Vol. 10 No. 4 · 18 February 1988

For Australians only

Jill Roe writes about the life and work of Miles Franklin

2560 words

Sydney, February 1938. Miles Franklin, aged 58, attends a sesquicentenary celebration at Government House for ‘distinguished women’. The legendary author of My Brilliant Career (1901) has every right to be there. Now back in Australia after nearly three decades of being away, the enfant terrible of Federation days has restored her name with a splendid pastoral saga, All that swagger (1936). She sits on the edge of a lily pond with the younger writer Dymphna Cusack, eating soggy sandwiches and drinking warm lemonade. February is often the hottest month in Sydney. The two exchange views on what Miles called the survival of the ‘garrison mind’ in a young country. The result was Pioneers on Parade, published by Angus and Robertson in 1939, a spoof on the sesquicentenary. Miles Franklin, where are you now?

They say things are too complicated for satire in 1988; they are in two minds about Miles Franklin as well. The freewheeling fiction of Pioneers on Parade explains a lot of it. Set in the best circles in Sydney, Darling Point, the Hotel Australia, Pittwater, and up country near Goulburn, where My Brilliant Career’s Sybylla Melvyn lived, it energetically attacks the pretensions of the principal celebrants in 1938. ‘Pioneering had become a cult among the cliques, it had class nowadays. The pure merinos, now sophisticated, were using their past – properly censored, of course – to propel their present and their future. They had risen above themselves.’ But, as the plot goes on to satirise, they remained upstarts, and were hypocrites to boot:

The native beneficiaries of the limited liability companies lacked the assurance of the old-country aristocrats and had not altogether attained standard plutocratic weight. Respectability had cramped their style, made it boisterous and crude instead of assured and sophisticated. This weakness was exposed in the desire to hide the national convict skeleton. Felony, of whatever virtue, was taboo in the pioneerage.

Indeed, convicts were erased from the sesquicentenary re-enactment of Captain Phillip’s landing, a decision endorsed by the Royal Australian Historical Society.

Pioneers on Parade begins with Audrey du Mont-Brankston, secretary to the Sesquicentenary Women’s Advisory Committee on Hospitality and Arrangements, a committee formed by the women’s circles of the Loyal Empire League, the Early Free Settlers’ League and the Society for Purer Australian History. She hopes that during the celebrations George, her money-spinning husband, will be knighted and that the lovely Primrose, her only daughter, unaccountably studying psychology at the university, will make a brilliant union with one of the visiting English aristocracy. Unfortunately, George foists his aunt, Mrs Lucy Brankston of Goulburn, a descendant of true pioneers, on the Women’s Advisory Committee as guest of honour, and Aunt Lucy makes a great stand against ‘ancient oppression and snobbery’ by declining all honours and encouraging George to do likewise. Primrose finally prefers an idealistic young doctor called Greg Moore to the Hon. Ninian Skimpose Blaise, a ‘Silver Churn that made all others look like cast iron’. To make matters even worse, a great sorting-out of the next generation occurs, leaving Audrey high and dry. Aunt Lucy’s son and heir, Little Willie, becomes engaged to Lucy Horsehurst, the nymphomaniacal daughter of the amiable Lord Cravenburn, the only imperial dignitary who could be persuaded to attend (a reference to the fact that the organising committee failed to attract even minor royalty, and disregarding such helpful suggestions as Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw and Charlie Chaplin, was obliged to make do with Earl de la Warr, a mere Lord Privy Seal, as a principal guest). But the wedding is cancelled when the secretary of the Society for Purer Australian history inadvertently discovers that the Brankstons have ‘a lag pedigree’. Full of outraged propriety, Aunt Lucy tells Little Willie to make it plain to Lord Cravenburn that while ‘we see that we are too lowly socially to marry with them,’ yet ‘we’ll have no truck with a mean breed that would starve a girl into taking a bun, or transport a boy for taking a bit of a ride on a draught horse.’

To everyone’s relief, not least that of the unhappy secretary of the Society for Purer Australian History, Lady Cravenburn suddenly arrives from England, and recognising a chance too good to be missed, dismisses historical minutiae, even implying shared blood between the families due to some unspecified bastardy back in the Home Counties in the 18th century. Astonished at Aunt Lucy’s prickly attitude, she sets to win her over; and succeeds. Greg arranges medical certificates of good health, a fashionable eugenic solution to lingering anxiety about blood lines. So, in the last sentences of Pioneers on Parade, the old matriarch Lucy Brankston is sanguine:

Pine Grove had belonged to the Brankstons for a hundred years: whatever the misdemeanours of their forebears, they had all been honest and honest with the land. The land would be there for ever: the hills everlasting. The land would be there for William and Lucy and their children, and they would continue the sturdy Australian tradition which her people had begun. No man could do more.

Pioneers on Parade was not very well received. Miles Franklin thought, with justification, that this was because it was on target. It has never been reprinted. Perhaps it should be. But in these days of multicultural Australia its dedication ‘for Australians only’ would be greeted with incredulity. The Empire is beyond recall. A diminished rural interest has failed to cherish the environment. Black Australia hardly gets a mention in the novel, and Aunt Lucy would certainly be upset by land rights. On the other hand, the convict inheritance is now positively cherished. It has become an art-form out here in Gulag.

Pioneers on Parade celebrates nationalism. So does the bicentenary. But nationalism is no longer A Good Thing. It is believed by many to be a class concept, constructed historically by racism and sexism, by a systematic exclusion of blacks, women and migrants. Miles Franklin’s underlying vision may not differ all that much from the one contained in the celebrated final volume of Manning Clark’s History of Australia, subtitled The Old Dead Tree and the Young Tree Green, which shows what ‘grovelling’ to the British did for Australia between 1915 and 1935; but he’s his own man and no one ever claimed him as a radical feminist. Whereas the evidence on Miles Franklin is incontrovertible. How could she?

Nearly a decade has passed since the international success of Gillian Armstrong’s screen version of My Brilliant Career, a triumph for sisterhood and the Australian film industry. Eleanor Witcombe, who wrote the script, had actually known Miles Franklin: ‘She was a very gutsy woman, my God she was. A tough old biddy, but she had a marvellous sense of humour. All those 1890s types were tough ladies.’ Few people had actually read the book. Franklin refused republication in her lifetime, and it was not reissued until the Seventies.* The film made Miles Franklin a culture hero. She is now as well-known in her native land as Dame Nellie Melba. How deep this goes is another question.

It will soon be possible to read Franklin’s entire early work. Of special significance are two lost Chicago novels, the previously-unpublished On Dearborn Street (where, between 1908 and 1915, Franklin worked in the National Women’s Trade Union League office) and The Net of Circumstance, which first appeared under the imprint of Mills and Boon in 1915 and was not seen again for sixty years, probably because of the amazing pseudonym ‘Mr and Mrs Ogniblat L’Artsau’ – Austral Talbingo spelled backwards. The underestimated, if uneven, Some Everyday Folk and Dawn, set in smalltown New South Wales at the moment of women’s enfranchisement, has also been reissued for the first time since 1909.

Franklin’s cultural commitment is clearest in her later work – a parallel might be drawn here with the work of Willa Cather. Again, much has been out of print. None of the books which mark her maturity and homecoming has been re-issued except for the autobiographical gem Childhood at Brindabella. An early version of Up the Country and a whodunnit, Bring the monkey, were reissued in 1984. The six-volume ‘Brent of Bin Bin’ (another pseudonym) saga of pioneering in the Monaro is available only in the better libraries, as are her often prophetic contributions – Laughter, not for a Cage is an example – to an emergent Australian literary history and criticism.

Meanwhile mainstream Lit Crit resiles to the traditional view that My Brilliant Career was, after all, her only significant novel. It is now supposed that her life was probably more interesting than her writing. This concession follows from the slow sifting of the voluminous Franklin papers, willed to the Mitchell Library in Sydney – a devastating parting shot at ‘the garrison’, meaning here academia. Bruce Sutherland, an American scholar sensitive to cultural history in young countries, once urged her to preserve her papers: ‘you are and have been not only important to Australian letters, but a vital spark.’ The wily Miles knew that. It sometimes seems the papers are her revenge. They contain the records and manuscripts of a lifetime – a vast correspondence, amounting to over seven thousand letters, mostly dating from the Thirties. They also make nonsense of her many hostile remarks about biography, which she said added a new dimension to the fear of death.

Her first biographer, Marjorie Barnard, once complained that Miles never spoke of the years away. We now have a reliable, if conservative account of her American years in Verna Coleman’s Miles Franklin in America: Her Unknown (Brilliant) Career (1981). By contrast, her years in London during World War One and in the Twenties are thinly documented. But it is already clear that, in England as in America, it was the international feminist network which nurtured her. On arrival, she worked briefly with the McMillan sisters at Deptford, and as cook at the Minerva, a residential club in Bloomsbury supported by the Despard group. Empire feminism got her into the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service in Macedonia, where she served six months in 1917 and caught malaria. There she apparently met Olive Aldridge, whose husband was the moving spirit in the National Housing and Town-Planning Council, where Franklin worked from 1919 to 1926 as an increasingly harassed secretary. During the Twenties, when she was writing the first Brent books in the British Museum and renewing links with expatriate Australians, she found stimulus and solace especially at Chalcot Gardens in the home of Lady Byles, the widow of the radical Liberal MP W.P. Byles. She remained friendly with J.A. Hobson and his family when she returned to Australia, consulting the great man, for example, on social credit. British historiographical trends have compounded the problem of tracing her London years. Apart from the Six-Point Group, Liberal feminism in England in the Twenties is still a closed book. The correspondence also shows that while Franklin deplored Imperial malaise and found British housing barbarous after America, she enjoyed an extensive cultural life in London, later writing from suburban Sydney to a friend of those days, the poet Mary Fullerton, that nothing could take that rich experience away from her.

Her reticence about her emotional life is only partly dispelled by the papers. There were young admirers at Goulburn. Accommodating love letters from her cousin Edwin Bridle written between 1905 and 1907 are carefully preserved; as are her flirtatious exchanges with the handsome Demarest Lloyd in Chicago before the First World War. But she said she destroyed other letters, perhaps those she received from William Bross Lloyd, a maverick Winnetka millionaire and married man; or from Frederick Pischel, another Chicagoan who was still on the scene in London in 1919. (A few of Pischel’s companionable letters survive.) The evidence suggests that she did not entirely renounce romance at the outset of war as she said she did. But she still thought of marriage as ‘rabbit work’; and she had moved on. Throughout her life she enjoyed numerous warm and lively friendships with both men and women.

Cultural life in Australia in the inter-war years was weakened by extensive expatriatism. Franklin was distinctive because she came home. In Drusilla Modjeska’s important study of Australian women writers from the Twenties to the Forties, Exiles at Home (1981), Miles has a chapter of her own. The full story of women’s writing in Australia has yet to be told, but when it is, Franklin will be pivotal, touching four generations. She was perhaps the first to draw attention to the tradition of women’s writing. Regretting the years she had wasted on social reform – as well she might, considering her lowly and exhausting jobs – she lamented that as a young writer she knew nothing of Catherine Helen Spence, arguably Australia’s first fine novelist.

The years away ensured that she was under no illusion about the long-term viability of imperialism. They also encouraged cultural nationalism. The American experience is obvious in her view of Australia as the last literary frontier. That she was ‘a vital spark’ from the Thirties can hardly be doubted, as she advocated writers’ organisations, indigenous publishing, and book clubs. She even proposed Netti Palmer, in some respects a rival as critic and encourager, to be the first professor of Australian literature.

In some ways the papers have rebounded on her. The impression has grown that she became increasingly hysterical in old age, an impression undoubtedly encouraged by Colin Roderick’s thoroughly unsympathetic Miles Franklin: Her Brilliant Career (1982), the only full-length biography since the release of the papers in 1966, which, thanks to the generosity of the family, is superbly illustrated. Unfortunately it lacks supporting references and is extremely uneven in coverage. It has been crossly reviewed in Australia. Those who supposed Roderick to have been a friend, since he was a custodian of the papers and subsequently a judge in the annual Miles Franklin literary award, have been astonished by his antipathy to Franklin and her beliefs.

A sympathetic perspective would note that living alone after her mother’s death in 1938, Miles Franklin responded as best she could to change, endeavouring to uphold what she called ‘our best traditions’. As she knew too well, war was bad news for women, and her only surviving nephew was destroyed by the experience of the Second World War. Ugly passions were unleashed by the Cold War. The Sydney Fellowship of Australian Writers was hijacked by communists and she was obliged to withdraw. (She indignantly rejected mere anti-communism, however, pointing out that Katharine Susannah Prichard was one of her dearest friends.) And with Chicago in mind, she opposed the post-war immigration programme, which has indeed transformed the old Australia. A more difficult revelation comes with frank expressions of what today is called racism. Mildly sympathetic to the Aboriginal cause, what she really feared was the fecundity of Asia and the Japanese in particular. It will be some time before an adequate historical context is available to interpret what now looks like a defensive position. With her roots deep in the Australian rural tradition and her experience of women’s reform movements in the New World and the Old, Miles Franklin was uniquely qualified to write about the links between nationalism, feminism and class. And this she did. Though modern feminism denies nationalism and struggles with class, Miles Franklin steadily demands that all three be examined.

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