My masters was built around My Brilliant Career, my truck is named after it, I have done innumerable (well, 23) posts about Franklin, but I have never posted a review of this her first and most famous novel. Luckily however, Emma of Book Around the Corner, last year, and now Karen of Booker Talk – who coincidentally, being respectively French and Welsh, bring an ‘outsider’s’ perspective to the task – have stepped up to the plate for me.
Every time I picked up my copy of My Brilliant Career, instead of delving straight into the narrative, I found myself simply staring at the cover image. That girl haunted me. At times it felt as if she was glaring at me, almost daring me to judge her behaviour and her attitudes. Other times it seemed more that she was asking me a question, inviting a response.
Maybe I’m making far too much of this but I certainly found the image mesmerising. The boldness of the girl’s look combined with her wild, unkempt appearance also perfectly matched the character of the protagonist created by Miles Franklin, Sybylla Melvyn. Read on …
It is not clear even at the distance of more than a century whether Joseph Furphy (1843-1912) is one of our greatest writers, though he certainly wrote one of our greatest novels, Such is Life (1903) purportedly the memoir of time spent by Tom Collins, a minor NSW government official, with bullock drivers in the Riverina (southern NSW), “a classic which few were to read and no one was ever to establish clearly what it was all about.” (Manning Clark in Furphy’s ADB entry)
I have a first (and only, probably) edition of Miles Franklin’s Joseph Furphy, from now long-gone antiquarian book seller, Magpie’s, in Fremantle, originally belonging to a Paul Le Comte, “member W.A.H.S.” (WA Historical Society?) and including newspaper cuttings and – Emma and Lisa will like this – an information card for Furphy’s burial site in Perth’s Karrakatta Cemetery.
Franklin’s ‘Prefatory Note’ begins –
The time is not yet ripe for a definitive biography of Joseph Furphy. The Australian attitude toward biography opens the case for Mateship versus Modernity, and so far Mateship holds the pass. No frankly searching study of the lives of our prominent personages would be tolerated … because of the still lingering conventions of modesty and reticence by which British middle-class behavior was regulated until inhibition was loosened in the preliminary war of 1914-18.
Jill Roe (2008, p.388) thinks that Franklin is averting to the possibility of an affair between Furphy and Kate Baker (1861-1953), Franklin’s ‘collaborator’ in this work. The married Furphy and Baker, 18 years his junior, met in 1886 when Baker was teaching near Rushworth (in central Victoria). They became lifelong friends. Baker was important in encouraging Furphy to write, and after his death and her early retirement at 52 she did all she could to publicize and safeguard his work (ADB). By 1939, when she spent 5 months in Sydney with Franklin getting this biography underway, Baker was elderly and stone deaf and Franklin largely took over, so that the collaboration consisted of Franklin writing from the material Baker had collected over a lifetime.
Franklin was herself a Furphy fan and she and Furphy had exchanged complimentary letters and subsequently met, in 1904 (see also Such is Life, Abridged!).
It is sometimes stated that this biography won the 1944 Prior Prize, the year the book was published, but in fact Franklin won the 1939 Prior Prize for the essay Who was Joseph Furphy? which she dashed off after Baker had returned to Melbourne, though she shared the £100 with her (Franklin initially came second but the ms which beat her, MH Ellis’ biography of Governor Macquarie*, was belatedly judged to be insufficiently foot-noted).
Franklin begins at interesting point. After a brief ‘Furphian’ digression – one of the features of Such is Life is its flights down side alleys – on the development or otherwise of a distinctly Australian literature, she gives us Kate Baker, newly hatched school teacher, rushing to catch the train, and subsequently a coach and then a spring cart to the home of Isaac Furphy – brother of Joseph – and his family where she is to board for a year, before moving six miles to board another year at the home of Samuel and Mrs Furphy, Joseph’s parents, constantly inundated, by Joseph’s brothers and sisters and their children, by Joseph’s wife Leonie and their children, by everyone around except Joseph whom Kate finally meets only on the day of her departure.
When Joe began to talk he justified himself as the literary prodigy of the family. He was then forty-four, Kate Baker in her twenties.
Joe talked till 1.00 am, and again the following night. Then it was time to leave, and she asked him to visit her and her parents some time in Melbourne.
We then return conventionally to the beginning and Furphy’s surprisingly, almost Austenesque, literary home environment. Of his juvenilia Franklin writes:
A copy of “Childe Booth’s Pilgrimage” has been preserved. It bears traces of easy acquaintance with Scott, Longfellow, Homer, Byron, Burns, Moore and others. Written when the boy was between fourteen and fifteen years of age, it shows him in embryo the Furphy who in 1897 delivered of Such is Life.
Joseph was one of five brothers, and journals were kept by their mother of their writings, ballads and odes to lost loves. The Furphys had come out from Ireland in 1841, were employed and sometimes self-employed in various locations outside of Melbourne, including Kyneton where Joseph went to school. In 1868 they took up land, “Sand Hills”**, around Lake Cooper (map) in the names of Samuel (senior), Joseph and Isaac, building themselves homes which survived into the 1950s, and it is there that Kate Baker came to teach.
Today it is an inspiring sight to gaze from Mount Burramboot over the glowing plains which reach away to the blue distance for leagues on every side. In the foreground Lake Cooper and its satellites glisten like sapphires in a shield.
Joe’s selection lived up to it’s name and after five years he gave up, rented nearby while he tried a bit of gold prospecting, then with a wagon and bullocks, he uprooted his tiny, French wife and their children to follow him as a bullocky through the backblocks of NSW. His oldest son Felix, not a budding writer, who had command of Furphy’s second wagon wrote to his grandfather in 1883 –
I have no books hear but the third book and the story of the too dogs and father reads nothing but shakspere everybody carries books but they are yellow novels …
Older brother John, a blacksmith, had in the meanwhile set up the famous Furphy Foundry in Shepparton. When Joseph’s enterprise failed, due to drought and disease in the cattle, Leonie wrote home for help and a position was made for Joseph at the foundry. At last he had a settled home and could begin to write.
His first piece, “The Mythical Sundowner”, appeared in the Bulletin 5 Oct 1889, signed Warrigal Jack, though he later used Tom Collins, a “synonym for idle rumour” (as ‘Furphy’ was to become during WWI).
Over the next decade or so, he was engaged constantly, when he wasn’t working, in reading, writing, and researching, setting tasks for Kate Baker, and corresponding with fellow pedant and polymath William Cathels.
By 1897 he had an ms in want of a publisher. He wrote to the Bulletin seeking advice, and AG Stephens asked him to submit it to them – 1125 hand written pages. Furphy advised Stephens –
The plan of the book is not like any other that I know of – at least, I trust not. Also you will notice that a certain by-play in plot and éclaircissment is hidden from the philosophic narrator, however apparent to the matter of fact reader.
Stephens wrote at length to Furphy setting out in detail the economics of publication. First requirement was a typed copy and Furphy, fearful that a typist would bowdlerize his often profane masterpiece, purchased Shepparton’s third typewriter, taught himself to type, and knocked out a copy in … 12 months!
At his point in the book Franklin reproduces a great deal of (fascinating) correspondence. I find it interesting that both Stephens and Cathels, the first people to read and admire Such is Life, saw it as an idiosyncratic but essentially true-to-life account of Bush life, whereas I see it as one of the great works of Modernism, essentially about writing and language as Picasso’s work is about painting, not funny-looking women.
For three years the Bulletin prevaricated about publishing. It was a fine book, but much too long. They would bear a loss out of the goodness of their hearts. And so on. Furphy finally conceived the idea of excising two strands of the original, which would go on to be books in their own right, the novel Rigby’s Romance and the collection of stories which eventually became The Buln-Buln and the Brolga. Even so, correction, re-typing, illustration, proof reading dragged on through all of 1901 (when Miles Franklin’s own My Brilliant Career stole some of his thunder) and 1902.
Finally, in June 1903 Stephens wrote to Furphy that 2,000 copies had been printed and 500 bound, –
“… the book market is dead, have no hope of selling them for some time… Your whole affair is the curious instance of that dead and gone thing conscience. The book’s so good that it has got itself printed against foreknowledge and predestination absolute that it’ll have a darned slow sale. I mention this as a faint excuse for the shocking delays.”
Such is Life was finally released in August 1903 with an inappropriately floral cover, to mostly good reviews in Australia and adverse in Britain. Sales were poor, around 25 a month, making it impossible for the Bulletin to consider Rigby’s Romance. Furphy wrote a review of his own, concluding –
… the studied inconsecutiveness of the “memoirs” is made to mask coincidence and cross-purposes, sometimes too intricate.
In 1905 Furphy and his wife moved to Perth WA where their children were already established. They lived between the rail line and the sea, Cottesloe or Swanbourne. Between making their homes habitable, and surf bathing, he was fully occupied and after only little more than a decade, his writing career was at an end.
Rigby’s Romance was published in the Barrier Truth (Broken Hill) in 1905-6 and it was 15 years before Kate Baker could arrange to have it published as a book. Furphy died in 1912 without ever returning to see his friends in Melbourne, but maintained an active correspondence.
The last quarter of the biography is an analysis of Furphy’s work, including Miles’ frustration at Furphy’s inadequate depiction of women, ending with a discussion on the relative merits, and fame, of Ulysses, Such is Life and Remembrance of Times Past.
Miles Franklin, in association with Kate Barker, Joseph Furphy: The Legend of a Man and his Book, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1944.
Shane Maloney, Miles Franklin & Joseph Furphy, The Monthly, Sept 2009 (here)
Jill Roe, Stella Miles Franklin, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2008
Such is Life is available from Text Classics in print (2013) and e-book.
*M. H. Ellis, Lachlan Macquarie: His Life, Adventures and Times – “after a fortnight’s examination, Ida [Leeson, Mitchell Library] declared the work undocumented and full of inaccuracies.” Franklin’s work was “elevated from ‘highly commended’ to first place, with a rider that entry No. 62 would have won had it been fully documented and the references checked.” From the NLA database it appears that Ellis’ work was published in stages from 1942 to 1952, and has since been reprinted.
**Googling ‘Sand Hills Furphy’ brings up directory entries which indicate that the family still farms there; a family reunion on May 25; and a death notice for Joseph’s mother.
This cutting fortuitously references not just Furphy but Mollie Skinner (see Writing the Boy in the Bush) who might come up again later in AWW Gen 2 Week
By the 1930s Miles Franklin, in her fifties, was at last established as a writer, both in her own mind with the relative success of the first three Brent of Bin Bin novels published in 1928, 1930 and 1931, and with the publication, under her own name for the first time since 1909, of Old Blastus of Bandicoot in 1931. Permanently back in Sydney from years overseas in Chicago and London, as “spinster-daughter-cum-housekeeper” in her mother’s house in Carlton (Jill Roe’s words) she was also a leading member of the Fellowship of Australian Writers – with Marjorie Barnard and Frank Dalby Davidson – and was often called on to give talks.
In her last years in London Franklin had written two ‘Mayfair’ novels. One eventually came out in 1950 as Prelude to Waking (by Brent of Bin Bin), the other, Bring the Monkey, was published in 1933 but sold only a few hundred copies. This marked the end of an excursion into writing about town-based women, her lived experience since the turn of the century. She had already returned to the Bush where her heart had always been with Brent of Bin Bin, but All That Swagger was to be her great triumph.
Jill Roe believes that this was the book Franklin had to write. The trigger was the death of her father – the novel is a fictionalized account of her Franklin grandfather’s pioneering exploits – but Miles “seized upon the Franklin experience over time as the perfect vehicle for what she wanted to say about contemporary Australia, with its still-uncertain culture and fragile environment.”
Ignoring her commitments to publishers Blackwood for another Brent of Bin Bin novel – Mary Fullerton was told to tell Blackwood that ‘William Blake’ (Brent) was probably in the United States – it took her only a few months, to Aug. 1933, to knock out a rough draft of 400 odd pages and two more to come up with a first typescript.
I have written before that Franklin gave up on her feisty independent heroines to write a novel that men would approve of – though I can’t find any evidence that she ever said this out loud – a story of men taming the Bush, mainstream Oz Lit, and when the novel came out in 1936 they did approve and were at last willing to praise her.
The saga begins in the 1830s in County Clare, Ireland. Free-thinking (ie. non-religious) Danny Delacy, whose Trinity College-educated father runs a small school, persuades Catholic Johanna, the daughter of the local ‘squire’, to elope with him to Australia.
Danny gains employment with a squatter on the Goulburn plains (inland of Sydney) but he is determined to be a land owner and all the best land is taken. Eventually he is assisted by his employer to take up a “sliver of land” on the Murrumbidgee.* “The new place was called Bewuck by the blacks for the hauls of cod they caught in the fish hole, almost in front of the homestead.”
The land is heavily treed and must be cleared. “Guarding the illusive land were throngs of giants – the stateliest trees on the globe. Delacy was like an ant in the aisles of box trees and towering river gums, but he attacked them as an army.” Johanna makes the best of her primitive house and begins having children. Although Franklin’s stories generally include a central matriarch, Johanna, while fitting the bill, takes second place to Danny.
Later in the novel as Johanna dies and Danny declines into old age the spotlight shifts not to their sons, and certainly not except briefly to their daughters, but to their grandchildren, cousins Clare Margaret and Darcy, both surrogates for Franklin herself. Clare Margaret the idealised bushwoman Franklin might have been had her father remained in the mountains; and Darcy, whose ineffective cow cocky father and domineering disappointed mother enable Franklin to express her unhappiness with her own situation both growing up and now, at her mother’s beck and call.
The Brent of Bin Bin novels are based on Miles’ mother’s family who had extensive holdings in and around Talbingo on the opposite, western slopes of the Australian Alps. The Franklin family appear in these novels as the Milfords, and Agnes ‘Ignez’ Milford is effectively Miles herself. As far as I can see though, the Milfords and the Delacys, both fictional, both based on the Franklins, have completely separate stories (I expected bits of Up the Country and Ten Creeks Run to cross over into All That Swagger but it doesn’t happen).
Although squatting was by the 1840s technically illegal, the NSW government took no action other than to charge an annual fee and to mandate that small parcels of land must be released to settlers. Danny aspires to virgin land in the Alps –
He could never ascend from his gorges to the higher land of Quebarra or Glenties without exalted emotion. He would gaze towards the Australian Alps and collaterals, extending for eighty or a hundred miles around the translucent horizon, and feel as a poet drinking from the fountain of inspiration. There lay a land to be wrought to the heart’s desire. With this attitude of the visionary was interwoven the need for energetic action. In the rare moments when he sat with Johanna before retiring he talked of going up the Murrumbidgee with his surplus stock and settling in a valley the blacks called Burrabinga.
Miles Franklin has her shortcomings and this novel is just a straight recounting of one family’s beginnings, generating little narrative tension. But Danny and his mates, fellow struggling squatter Sandy Urquhart and publican Hennessy, his sons Robert, William and Harry are all well realised, as are Johanna and her older daughter Della. There are many supporting characters, so many that following marriage prospects and side stories – for instance that of Bella Rafferty who rises from a hovel to become first a servant then wife of a squatter – is hard work. Later generations, around Margaret Clare, are rushed; Miles’ feminist concerns are snuck back in by roundabout routes, but they’re there; the renditions of Danny’s philosophical musings in Irish brogue are bearable, Johanna’s scoldings are often amusing; and above all the descriptions of country and horsemanship are outstanding.
I won’t give you the ins and outs of the story, the opening up of Burrabinga; Danny lost for months, losing a leg on a journey out into the plains; Burrabinga abandoned, reclaimed; the establishment of a great breed of horses; Danny’s banishment from the marital bed; (son) Robert’s adventures in manhood etc, etc right up to a pioneering England-Australia flight by a fourth generation Delacy in the 1930s. But allow me one more excursion.
We are all, rightly, becoming concerned with how Australian literature takes into account Indigenous points of view. Franklin in her writing is sympathetic to the plight of ‘blacks’ but appears to subscribe to the then widely (and conveniently) accepted dying out thesis. In the middle of the book she writes of the second generation marrying, starting families, “All were behaving in a way becoming to an empty continent where population was in demand.”
I get the impression there was a general acknowledgement of Aboriginal rights in ‘liberal’ circles at this time of writing. As a case in point, Eleanor Dark’s A Timeless Land was published just five years later. Franklin ascribes to Danny a viewpoint acknowledging prior and ongoing occupation of ‘his’ land. In the early days local Ngarigo people came each year to Bewuck to fish for cod and Danny would pay them a bullock to slaughter for their land, though it is clear the people soon stop coming. She also mentions that Danny did not approve of nor take part in any shootings – which we are learning were far more commonplace than previously accepted. Danny also ‘adopts’ two Aboriginal children who fill a place somewhere between retainers and friends for the rest of their lives.
My verdict: still well worth reading.
Miles Franklin, All That Swagger, Sydney, 1936. Published as a serial in The Bulletin after winning that year’s Prior Prize, then as a book, also in 1936, by Angus & Robertson (see my post ‘Prior Prize Winners, All That Swagger’). My edition Sirius Books, 1986.
*I had difficulties with the geography, but I think the first Delacy homestead Beewuk was on the Murrumbidgee south west of (present day) Canberra. Late in the novel Beewuk is resumed by the Federal Government as part of the Australian Capital Territory.
Burrabinga, the property in the Alps, is presumably Brindabella, where Franklin spent her first 8 years, but as far as I can tell it is not upstream on the Murrumbidgee, but on a tributary. (Map The Murrumbidgee is a faint white line running south to north through the centre of the map). Sue/Whispering Gums, can you add any more?
Samuel Henry Prior (1869-1933) was a financial journalist and editor with The Bulletin from 1903. He purchased founder, JF Archibald’s shares in 1914, and by 1927 all the remaining shares. While responsible for the strong emphasis on finance which was to sustain The Bulletin into the 1970s, he was also conscious of its early role in promoting Australian literature, and in 1928 inaugurated The Bulletin Novel Competition which was renamed after his death the S. H. Prior Memorial Prize. The prize was for a work of Australian literature, presumably unpublished, as the winner would receive a cash prize (initially £100), publication, and serialization in The Bulletin. The first Prior was won by Kylie Tennant with Tiburon in 1935, and the second, the following year, from 230 entries, by Miles Franklin with All That Swagger.
The first Bulletin prize, in 1929, was won jointly by M Barnard Eldershaw, A House is Built and KS Prichard, Coonardoo. I couldn’t find any lists of prize winners on the net, the Oxford Companion gave me The Battlers (Kylie Tennant) and Joseph Furphy: The Legend and the Man (Miles Franklin) for 1941 and 44, Annals of Aust.Lit., nothing. Searching on Trove I found Eve Langley’s The Pea Pickers (“its literary merits are of a somewhat mediocre description.” West Australian, 30/05/42) for 1940 (with two others, not named in Langley’s recreated memoir Wilde Eve). And in another story, that Dymphna Cusack’s Jungfrau was the runner up to All That Swagger. After a couple of pages, ‘prior’ and ‘bulletin’ and even ‘prize’ being so common in war-time dispatches, I gave up searching for more. Do you guys know any others?
Searching Trove for reaction at the time of publication of All That Swagger, I came across this in the Wilcannia Western Grazier of Sat 19 Sep 1936:
XJl-EBAltY l’BIZtt WINNjSB.
Wotoao Wiiter’a SacooW.
A Sp’«ndid Auirfttlion Bloty.
I Alt Thnt Swagger, tho oor …
I’ve corrected it (if you’re not aware, Trove is a database of all Australia’s newspapers digitised and awaiting amateur proof-readers), and the full copy reads as follows:
Literary Prize Winner
Woman Writer’s Success.
A Splendid Australian Story.
All That Swagger, the novel that has won this year’s Prior Memorial Prize and which will appear as a serial in The Bulletin in ten page installments, commencing September 16, is all Aus-tralian, in every word and line.Though it spans four generations and a hundred of time, it is true to period and takes no liberties with history. Only an Australia could have written it, and there has been nothing written like it except the Brent of Bin bin novels, the style and writing of which it resembles.
The writer, Stella Miles Franklin, was born at Talbingo, at the foot of the steep descent from the hills of Monaro into the Tumut Valley.
She was still a girl when she found herself on a holding near Goulburn, and, departing from the traditions of her forebears, she wrote a novel. The manuscript was sent to THE BULLETIN in Archibald’s time, and was returned with some kindly comment and en-couraging advice. She revised her story and sent it to Henry Lawson.
The novel had the ironical title My Brilliant Career, and created quite a literary sensation when it arrived in Australia, and its publication definitely determined Miss Franklin to pursue a literary career.
Her second book, Some Everyday Folk – and Dawn, had been published in 1909. Then came Old Blastus [of] Bandicoot, a full-bodied portrayal of a roaring old bull of a settler whose voice would split the granite in the Monaro ranges and send the wallabies scam-pering up the gorges for the risk of their lives.
Other books have been written by Stella Miles Franklin, but of her writings All That Swagger is easily her greatest effort, and is probably the finest Australian story ever written. That is, of course, saying a great deal, but those people privileged to have read the novel unanimously agree that it is remarkably Australian and is a cavalcade of progress over 100 years in this great continent, for the story covers a century, ending in 1933, and is espe-cially strong in characters: one at least of its people— Danny Delacy—seems certain to take a leading place in Australian literary tradition, Other characters— notably Danny’s “brave Johanna”— are admirably projected people that readers will enjoy.
All That Swagger is such a great story that THE BULLETIN has decided to publish it in large instalments of 10 pages, making each a miniature novel. In these generous instalments the reader will appreciate the continuity of the story and the true significance of All That Swagger.
Wilcannia was then and is now a very small desert town on the Darling in far western NSW so it’s unlikely the Western Grazier had a dedicated book reviewer. Further, some of the lines used in the article are those of the judges, so I’m guessing the story was provided by The Bulletin (though it sounds very Colin Roderick).
All That Swagger is not “the greatest Australian story ever written” though it may have been at the pinnacle of novels in the Bulletin (Gen II) school of pioneer realism still favoured by conservatives today. By 1936, better contenders for Great Australian Novel would have included For the Term of His Natural Life (Marcus Clarke), Such is Life (Joseph Furphy), The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (HH Richardson) and Seven Poor Men of Sydney (Christina Stead).
I couldn’t see how long the Prior Prize ran on for, only a few years probably, as in 1946 the Sydney Morning Herald began its own prize, £2,000 for an unpublished novel, won by Ruth Park with The Harp in the South. And did you notice that all the prize winners I mentioned, which was all the prize winners I could find, were women. That was a great generation, from WWI to the 1950s.
All this is by way of saying that as soon as I finish reading All That Swagger I will publish a review. And after all this, I’ll try and keep it short!
Miles Franklin, All That Swagger, first published (slightly abridged) in serial form in The Bulletin, Sydney, 1936 and then in book form.
I’m pretty sure both Tiburon in the previous year and All That Swagger were published by Angus & Robertson so they must have had an arrangement with The Bulletin, which had published books in the past – Steele Rudd for example – and had its own imprint, Endeavour Press.
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.
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
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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The founding of the Sydney Bulletin in 1880 by JF Archibald (and John Haynes, who does not appear to have played a part in its day to day operations), as a magazine of news, comment, short stories and poetry, marked a turning point in Australian nationalism, expressed in its banner “Australia for Australians” – famously changed in 1886 to “Australia for the White Man”. In 1894 Archibald employed AG Stephens, already a well-known literary critic, who began soliciting and commissioning literary works for his famous ‘Red Page’:
What readers could expect in the ‘Red Page’ was a potpourri of articles, reviews, extracts, letters, paragraphs, anecdotes and notes, occasionally with photographs or cartoons. The poem of the week, starred to indicate its quality, appeared in a top corner and in the bottom corner might be blunt, cruelly witty advice to rejected contributors. Stephens’ common practice was to spark controversy by attacking an established writer, such as Burns, Thackeray, Kipling, or Tennyson, thereby enticing correspondents as varied as Christopher Brennan or George Burns to attack and counter-attack, sometimes over weeks. It was heady stuff. (ADB)
In 1901 Norman Lindsay, then aged 21, came to the Bulletin as an illustrator, from Melbourne where he had been at art school. Although already married, he fancied himself as a carouser, a Cassanova, and produced endless drawings of naked women. Later in life he wrote some interesting fiction, mostly semi-autobiographical and boastful of his conquests, and of course the wonderful children’s book, The Magic Pudding (1918) prized by generations of young Legends.
In 1911 Lindsay went to England for a while and returned suffering a nervous breakdown -which he is happy to talk about in this book – which led him to buy Springwood in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney where he was to spend the rest of his life, and which was the setting for the movie Sirens (1994) starring Sam Neill (as Lindsay), Elle Macpherson and a young Hugh Grant.
In Bohemians at [orginally ‘of’] the Bulletin (1965) Lindsay writes short sketches of his interactions with Archibald, Stephens and some of his fellow contributors. Lindsay admires Archibald with whom he is largely in accord – including on the related subjects of buxom 14 year old girls and the entrapment of men by Rape Laws – and ends his piece on Archibald with:
We know that Archie endowed Australian art with the Archibald Bequest and bestowed on Sydney the splendid Archibald Memorial fountain, the only truly fine monument the city possesses… But he wrote his personality deeper on this country’s culture when he sought for and published the best poetry and prose and draughtsmanship it could produce, and fostered in it the spirit to envision life in its own terms and not on any culture borrowed from other countries.
On the other hand, Lindsay didn’t get on with AG Stephens and the things he writes about him are mostly spiteful – Stephens scuttling back to his office in the face of danger, and so on. Henry Lawson, Lindsay did not know very well, mostly seeing him as angry presence dashing in and out of the Bulletin offices, or cadging money for grog, and in fact he knew Bertha (Henry’s estranged wife) better, as she managed a picture gallery for George Robertson next door to Angus & Robertson’s bookshop:
I was holding a one-man show at the gallery, and happened to be in Mrs Lawson’s small office, finishing a pen sketch which had been commissioned, when she dashed in exclaiming breathlessly, “I can’t go out there. He’s only come in here to annoy me.” I glanced out to discover that “he” was Henry Lawson, who was going around making a pretence of looking at the pictures …
Steele Rudd, Lindsay met just the once (oddly, as Rudd lived in Sydney from 1903-08) seeing him as a yokel, though he was in fact a senior clerk in the Qld Public Service, but at least has this to say of him:
In his Dad and Mum and Dave and Joe he created idiosyncratic characters … and not just types as Lawson did with his Bills and Jims and Andys, who are all out of one mould, indistinguishable as personalities from each other.
With Banjo Paterson, an ‘aristocrat’ according to Lindsay, he was much more in sympathy and they would go horse riding together, having stables, paddocks (and grooms!) at their north shore properties.
I can’t ever recall discussing literature with him, nor did he place any accent on his contribution to it, which was a considerable one, and now seen in its significant relation to a national culture. By the fine quality of his ballads, he compressed into a few years the bridge between the folk-lore ballad and major poetry which the early Scotch and English balladists made for the great Elizabethan poets.
There are other once notable and now largely forgotten writers – Victor Daley, Rod Quinn, Jack Abbott, Bernard O’Dowd, Randolph Bedford, Hugh McCrae, Louis Stone (whose novel Jonah I must read) – many of whom Lindsay knew well. Lindsay is knowledgeable about poetry, as I am not, and gives a lively account of a period – more than a century ago now – which was still central to the study of Australian literature when this little book came out in the sixties.
He ends with thumbnail sketches of ‘Tom Collins’ (Joseph Furphy) and Miles Franklin, whom he met only briefly. Of Furphy, to whom Lindsay must have been introduced soon after he arrived at the Bulletin, he writes “I don’t remember a single thing he said”, though he does remember the fuss AG Stephens made publishing Such is Life and the great expectations he had for it.
But Miles definitely made an impression!:
I came across gaping at this bright vision of girl in such a drab and dusty setting, and was introduced to her by A.G. [Stephens] – Miles Franklin! reality far outshone fancy’s portrait of her inspired by her novel [My Brilliant Career], and I went straight up in the air, bubbling an extravagant tribute to that work.
I have written before that Stephens, fearing Lindsay’s predatory disposition, would not let Lindsay see her downstairs, so he “never saw Miles again till she returned to Australia, and we were both middle-aged”, when she tells him he was the one member of the Bulletin staff whom she wished to meet, which he says he does not believe. However, in her own work, My Career Goes Bung or Cockatoos, I forget which, she has him present her with a book of his sketches (Jill Roe says the book was by Stephens but signed by Lindsay who had illustrated it). Strangely, this brief meeting, or at least its sequel, is described/imagined also by Kylie Tennant who has Franklin running into Barbara Baynton at a tram stop outside the Bulletin offices, by which time Franklin is carrying a box of chocolates.
Norman Lindsay, Bohemians at the Bulletin, first pub. 1965. This edition Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1980.
Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson, Frank Johnson, Sydney, 1943 (review)
Richard Fotheringham, In Search of Steele Rudd, UQP, Brisbane, 1995 (review)
Penne Hackforth-Jones, Barbara Baynton: Between Two Worlds, Penguin, Melbourne, 1989 (review)
Kylie Tennant, “Miles Franklin: Feminist whose men were men”, SMH, 23 Jul 1974.