Cockatoos (1954) is the third novel, chronologically, in the family saga Miles Franklin wrote under the alias Brent of Bin Bin (more here). In Australia cockatoos come in great flocks to scratch seed from the ground and Franklin uses the term, and its diminutive, cockies, derogatorily, to describe poor dirt-farmers scratching a living from the soil.
Cockatoos was re-written from the unpublished On the Outside Track which Franklin had written in 1903 in a second failed attempt to distinguish the author from the heroine after the embarrassment of her first novel, My Brilliant Career (1901), being taken as autobiography – the first attempt was The End of My Career, also not published until much later as My Career Goes Bung (1946).
As Franklin’s third attempt at writing the story of her ‘coming of age’, or fourth counting the re-writing to bring the main characters into line with the earlier books in the saga, Cockatoos demonstrates much greater maturity in both writing and characterisation, while still retaining the verve of her early years.
For Cockatoos the setting moves from the NSW high country of the first two novels in the saga to the plains south of Goulburn, and the small farming community of Oswald’s Ridges, representing Thornford where Franklin grew up. The period is the end of the C19th, years of drought and of colonial enthusiasm for the Boer War, when Franklin was in her late teens. The central figure, Ignez Milford, is despite Franklin’s concerns, still largely autobiographical. (‘Ignez’ was apparently a nickname for Agnes).
Oswald’s Ridges was indebted to Ignez Milford for adding spice to the daily round. Her lively and unconventional ideas caused commotion among tamer fowl. She had taken it into her head to have a musical career and her parents had weakened to let her come as far as Goulburn to study… for safety Ignez had been deposited with the Mazeres and the Healeys. She parcelled her time between the houses to obviate any jealousy and to divide the wear and tear of her presence.
The Mazere and Healey families, along with the Pooles, are at the centre of the previous books in the saga, and we last saw Ignez, briefly, as a young girl during the search for a missing child in Ten Creeks Run. Sensibly, Franklin avoids further embarrassing her parents by leaving them up country and having Ignez live with relatives.
In addition to musical gifts Ignez was an avid reader and took a precocious interest in politics. She despised the usual small talk of women so that they censured her as unsexed … “I hope you’re going to vote for woman’s suffrage at the next election,” she observed on Sunday evening at tea after church… She had been reading the work of Lady Windeyer and Miss Rose Scott and ardently espoused their platform*.
The novel covers the interactions of maybe 20 young people – in their late teens and early 20s – children of farmers, scions of the early squatting families and visitors from up the country, and it is difficult to keep track of their names, let alone their relative social standings, religion – protestant or Catholic, and all their second-cousin type connections to the ‘first families’ of the earlier novels. Ostensibly, this is a novel of who is keen on whom, keenly observed and interesting in its own right, but as a student of Miles Franklin I am more interested in Cockatoos as a new view of her adolescence. Franklin had a strong but unusual contralto voice and she discusses at length the loss of her (potential) career as an opera singer:
Thumping on the piano was permissible only when no household task awaited. Practice in the mornings bordered on immorality… Circumstances physically and mentally were against her development as an artist…
Ignez herself did not yet know that her ambitions were impossible. She could assimilate theoretical knowledge in any odd moment and her inner resources were so fertile she was not easy to frustrate. She withdrew into daydreams for her real being. Every paragraph in the newspapers concerning writers, singers, and other artists was savoured.
Luckily she is also both a reader and a writer. In My Career Goes Bung Sybylla’s old teacher advises her: “… be Australian. It is the highest form of culture and craftsmanship in art to use local materials. That way you stand a chance of adding to culture.” In Cockatoos Ignez confides to a friend: “… I want to write too. There’s so much hypocrisy in books. I want to write one that’ll show up the humbug… Just for a lark I’ll write a skit on the romances in books.” Ignez and some of her more serious friends gather out of the reach of bothersome aunts and parents to discuss books and to read excerpts from their own writings. Ignez invents a bush heroine, Nita, with a ‘smudge on her nose’, and so we see the genesis of My Brilliant Career.
It’s interesting too, to see Franklin who despite numerous ‘promising’ relationships remained unmarried all her life, at this time of flirting and young love. Here Blanche, a ‘good’ girl, discovers that young men are attracted by more than womanliness:
Now Ignez, who wanted to have a public career and parade on the stage, who argued with men about women’s rights and asserted that she had the right to exercise her brains, who said that women should ride astride and had been seen galloping with her undergarments exposed, was finding special favour.
Though Ignez herself is quick to warn off any of the young men who want to engage in ‘silliness’. “If you or anyone else came to see me in the silly way it would be useless, as I’m going to London to study music. I wouldn’t marry even if a prince asked me.”
As always, it is a delight to see Australia of more than 100 years ago described by someone who was actually there. At a concert in Goulburn Franklin is scathing about social distinctions, “The old bush town in the hollow clung to its English County recipe as faithfully as circumstances permitted”. Then “the festival of favourites began with the local glee club disguised as darkies in imitation of Yankee jokes that were puerile in the first place.” But finally, Ignez gets to listen to another contralto, an up and coming Australian, and realizes that her own “bullfrog” voice is the real deal. “The volume of her unwieldy organ frightened her that she might be a freak … Now she sat rapt, released into a larger self.”
England declares war on the Boers, and many of the young men are eager to join up. Franklin is anti-war, as I wrote last year in Miles Franklin’s War, and Ignez is scathing, “I’d never marry a man who had been slaughtering other men. It would make me creepy.”
Ignez goes up to Sydney to get advice about training her voice. She sees a prostitute run over by a tram and is sickened when men justify recourse to prostitutes as an outlet for their ‘urges’. When the business partner of her city connections corners her and kisses her she is distraught and rushes off to the high country to be reassured about the ‘facts of life’ by her cousin Milly, young wife of Bert Poole, the central figures in Ten Creeks Run. This concern about being kissed is in all Franklin’s coming of age novels, despite the fact that the latter two were re-written when Franklin was in her 40s or 50s.
Nita: The Story of a Real Girl is published without Ignez’s knowledge and so we see again the reactions of Franklin to being famous, lauded by Sydney society, and of her family and neighbours to seeing themselves in print. Ignez is more concerned about her voice which has failed through being over-strained, but the money from royalties is welcome, and may permit her to visit a specialist in Paris. Her parents permit her to accompany family friends to London. This generation of the youth of Oswald’s Ridges is growing up and leaving. Two boys won’t be returning from South Africa, another is on his way to the USA, one girl is helped out of poverty to become a nurse, others find husbands.
Cockatoos is an important work. It is both a perceptive view of country life in NSW at the turn of the C20th and a lightly-fictionalized memoir of the adolescence of one of our best early authors.
Miles Franklin, Cockatoos, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1954
* Mary Elizabeth Windeyer (1836-1912) and Rose Scott (1847-1925) were foundation members of the Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW. The obvious feminism of My Brilliant Career led to Franklin being invited to stay in Scott’s harbourside home in 1902 (and to Scott’s less than flattering portrayal as Mrs Crasterton in My Career Goes Bung).
Women – well, white women – gained the right to vote in NSW and Australian elections in 1902. The vote Franklin is referring to might be the first referendum on Federation in June 1898 (Suffragists were mostly on the Yes side).