Miles Franklin, Majorie Barnard


Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin was born on her maternal grandmother’s property in the high country of southern NSW in 1879 – there’s a line I could write in my sleep, this might be my 25th Miles Franklin post – after an epic ride by her mother through the snow from the Franklin property at Brindabella, south of present day Canberra, up into the mountains to the Lampe property at Talbingo.

Marjorie Barnard was 18 years younger (ADB). As I wrote a week or two ago, the two met in the early 1930s at the Fellowship of Australian Writers when Franklin returned from years abroad, in Chicago and London, to keep house for her recently widowed mother in Carlton, an inner Sydney suburb, where she stayed for the rest of her life.

Barnard’s Miles Franklin: The Story of a Famous Australian was published in 1967, thirteen years after Franklin’s death in 1954, and three years after the release of her papers though she doesn’t appear to have made much use of them. This is a strictly literary biography with some reference to Franklin’s childhood and only such references to Franklin’s years in Chicago and London as Barnard gleaned from conversation with that unreliable witness, Miles Franklin.

The best references for Miles Franklin’s years abroad, apart from Jill Roe’s great work, are Verna Coleman’s Her Unknown (Brilliant) Career (Chicago) and Sylvia Martin’s Passionate Friends (London). Colin Roderick, who did have the advantage of Miles Franklin’s papers – in which he himself appears in a less than glowing light – also wrote an MF biography, though as I’ve written elsewhere, not one worth reading.

Barnard and Franklin moved in the same circles for twenty years so Barnard knew her well and it is this acquaintanceship which informs the biography and Barnard’s reading of MF’s works, rather than any great research.

[Franklin] was spirited and provocative in conversation but her audacity smacked of the 1890’s. All her daring had an antique air. She was, and remained, an enfant terrible. She might have shocked people by her forthrightness fifty years ago. She obviously thought that it would shock them still and felt a little snubbed when it did not.

Because she was vulnerable, Miles was secretive. There were other reasons too. She loved a mystery and used it partly as display and partly as cover… She was fiercely virginal yet even to the end of her life she was habitually flirtatious… She wanted to cut a figure in the world of literature, she wanted to hide… I am tempted to say that, like the spoilt child she once was, she still wanted everything her own way. The child lived on in the woman and was bitterly hurt by life.

All Franklin’s best work is rooted in her adolescence, in her exile from her families’ stations in the high country and in the lives of the men and women of her grandparents’ generation who pioneered that country.

Franklin achieved instant success with My Brilliant Career (1901), wrote two follow-ups in the next couple of years without being published, wrote the mediocre Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909) and then as far as Barnard is concerned, disappeared from view for decades.

In fact, Franklin was in the US from 1906 to 1915, where she wrote two books of which Barnard seems entirely unaware The Net of Circumstance (1915) and On Dearborn Street (1981); then in London and Serbia during WWI – which she reported on extensively I think, though again Barnard is unaware, and I’ve seen no evidence that MF ever revisited this writing to have it collected; and then London, with one visit home around 1927, until about 1932 [I’m writing without access to Roe!] when she returned to Sydney for good.

Barnard devotes the first couple of chapters to Franklin’s family and childhood with most of the material drawn from Franklin’s own writing, Childhood at Brindabella (memoir), and My Brilliant Career and Cockatoos (autobiographical fiction). She deals briefly with Franklin’s failure to find a publisher for My Career Goes Bung, and then moves on to the (mistaken) heart of her thesis ‘Thirty Years in Exile’. Barnard looks to Ignez, the heroine of Cockatoos and the absent centre of Back to Bool Bool for an explanation.

The days in [the USA] were, in so far as the development of her special talents were concerned, wasted. She had fallen among reformers, and that for an artist is more fatal than for a merchant to fall among bandits. Her heart was frozen by a secret tragedy. [Back to Bool Bool]

MF did fall among reformers, the National Women’s Trade Union League of America, and had to deal with the tragedies of the loss of her singing voice, which she had hoped to make her first career, and of the death back in Australia of her nearest sister, but she also continued to write both then and in London after the War.

I have written elsewhere that these were her middle years stylistically when she attempted contemporary fiction at which she proved to be less than good. Barnard treats the work written around 1925 and published much later as Prelude to Waking as Franklin’s first attempt at returning to writing after a long hiatus.

Perhaps this book had to be written to get Miles into the habit of writing again. It did not have to be published.

I’m not clear whether by 1967 it was known for sure that Brent of Bin Bin was Miles Franklin. Barnard surmises that ‘he’ was and goes on to analyse in some depth the five books of the Up the Country saga published under the Brent of Bin Bin name, and then the books published under Franklin’s own name: Bring the Monkey, Old Blastus and her crowning achievement, All That Swagger, all written in the space of ten years from 1926 to 1935.

At that point inspiration dried up. There followed her collaboration with Dymphna Cusack, Pioneers on Parade (1939), a biography of Joseph Furphy and a book of essays, Laughter not for a Cage arising out a lecture series at UWA, Perth. Franklin in fact quite often gave public talks in these last 20 years, but her career as a novelist was over.

This is a flawed work, the biographer too close to her subject, but nevertheless probably remains the best and most comprehensive treatment of Franklin’s work.


Marjorie Barnard, Miles Franklin: The Story of a Famous Australian, Hill of Content, Melbourne, 1967 (the cover above at the time of writing, is from a UQP reprint, but I will replace it with a photo of the dustjacket of my own first edition when I eventually get home).

For more of my (and other bloggers’) reviews and writing about Miles Franklin go to my Miles Franklin page (here)

23 thoughts on “Miles Franklin, Majorie Barnard

  1. I have this one on my TBR, but I have wondered vaguely if there’s any point to reading it after reading Roe. Your review answers the question!
    BTW Now that libraries are opening up, do see if you can get hold of Brenda Niall’s Friends and Rivals: four mini bios of Ethel Turner, Barbara Baynton, Henry Handel Richardson and Nettie Palmer. I’m just starting the last one now. It’s really, really good:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll have to read the Niall to discover who were the friends (Nettie and HHR were definitely) and who were rivals. Baynton and Turner don’t seem to have mixed much in literary circles, though Martin Boyd (I think) knew Baynton in the UK when she was a ‘Lady’.

      A search reveals lots of interesting reviews, and it’s available as an ebook from Text, so I might go down that route.


      • HHR was definitely an interesting person and a talented writer, our best up till White probably. I don’t see any reason to dislike her (despite the fact that MF did, mostly out of envy).


    • She was very nearly forgotten until My Brilliant Career was made into a movie in the 1970s. My what if is what if she had been treated seriously as a writer in her twenties instead of as a one-off wonder.

      MF was a volunteer with the Scottish Womens Hospitals during WWI and served behind the lines with the Serbian Army. I’m on my phone now, so no links, but you can search for the post Miles Franklin’s War.


  2. All the commentary about the biographer being too close reminds me of the way Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes used to be wonderful friends. Both literary giants in the U.S., they had a falling out over claims on a play they co-wrote and were never friends again. Frequently, they would write about each other, and it could get unprofessional because they knew each other SO well from their friendship.

    Some complaints that I’ve heard about Shirley Jackson’s memoir by Oppenheimer is that it’s all a bunch of quotes from people who knew her. For me, if I can get the personal opinions of MANY people who knew an author, I’m more satisfied. I like knowing how individuals perceived a famous person who they called friend or family. The opinion of just one, or even two, is not enough, though.


    • Barnard comments that she and Miles fell out one time when she gave a lecture about Miles, and Miles who had snuck in the back got offended when the students laughed in the wrong place.

      Miles got over it, but there is no way Barnard could have written so openly about her while she was alive. But for us it is of immense value to have the opinion of someone who had known her closely for a long time.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That sounds like an interesting kind of biography to have out of many, giving the perspective from their friendship but obviously missing out on quite a lot of the professional detail. I ought to re-read MBC: it was one of the first Viragoes I read back in my late teens and I remember it with great fondness. Or should I leave it alone?


    • If I had complete control of your time, I would say that given you have already read MBC – which does stand re-rereading – watch the movie with Judy Davis and then read My Career Goes Bung, the fictional biography of the Sybylla who wrote a fictional biography (MBC) and became famous and met lots of other famous people in Sydney and then went back to the farm. It really is a tour de force.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I read My Career Goes Bung at the same time and still have both my copies! So I should just re-read both together. Unless the movie is a ma zing I would rather re-read, I think but it’s interesting I’ve kept these with me so long (through so many house moves!!).


  4. I love this kind of biographical writing. It reminds me of reading Hazel Holt’s essays about Barbara Pym and their friendship, and how I felt like I had seen Pym in a way that I’d not seen her before.

    As for Franklin, I’ve only read My Brilliant Career, but I absolutely loved it. It was one of the first books from which I took so many notes that I realized I needed to find a way to keep those notes-on-novels in some sort of order. It’s one I’ve been thinking of rereading.


    • I’ve been converting my dissertation notes into blog posts for years, though for some reason I’ve never written a proper review of My Brilliant Career. MBC was one of three novels Franklin wrote about that period of her life. She initially wrote them very closely together in the first years of the century so they are both excellent source material for how she felt about her young life and a commentary on the writing of autobiographical fiction. The latter two were re-written as My Career Goes Bung and Cockatoos. I love all three, but I probably think Cockatoos is the best.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, interesting! I have Bung here, but not Cockatoos, and I see that’s a reference-only copy at the public library, but I’ll keep an eye for a second-hand copy with that in mind. Thank you.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I have Friends and Rivals to read soon, but this post has also got me thinking about other literary friendships that fascinate me – I have Vera Brittain’s book about her friendship with Winifred Holtby to enjoy one day. Not sure if I should read a Holtby before the bio though? I got the book because of my love for Vera…

    I’m rather nervous to admit that I didn’t enjoy MBC when I read it as a teenager (perhaps I have already revealed this?) I found her utterly annoying. I’m sure I would not have used the word insufferable at that age, but it springs to mind now. Spoilt brat was probably closer to what I was thinking back then!

    I’m not sure I ever watched the movie all the way through either. although every time I see Judy Davis in my local coffee shop, Sybylla springs to mind!


    • Miles Franklin was a pretty annoying person! And MBC is a spoof on romances written by a passionately feminist sixteen year old, so it has its faults, but it also has lots of good points. The books that arose out of her next two (unpublished) novels are better written, and interestingly are even more feminist, as by then Franklin had come up from the bush and mixed with Rose Scott’s Sydney suffragists.

      Davis is excellent in MBC but even better in The Naked Lunch.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] Barnard’s Miles Franklin: The Story of a Famous Australian was published in 1967, thirteen years after Franklin’s death in 1954, and three years after the release of her papers though she doesn’t appear to have made much use of them. This is a strictly literary biography with some reference to Franklin’s childhood and only such references to Franklin’s years in Chicago and London as Barnard gleaned from conversation with that unreliable witness, Miles Franklin. …This is a flawed work, the biographer too close to her subject, but nevertheless probably remains the best and most comprehensive treatment of Franklin’s work. (Review here) […]


  7. Oh dear, this was posted a few days after my mum’s death and I never did read it, though I remember it flashed by my eyes sometime!

    I’m a bit of a Barnard fan, though I haven’t read all of her work. She and Eldershaw were such interesting women. They were such movers and shakers in their time, along with Frank Dalby Davison. I love Barnard’s short stories. Anyhow, I intend one day to read this bio, but really appreciate your review. I like your perspective. Even if Roe’s biography is the most authoritative/comprehensive, it seems that one written by someone who knew her personally must add something to make it worth reading – and you’ve confirmed that.


    • I use Roe’s biography all the time but it’s just a (very long) list of facts. Barnard’s is valuable both for the personal insight – and on reflection it’s astonishing how much MF must not have talked about – but also for the analysis of MF’s later works – her pioneer period.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Barnard and Eldershaw were critics as well as writers I think, so I’m sure what she has to say about MF’s work is interesting even if it’s, presumably, limited to the perspective of her times?


      • Well, I found it interesting, not that I remember now what Barnard said. The perspective of the times was “what great/realistic bush writing”. I think Barnard rose above that, and I think most critics then – there have probably been none since – recognised the centrality of the matriarch in B of BB’s stories.

        Liked by 1 person

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