There are two ideas or motifs which are central to Miles Franklin’s early writing. First, of course, is the Independent Woman. Even Sybylla’s mother (in My Career Goes Bung) “wished she had been trained to do something so that she could be independent and not be dragged in the backwash of man’s mismanagement”. Franklin both embodies and tirelessly advocates independence for women, firstly for the women of the Australian bush, then for working women everywhere; independence from degrading marriages, and equality of opportunity – politically, economically and socially – with men.
The second motif is less obvious but it is sexuality. Miles Franklin is clearly fascinated and terrified by sex in equal measures. Publishers cited being too sexual as the reason for rejecting both The End of My Career (written in 1902 and finally published in 1946 as My Career Goes Bung) and On Dearborn Street (written 1915, published 1981).
As an ‘independent woman’ Franklin’s own career was, if not ‘brilliant’, then at least remarkable. After a brief period in Sydney in 1902 basking in the success of My Brilliant Career she struck out as an author, but her two follow ups to MBC were not accepted for publication. Nothing daunted she took positions in Sydney and Melbourne as a trainee nurse and housemaid – to gather material for a book, she said, but more likely because she was desperate to earn an income, her parent’s farm having failed. The resulting book, Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909) was at least published. Then in 1906 she sailed for America, arriving in San Francisco six days after the great earthquake.
She had introductions from Vida Goldstein to the American women’s movement, and appears to have spent some time working in relief camps outside San Francisco, and then a few months working her way across the country as a maid in up-market hotels, before ending up in Chicago in late 1906 where she met up with Alice Henry with whom she was to work for the next nine years in the National Women’s Trade Union League, as secretary to National President, Margaret Robins, as assistant editor to Henry on the union journal Life and Labor, and representing the Chicago branch of the stenographers and typists union. Franklin travelled with Robins around the country and often spoke at meetings. But she was also often ill, particularly following news of the death of her sister in 1907, and was forced to rest, though still finding time to write.
She worked at first on revising The End of My Career, which was rejected again, then on a new novel, The Net of Circumstance (1915) for Mills & Boon (not then the publisher of formula romances that it is today) using the strange pseudonym ‘Mr & Mrs Ogniblat L’Artsau’ (‘Austral Talbingo’, representing her birth land and town, backwards), two plays, and on On Dearborn Street.
Stella Franklin the reformer and agitator, was indeed independent, and hard working and effective; Miles Franklin the author was initially successful because My Brilliant Career was a young woman’s cry from the heart, but it was a voice she was unable, and eventually too old, to maintain. Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin the woman was unmarried and self supporting and so to that extent was ‘independent’, but for me there is a tinge of sadness attached to this independence, Franklin was both unworldly about sex, and probably afraid of commitment. All her life she flirted outrageously with men, her letters to friends often mention men who have proposed to her, for men found her lively and attractive. Norman Lindsay, who met her in the offices of the Bulletin in 1902 had to be prevented, he says, by A.G Stephens, the editor, from taking matters further. In My Career Goes Bung she boasts of visiting Goring Hardy, Australia’s “one great literary man” (Banjo Paterson), in his flat
When Franklin leaves for America in 1906 her cousin Edwin Bridle believes that she is his fiancée; in Chicago she goes about with both (the married) Bill Lloyd and his playboy younger brother Demarest Lloyd (portrayed respectively as Cavarley and Bobby Hoyne in On Dearborn Street) who both – separately -offer to marry her.
Which brings us to the subject at hand. Dearborn Street, Chicago was the location of the office where Franklin worked with Alice Henry. In the novel the Alice Henry character, Enid Maguire and the Franklin character, Sybyl Penelo, run a business supplying typing and secretarial services. ‘Sybyl Penelo’ is of course a shortened version of Sybylla Penelope Melvyn, Franklin’s first heroine. Strangely, the novel is written from the perspective of Cavarley which gives Franklin great scope to praise herself as Sybil, though the cutesy tone she uses throughout drives the reader to distraction. Cavarley on meeting Sybyl: “I had been to Dearborn Street and there met a little girl with greeny-grey-blue-brown eyes, with an impertinent twist to her chin, who looked as if she would think it no end of a lark to stick her tongue out at a bishop… then too, I must admit her preponderating sex attraction.” Though Franklin is also self-aware enough to add, “ She was most unconventional in some ways and unbelievably Victorian in others.” (I’m not even going to pretend that Franklin is not her own main character, even if the stories are fiction.)
Cavarley, a comfortably well off businessman falls in love with Sybyl, who accepts his attentions but insists on paying her own way, “she has no wish to be forced to sing for her supper”. Cavarley makes the mistake of introducing Sybyl to the seriously well off Bobby, who also falls in love with her. Sybyl goes round with them both, flirting furiously all the while, claiming that no gentleman would be confused about the intentions of a chaste woman. “[Innocent women] have nothing to conceal by discretion, and in the exuberance of their clean-mindedness delight to be shocking in speech.”
In the middle of all this war breaks out in Europe (July, 1914). Bobby and Sybyl plan to be ambulance drivers. Cavarley asks Sybyl does she love Bobby: “Love! Women! Incubators for more cannon fodder! Other women can fancy themselves mothers of heroes if they like but I shall never be a candidate for any such doubtful glory.”
The story meanders on a bit. Bobby dies in a car racing accident. Cavarley brings in his foster mother, Aunt Pattie – there is always a stong, older woman in Franklin’s books, often her maternal grandmother – and she smooths the path of true love. Sybil’s biggest objection to marriage turns out to be that men are not ‘pure’, ie. that all men are sexually experienced. Cavarley (of course) is a virgin, but even by the end, with the engagement announced, Sybyl is looking for a way out.
In his introduction, Roy Duncan of Toorak College, says On Dearborn Street must be read as a comic melodrama. Certainly its style is unlike any other of her books that I have read, which are mostly bush realism, except perhaps Prelude to Waking, a ‘Mayfair’ novel and
the first of the Brent of Bin Bin series. He writes, “As a novel of ideas, On Dearborn Street is limited by the very factors which enable it to succeed artistically. Its comic spirit, tightly reined, governs the extent to which the characters can function as inhabitants of a war-shocked world.”
This is an important book for anyone interested in Miles Franklin to read because she sets out so clearly her views on love and sex and marriage, to the extent that they are clear to her anyway, though I am not sure she was ever entirely happy about the choices she made.
When Franklin became famous she was just 21, she was 27 when she sailed for America, leaving behind Edwin Bridle, and well into her 30s when she rejected Demarest Lloyd. In 1915 Franklin left Chicago for London and by the end of the war she was nearly 40, and although Jill Roe suggests there may have been one more (unknown) suitor in London, in her own mind she is no longer marriageable and as we saw in the recent post Passionate Friends she is determined on chastity. Let her have the last word (responding to an offer of marriage and probably referring to her engagement to Bridle):
One man nearly as good as you was once engaged to me, yet I’m free! Thank God! They say any fool can get married but it takes a devilish clever woman to remain an old maid, so that is the distinction I covet.
Miles Franklin, On Dearborn Street, UQP, Brisbane, 1981
Apart from the wonderful Jill Roe, the best reference for MF in Chicago is probably Miles Franklin in America, Her Unknown (Brilliant) Career by Verna Coleman