An Unusual Heroine: My Brilliant Career

SEPT / OCT 2014: BY VERONICA LEIGH

brilliant

In 1896, in the untamed bush of Australia, sixteen year old Stella Miles Franklin penned what became her magnum opus. Like the heroine of the story she conceived, she had a wildness of spirit. For her to follow the traditional norm of the day, marry, have children, and mingle in genteel society, would not have suited her. When she was confident that her manuscript was ready, Stella sent her novel to her favorite poet, Henry Lawson. With his assistance, in 1901 it debuted as My Brilliant Career, under the masculine pseudonym, Miles Franklin. It was a success and though she went on to write other books, it was her first that struck a chord with her audience.

The story opens in the late 1890s with young Sybylla Melvyn yearning for a different life… a better life. Her family is poverty stricken and though she yearns for greater things, to be a concert pianist or a stage actress, she cannot see past the turmoil. Her father drinks away what little earnings they make off their few milk cows and drought has dried up their land. Life seems bleaker still when her mother suggests hiring her out as a maid. The only refuge she has is in composing stories. Her attempts to write a novel are futile, although she is encouraged to try again and this time write of what she knows.

Sybylla’s salvation comes in the form of a letter from her aunt and grandmother. Since she is being so difficult at home, they invite her to Brindabella. The stage sweeps her away to her grandmother’s mansion in a region that resembles heaven. At least compared to her dusty home, it does. There the sun shines in a beautiful way and they receive rain regularly. There, her relatives pamper her with new dresses, new books, dances and something else… her attention is piqued when she meets Harry Beecham, a wealthy and handsome young man. In contrast to her frankness and quicksilver mind, he is reserved and quiet. A friendship blossoms between them, they become best “mates” and Sybylla begins to think that she is in love. Though not conventionally pretty and considered too clever for her own good, Harry is smitten as well. On the night of the dance, he proposes. Sybylla must make a choice between following her heart and following her dreams. Were she to accept Harry, she would have to become what he wants. As much as he loves her, he can never understand or accept her dream. If she chooses to pursue her goals, there is no guarantee that she will achieve success.

Girls wrote to Stella Franklin, confiding how much they could relate with the heroine’s predicament and how they too did not measure up to society’s high expectations. Other readers wrote to Stella, convinced that her story was autobiographical, that she was in reality Sybylla and that everything happened as it was penned. Years later, when the feminist movement started, My Brilliant Career had a resurgence in popularity. Women were surprised that this story was so ahead of its time and found contrary Sybylla Melvyn inspiring. ♥

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