Miles Franklin’s Last Diary

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Between the last two entries in The Diaries of Miles Franklin (2004) Paul Brunton writes:

If Miles Franklin kept a diary for 1954 [the year of her death], it has not survived. She made her last known diary entry, for 1 January 1954, at the back of her pocket diary for 1953.

Jill Roe, of whom Brunton writes, “All those who venture into Franklin studies are in the debt of Dr Jill Roe for her scholarship over the last two decades”, does not write about Franklin’s diaries directly in her monumental Stella Miles Franklin (2008), though she occasionally quotes from them. For the last year of Franklin’s life she must have relied on Franklin’s correspondence which she had edited and published 15 years earlier.

Now, as of March 7, we know there was a diary for 1954, known of these last 30 years but inexplicably kept secret. Julie Power writes in the Age (and no doubt in the SMH but I come from Melbourne):

Everyone believed the diary of her final year was lost until her distant relative Margaret Francis spotted it in an old suitcase. Seeing the diary with Franklin’s tiny spidery writing was ‘‘ a moment of absolute exhilaration’’ , said Ms Francis, who lives in Wagga Wagga.

She glimpsed the diary 30 years ago, and had kept a promise to keep its existence a secret, hoping that someone had put it somewhere safe.

After finding it three years ago, Ms Francis – who has dedicated much of her life to writing three volumes detailing the extended Franklin family’s rise from illiterate convicts and settlers to the educated squatocracy – would get up at five in the morning to read and transcribe the entries.

By the beginning of 1954 Miles was 74 years old and presumably knew she was getting near the end. However, her first entry for the year was cheerful enough: “Awaked to a grey day. Must have had quite 7 hrs sleep!!! so I felt very well. Left at 10.45 for Killara & walked from station to 36 Springdale Rd [maybe 500m]” and there follows an account of a family gathering for dinner, “Beautifully roasted turkey & vegs & 4 sweets. Nuts & chocolates”.

Throughout 1954 Miles was mostly querulous, as might be expected. Wrote to friends “I can’t complain” but did. Continued her work in the garden, and with the Fellowship of Australian Writers; and maintained friendships with fellow writers Jean Devanny, Katharine Susannah Prichard (and KSP’s son Ric Throssell) and Dymphna Cusack – maybe she was a closet socialist realist after all! I was going to write that in 1952 she prepared “a lavish lunch” in honour of Lenin’s birthday, but I see on re-rereading it was actually for her Aunt Lena.

With recognition as a writer coming so late in life – after that amazing early start was so completely lost – she was still struggling with mss right up to the end. With Cockatoos, the next in line of the Brent of Bin Bin books which Angus & Robertson had undertaken to publish; an anti-war play The Dead Must Not Return; and a book of essays arising from a lecture tour to Perth, which was eventually issued posthumously as Laughter, Not for a Cage.

In her last chapter “Shall I pull Through?” Roe writes at length on Franklin’s ambivalent attitude to sex, which underlies all her writing. Franklin told Jean Devanny in 1954 “that now sex had come to stay it was time to give it a rest” (I think she means writing about it). But she was still interested enough to read Kinsey.

In 1952 when he met Franklin for the first time at a FAW meeting young playwright Ray Mathew saw her as “an amusing figure, a kind of combination of Mrs Pankhurst and Mary Poppins”, but he grew to respect her and in a 1963 monograph – the first literary assessment of the whole Brent of Bin Bin oeuvre – ‘argued that although Cockatoos was the only one of the Brent books likely to survive in its own right … the series was a masterpiece’, and defended Miles’ method of ‘possuming’ and ‘yarning’. But he also discusses Franklin’s ‘sexual confusion’ which “may either irritate or amuse the reader, but it does force the author into extraordinary studies of women desiring but incapable of consummation which are subtle and unique in Australian writing.”

As the end approached Franklin dictated a letter to Vance Palmer which begins, “Dear Vance, I had your book ready to read when I was taken with a heart attack five weeks ago; so I have not read it but I am glad it is out & know it will be a great success.” [I can’t see what book that would be, maybe a short story collection]. She speaks of her illness and of being taken to stay with Mrs Perryman in Beecroft and adds “I do not know whether it is worth struggling to survive.” (July 23rd 1954).

Her last (published) letter is to Pixie O’Harris, Sep 3 54. “Pixie dearest dear, You little know, I perceive, by your letters, how near I still am to tumbling into the grave.” Typically, she also writes “Tell Ray Mathew not to worry about his play, I always feel worse than he does.”

She died on September 19th. The final entry in her diary, three days earlier, was ‘‘Went to Eastwood by ambulance to be X-rayed . Ordeal too much for me. Day of distress and twitching. Returned to bed’’.

This last diary has been donated to the State Library of NSW, which already has the 46 previous diaries detailing the author’s life from 1909. What Ms Francis plans to do with her three years of transcription I’m not sure, maybe add it to her family history.

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photo: Louise Kennerley, the Age, 7 Mar 2018

 

Julie Power, Miles Franklin’s Secret Diary Discovered, The Age, Melbourne, 7 March 2018 here

Paul Brunton ed., The Diaries of Miles Franklin, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2004

Jill Roe ed., My Congenials: Miles Franklin & Friends in Letters, vol 2 1939-1954, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1993

Jill Roe, Stella Miles Franklin, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2008

see also: Miles Franklin page for a list of her works and links to reviews and other posts

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17 thoughts on “Miles Franklin’s Last Diary

  1. Well, I think it was generous of Ms Francis to donate it. Many people like to keep personal memorabilia in memory of a relation and it’s probably quite hard to give it away when a relation is a significant person – even if you understand that the item has a national or historical significance.
    Reading the excerpts from this diary here and elsewhere makes me admire MF even more. She was a cranky old bird, but I would have liked her. She reminds me of my dear old piano teacher who was a cranky old bird too, but I was very fond of her, and I miss her.

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  2. I do love the record of ordinary day-to-day stuff (4 sweets!) – even her final entry is simple but telling.

    I don’t keep a journal but sometimes flirt with the idea. What would I write? The temptation is to be deep, reflective but things like this remind us that what seems inconsequential can be the interesting stuff.

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    • I enjoy writing – I’m sure you do to – but the diaries I have kept for decades record just the barest details. On the other hand, I write posts every chance I get, and I think the difference is the opportunity to communicate, to be part of an ongoing conversation.

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  3. I had missed this news item, probably because I rarely read the news in a concentrated way these days. It’s exciting to thing that there are still things like this hidden away. Like Lisa I love that Ms Francis was wiling to donate it. It’s the best thing to do of course but must be hard also. I have a few little literary treasures here from family connections – some writing of Dame Mary Gilmore’s is one example – but it’s nothing of the import of this. It will be offered to the NLA when I get organised (and confirm with the family most related to it.)

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    • There we have it in a nutshell – your sunny nature leads you to praise Ms Francis for donating the diary and my gloomy one leads me to censure her for taking so long. I hope you write a post about the Gilmore writing before it is consigned to the vaults. I wonder if MF donated her own papers – you’d think so, but I don’t know for sure.

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      • Haha Bill. Can’t help it. Was born that way.

        Unfortunately libraries don’t divulge in catalogue records the source of their manuscript collections usually, though of course in current times there can be press announcements about big donations like this – if the donor agrees.

        I would do something on Gilmore before I donated something.

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    • And if Jill Roe did learn about it I wonder how she felt about not being able to include it in her biography. As for context I find that one of the particular pleasures of writing posts is bringing data together from a number of sources.

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  4. That little, tiny, kitten-sized thing was her diary?? Wow, talk about conserving resources! Diary finds are THE BEST. I believe you commented on my post from two summers ago about reading my great-grandmother’s diary due to your interest in Miles Franklin. In my great-grandma’s diary, she described the process of making your own ice cream, and event that brought all the area farmers, who then debated whether certain ingredients should be hot or cold. I loved it.

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    • In the 1950s mum would make ice cream using either powdered or condensed milk, the latter was sweeter and creamier. I doubt her mother made ice cream at all, the farm didn’t get electricity till the 1960s. Bought ice cream was (is) always a treat.

      No diaries in my family but I have both my grandmothers’ letters to my parents. Need a long rainy day (month!) to go through them.

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      • Memories. My mother made ice-cream in the 1950s/early 60s too, mostly with the powdered milk. We used to love eating a spoonful of the powdered milk even though it would stick to the roof of your mouth. I don’t believe we have diaries either, and I don’t think there are a lot of letters.

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      • My great-grandma didn’t have electricity either. They were using this turn thing with blocks of ice out in the yard.

        Why did your grandmothers write so many letters? Were they far away? Did they not have a phone yet?

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      • Mum ran away with my father to get married when she was 18 (They had an anxious wait until both sets of parents agreed to attend the wedding, which I only found out last year). Dad was a teacher in country towns all around the state (Victoria). I think the nearest we lived to Grandma and Grandda’s farm was 100 miles and the furthest was over 300. Dad’s parents lived further away again, in Canberra. Mum and her mum exchanged letters every week, and as mum’s sisters left home (initially to neighbouring farms but later much further) they were included in the loop too. I’m not sure how often Dad wrote to his mum and the letters on top are from a trip to Europe.

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    • We got our first fridge while we were in Leongatha, V. (1956-1960) before that we had an icebox and the iceman cometh with a block of ice, probably from the milk factory, once a week. I’ll see mum in a couple of weeks and ask her if she made ice cream pre fridge.

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