Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909) is Miles Franklin’s second published novel. It’s set where it was written – at Penrith (called Noonoon in the novel) now an outer western suburb of Sydney, but then a separate country town where Franklin’s parents had moved after leaving their farm at Thornford and where Miles lived with them for part of 1904, three years and two unpublished novels after her runaway success with My Brilliant Career. In her Introduction, Jill Roe says that Franklin …
… has two main things to say, and says them in typically forthright style. The first is that marriage is a material question and should be treated as such. The second is that women are citizens in their own right, and should take their responsibilities seriously. Both points relate to the position of women and debate about it in Australia in the early twentieth century, and reflect Franklin’s increased feminist awareness and commitment.
Roe also points out that we should do well to take notice of Franklin, rather than second wave feminists – she instances Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police, but I would add Kay Schaffer – who see women in early Australian society as oppressed or irrelevant.
By contrast, Franklin presents a progressive, self-respecting and even prosperous female culture which is well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of newly attained political status, participant in, rather than victim of, social forces.
Finally, Roe says, while we should not read fiction as documentary, Franklin writes an ‘astonishingly accurate’ account of electioneering in Penrith during the NSW 1904 state election, the first in which (white) women were permitted to vote, though maybe in stressing local issues, she underplays the Conservative’s great fear of the rise of Labor and Socialism.
So, the story. Dawn is an attractive young woman, living with her Grandmother Clay who has a large, old house on the banks of the Noonoon (Nepean) River, and who takes in paying guests, mostly over summer. The other members of the household are Carry – another young woman who shares housekeeping duties with Dawn, Mrs Clay’s brother ‘uncle’ Jake, who doesn’t do much, and Dawn’s grubby younger cousin, Andrew. The narrator, an older woman – thirtyish it later turns out, but grey haired – lately retired from the stage, has had to wait till autumn to become a boarder, so there are no summer staff – cooks and waiters and so on – and only one other guest, Miss Flip, “an orphan reared by a rich uncle”. Then there’s Mrs Bray, neighbour and gossip and Ernest Breslaw, a handsome young man, previously acquainted with the narrator, who appears serendipitously to rescue her from a rowing accident.
The unnamed narrator is an observer and occasional meddler in the action. She has a heart condition and is recuperating from a nervous breakdown after heartbreak. Miles was only 25 when she wrote this, but this foreshadows breakdowns she was to suffer herself – notably after the death of her sister only a few years later, and on her return from Serbia near the end of the Great War – and also the breakdown she ascribes to her heroine Bernice Gaylord in Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang (review) written two decades later.
As in nearly all Franklin’s fiction there is a matriarch who is central to the action and usually from the NSW high country. In this case it is Grandma Clay, whose late husband had been the driver/operator of the mail coach servicing ‘Gool Gool’ (Tumut), the nearest town to Sybylla’s grandmother’s property in My Brilliant Career.
The various story lines are: the narrator’s attempts to match Dawn up with Breslaw, with more discussion on making a sensible match, rather than no match as in say My Career Goes Bung; Miss Flip’s “uncle” proves to be no uncle; and on choosing/voting for a good candidate rather than a particular party.
Franklin always struggled with plots but her descriptions are wonderful. And evocative – when I was little my grandparents’ farm didn’t have electricity, a lot of the outbuildings were thatched, horses were still used, cows were handmilked and grandma made her own cream and butter. Franklin writes of the daily ritual of pulling apart and washing the cream separator, which grandma would do in the outside laundry. It’s all so familiar (and I’m so old!). Here she describes the trains pulling through Penrith and heading up the mountain to Katoomba:
The little town retained a certain degree of importance as one of the busiest railway centres in the state, and its engine-sheds were the home of many locomotives. Here they were coaled, cleaned and oiled ere taking their stiff two-engine haul over the mountains to the wide, straight, pastoral and wheat-growing West; and their calling and rumbling made cheery music all the year round, excepting a short space on Sundays; while at night, as they climbed the crests of the mountain-spurs, every time they fired, the red light belching from their engine doors could be seen for miles down the valley.
Romances go as romances go; Grandma Clay is concerned about the perils of girls marrying ‘up’; Dawn is inclined to marry any local yokel rather than be stuck at home; and the anti-marriage sentiment is mostly in the context of the election – men expecting that the women of the household will vote as directed (by them).
In fact, most of the book centres on the election, and when it was eventually published 4 or 5 years later, Franklin requested that publicity be directed at the women’s suffrage campaign in England where women were not to receive the vote fully until 1928.
There’s unfortunately quite a bit of gratuitous racism of the “even a gin wouldn’t behave so badly” variety, or the woman campaigner whose children were left to run about “so untended as to be indistinguishable from aboriginals”, and even if these are typical men’s views, Miles makes no attempt to counter them.
The incumbent makes his pitch to men in the bar where he can buy their votes with free grog, while the women mostly support the opposition candidate who is for temperance – a strong stream in the women’s movement when drunken husbands were a major problem. “The men on the Ministerial side were nearly gangrene with disgust, because, as one put it, “nearly all [the opposition candidate’s] men were women”.
Dawn becomes overwrought when one man, a neighbour, goes down the pub and leaves his wife to give birth alone, until Grandma comes to the rescue, and takes it all out on Ernest, who must be mollified by the narrator:
“Can you not grasp that she was irritated beyond endurance with the unwholesomeness of the whole system of life in relation to women, and that for the moment you appeared as one of the army of oppressors?”
After this, the “uncle”, whose perfidy has become known, is tarred and feathered (literally!) by Dawn and friends. Shades of #Harvey Weinstein, they tell him,
“Yes, good women have to continually suffer the degradation of your type in all life’s most sacred relations. They have to endure you at their board and in their homes, and leering at their sweet young daughters …”
Then the election. Miles is more concerned with women voting, and parliament therefore having to consider their interests than in who actually gets in. Then as now, there was no real difference in their policies, nor in the self interest of members on both sides. Interestingly, on the night following, the newspaper office has a scoreboard in the window, just as we do today on television, with the names of winners going up as they are declared elected.
The story glides slowly to its natural end. Miles Franklin is not a natural story-teller and this is a typically awkward account of love making (in the old fashioned sense!) though for once she has marriage on her mind, she was only 25 after all.What little narrative tension there is is in Dawn’s choice of suitor. But Franklin believes very strongly that the groom should be as pure as the bride and this limits her choices somewhat.
Overall, Franklin’s detailed account of electioneering and town meetings, of ‘everyday folk’ serving the railways and farming on the banks of Nepean, paints a brilliant picture of a few, important months in the life of one of Australia’s oldest white settlements.
Miles Franklin, Some Everyday Folk and Dawn, first pub. 1909. This edition Virago, London, 1986 with introduction by Jill Roe. Cover painting, detail from “Cove on the Hawkesbury”, Charles Condor.
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