship of My Brilliant Career and My Career Goes Bung, a pairing which gives an almost unique view of the nature of authorship and of the relation of the author to the work.
    However, through lack of education and a desperation engendered by poverty, MF finally fell short. And, other writers were self taught, Joseph Conrad and Jack London spring to mind, and many others were poor. MF’s obsessive secretiveness probably also reduced any role mentoring might have provided, and the equally poorly schooled Mary Fullerton might have been the only writer who saw her work prior to publication.
    It was only when she was in her fifties that MF achieved any consistent success, particularly with All That Swagger, and this, sadly, following on from Whispering Gum’s post last Monday, was because she began to write men’s books with men’s stories.
    In later life, living back in Australia, MF with Majorie Barnard and Frank Dalby Davidson, became very concerned with Australian writers and writing and I’m glad her prize has such preeminence, and I’m sure she would have enjoyed all the controversies.


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