Prelude to Waking (1950), the fourth in the Brent of Bin Bin series, is in many ways an anomaly. Stylistically it belongs to an earlier period of Franklin’s writing; none of the (relatively few) characters is connected with the families of the earlier novels; and it is set in England. Even to the extent that Australia plays a part, it is the NSW western plains, not the southern highlands.
It is difficult to imagine how Miles Franklin survived, as a writer, the quarter century between the extraordinary success of My Brilliant Career (1901), which she wrote as a teenager, and the success of her first two Brent of Bin Bin novels, Up the Country and Ten Creeks Run, written when she was nearing fifty. And yet she wrote continuously throughout that period. In the novels written immediately after My Brilliant Career, but not accepted for publication until many years later, rewritten as My Career Goes Bung and Cockatoos, her youth, her growing ability as a writer, and above all her optimism after that initial success bubble through. Slowly, that optimism must have faded into a grim determination.
Franklin read widely and thought about her craft. After leaving Australia in 1906 she attempted to adapt her idiosyncratic style to modern trends, not the avant garde (Joyce’s Ulysses came out in full in 1922) but at least to mainstream middle class English and American writing. Prelude to Waking is a ‘Mayfair’ novel which Franklin had been working on in the mid 1920s, and is her second novel with a male narrator after On Dearborn Street (unpublished till 1981) which she wrote in 1915 at the end of her Chicago years. Prelude must have been important to Franklin as her insistence on including it in the Brent of Bin Bin series held up the publication of the final three books in the series for another twenty years.
Franklin wrote innumerable plays, none of them ever performed, and one other novel, Bring the Monkey, a Dorothy Sayers-type mystery, in England, in this middle period of her writing, before going on to the bush realism style which was so much more acceptable to both her publishers and the Australian public. Roy Duncan in his Introduction to On Dearborn Street writes, “The five works [of this middle period], hidden away and virtually unknown over sixty years, reflect Miles Franklin at her most fluent and uninhibited.” Nevertheless, he describes Prelude as an instance of “interesting ideas embedded in artistic failure”.
In On Dearborn Street the narrator is not much more than a cipher, only there as a foil for Sybyl, the Miles Franklin character, as she works through her difficulties with the idea of marriage. According to Duncan, Franklin’s “larger proposition – which can be seen in terms of her total output – [is] that man is a destructive animal and that woman must save him by leading him to a renunciation of the flesh”. Prelude to Waking has a similar theme but the male narrator is stronger, with the result that we have not one but two ‘Miles Franklins’, the male lead, Nigel Barraclough, and the female lead, Merlin.
Nigel, or Niggeh as Merlin calls him – “Oh, let me call you Niggeh. With your fair complexion it will be a lark and show the dear negroes that we don’t mind” – is writing a Mayfair novel, and the implication is that we are reading the novel which he is writing, but that is never made clear. The novel’s subtitle is A Novel in the First Person and Parentheses apparently implying we sometimes go back to earlier events; and the dedication is “To England’s Genius Cracks” which, despite frequent references to them in the text, was not where the light came in, not for me anyway.
The novel begins with Merlin coming to Nigel’s shabby Mayfair flat in about 1925 to propose that they represent their friendship as a liason. In the subsequent ‘parantheses’ we learn that both are war heroes, Nigel a brave company commander and Merlin “had achieved the Balkan Fronts during some of the first great battles and retreats” (MF was actually vocally anti-war, and a volunteer hospital orderly for 6 months well behind the Serbian frontlines); and both are married to other people. Nigel has a sexy Spanish opera singer wife who so frightens him that he must live in London while she lives in Paris, and Merlin has married an elderly bachelor, Hugh de Courtenay la ffollette , the better to avoid having to marry anyone else.
Franklin has a seeming aversion to plots, or to any plot other than watching the Miles Franklin figure, in this case Merlin, maintaining her independence through numerous proposals; and Prelude is no exception. We go back to 1919, London after the War. Nigel is living in a rooms above a cobbler’s shop, Merlin is running a little cafe (a reference to the Minerva, a cafe owned by women, where MF worked during the War). Merlin’s father Guy, a widower sheep farmer from the Bogan River region of NSW, is living with her while her brother, also Guy, runs the farm. The closest we get to the earlier novels is that Guy sometimes takes his flocks to mountain pastures during times of drought.
Nigel has visited Russia at the end of the War and back in London gives a public lecture with a glowing account of the October Revolution. By this he is rendered unpopular and is sent to tour the South Pacific for a while, including an extended visit to Guy jr. which of course he reports to Merlin and her father (Franklin’s best writing is always of the bush):
Mile by mile we caressed that wide, strange country, whose silence has a voice, and whose eerie beauty, before man has defaced it, captures the senses as does that of no other land I have seen. Out on the ridges I could still see the leaves of the bimby box gleaming like silver; the soft grey waters of the Bogan and Namoi gliding noiselessly past coolabah, yarran and belar in the perfume of the native mignonette; the flower-carpeted plains quivering in the sunlight, undulating to the mirage that ever retreated before the traveller. Already my heart gnawed to be there again.
Nigel, Merlin and Guy are invited by Merlin’s friend Lady Courtley to a house party at Snippington Manor, the de Courtenay home. Taking with them both the cockney cobbler (above whom, as I have said, Nigel is currently living) and the cobbler’s son who is being educated at Eton. While the cobbler teaches various lords trick shots at billiards, Merlin is pursued by the various lords, including de Courtenay’s nephew, who is in turn pursued by Pamela Clutterbuck-Leeper, “a wanton, politely called a siren”, and so it goes on.
Meanwhile, Franklin’s politics are all over place. She was always snobbish about her place in the squattocracy and here she seems to be mostly on the side of the aristocracy. If it’s intended to be ironic I didn’t catch it. She, or at least Nigel, is pro the Bolshevik Revolution, but anti the Irish Republicans. As always, she is anti the nouveau riche, in this case War profiteers, and in one place goes so far as to suggest an English Revolution, yet she has Merlin publish an essay extolling the virtues of the British Empire.
I’m not going to recommend that you read this yourselves, I couldn’t imagine anyone reading Prelude to Waking for enjoyment, but it was interesting to see Franklin attempting to progress her craft as a writer, while tying herself in knots with her unfashionable ideas about chaste male-female relationships.
I recently gave in and purchased a Kindle Paperwhite. The Brent of Bin Bin series is available from Amazon as one book, for $1.00 from memory. I found it easy to read, though with some silly spelling mistakes – mostly from b and h being transposed at the beginning of words – but found it simpler to revert to the real book to look up particular passages.
Miles Franklin, Prelude to Waking, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1950. The cover shown above is of my copy, a first edition.
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