There are times when a book creeps up on a reader, nudging itself forward, saying ‘read me’. Jill Roe’s biography of Miles Franklin is one of those books. Over the last few years I came across references to this book in many other histories that I read. Then a couple of months ago I was doing some research assistant work and had to borrow it in order to check some page numbers. I held it in my hands and realised that I must do now what I should have done a couple of years ago. I started reading.
The first three chapters tell the tale of the childhood and adolescence of a precocious girl carrying the name Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin. She grew up in country New South Wales and was first educated by a family tutor before attending one of the typical one-teacher schools that were dotted around the Australian bush at the time.
In her spare time Stella Franklin wrote. When she completed the draft for a novel the twenty-year old author forwarded a manuscript to several people asking them to read it. Stella Franklin was bold, a quality she exhibited throughout her life. One of the people to whom she sent her manuscript was the popular writer, Henry Lawson. He was taken by the book and while in England he found a publisher for it. At the young age of twenty-one Stella became renowned as the author Miles Franklin when her novel, My Brilliant Career, was released. Published in 1901 during the first year of the new nation of Australia, My Brilliant Career is now regarded as an Australian classic.
So there we have it. The highlight of Miles Franklin’s writing career, the source of much of her fame is dealt with in less than one hundred pages. Why did Jill Roe dedicate so many years to researching and writing this biography? The answer sustains the rest of the book. Miles Franklin was a dynamic, complex woman who was described by a contemporary as being “as paradoxical as a platypus”. She eschewed the path expected of women into marriage. She mixed with thinkers and activists, gravitating towards those who were making a difference in the world. She encouraged many writers and was passionate about Australian writing at a time when it was struggling to be heard. In her life we can recognise her as one of our contemporaries yet at the same time this biography is punctuated by reminders that she was definitely a woman of her times.Miles Franklin immersed herself in life, embracing opportunities for new experiences. In 1906 she arrived in San Francisco, just days after the horrendous earthquake. She eventually fell into work for the union movement in Chicago under the supervision of fellow Australian, Alice Henry, at the offices of the National Women’s Trade Union League. Their work included editing the union magazine, Life and Labor.
I was riveted by the chapters on Miles Franklin’s life in the United States. She spent long hours working intensely at the union offices but at the same time she was involved in some fascinating developments in American history. This is not what I was expecting when I first picked up the book.
Jill Roe writes, “Miles’ gift for friendship, in life as in letters, stood her in good stead.” Her gregarious nature was evident before she left Australia and was demonstrated throughout her life. In today’s parlance she would be regarded as a great networker. Australian, American and English readers will recognise many people in this book now noted for their contribution to their times.
“My Brilliant Career made Miles Franklin’s name, but not her fortune”, observes Jill Roe. Miles Franklin was never well off. Writing was squeezed in her spare time after working her day job. She had moved to England in 1915 and by the end of 1918 she was working for the National Housing and Town Planning Council. She lived frugally. Life was a struggle not only financially but in her writing as well. Miles Franklin had to face the fact that despite her concerted efforts she struggled to write a book that could live up to the expectation generated by her first.
Persistence and tenacity are the by-lines of any author of note and Miles Franklin is no exception. She just kept writing as the rejection letters rolled in. Sometimes she had her work published, but the Miles Franklin Papers now held by the Mitchell Library in Sydney contain many unpublished works.
Miles returned permanently to Australia at the end of 1932 and lived in Sydney for the rest of her life. She received a significant Australian award, the Prior Prize, for her book, All That Swagger, in 1936. Other books that were published in this latter period were My Career Goes Bung, a biography of Joseph Furphy written with Kate Baker and an overview of Australian writing, Laughter, Not for a Cage. She had earlier started a series under the pseudonym ‘Brent of Bin Bin’ which was reasonably successful.
Miles Franklin was now an elder of the Australian literary community and in this capacity encouraged aspiring writers. “Without a literature of our own we are dumb”, she asserted. “In the disturbed world of today, more than ever we need that interpretation of ourselves… which is the special function of imaginative writers.”
Her influence on Australian writing extends to this day through the Miles Franklin Award, which she instituted after her death through her will. These are the premier literary awards in Australia and as with awards of this calibre they have attracted their share of controversy. Perhaps surprisingly for awards initiated by a woman writer who was supportive of other women writers, the Miles Franklin awards have been criticised for the lack of attention given to female writers. In response to the problems of the Miles Franklin awards an award specifically for Australian women writers has been initiated, again named after her – The Stella Prize.
This book is no hagiography. Jill Roe does not shy away from mentioning some opinions of Miles Franklin regarding race that make the twenty-first century reader wince. It was at this point I became particularly conscious of the author’s voice. In the rest of the book Jill Roe does not noticeably intrude, letting Miles Franklin’s words and deeds speak for themselves. However, when discussing Miles Franklin’s attitudes on race Jill Roe neither excuses her nor avoids the issue. Miles Franklin was exceptional in many ways, but not with regards to race.
There is one word for this biography – comprehensive. Miles Franklin’s life is retold from birth to death with much in between. Roe reviews each of Franklin’s published works. She also surveys the contemporary reviews and general reception of Franklin’s books as well as noting her journalistic forays. Roe covers Franklin’s private thoughts, her domestic arrangements, her financial concerns. Was any aspect of Miles Franklin’s life not addressed?
Jill Roe has chosen a fascinating subject for her biography, one who was a prolific writer both publicly and privately. Yet piles of interesting information jostling for inclusion in a book can defeat lesser authors. Referring to Miles Franklin’s daily journals, Roe comments, “the diaries are almost overwhelming in their dailiness”. It exhausts me just thinking about the tremendous task that Jill Roe undertook researching and writing this book, yet I never felt exhausted reading the book. Jill Roe demonstrates the skills of a fine historian as she controls and interacts with the volumes of material available to her.
It is the comprehensiveness of this biography that could be seen as its weakness as well as its strength. Roe gives just as much attention to the years leading to Miles Franklin’s death as she does to her more active years. In my notes I have commented about how much I enjoyed Roe’s accounts of Miles Franklin’s domestic life in the early 1950s just three years before she died, but will other readers appreciate such detail?
Jill Roe’s biography of renowned Australian writer Miles Franklin is a thoroughly enjoyable read as well as being a fine piece of historical scholarship. It is detailed, it is long, but it gives the reader many hours of pleasure. Miles Franklin’s life is of continuing relevance to writers today. This biography needs to be widely read and discussed.
This review was written as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge. Join us in reading Miles Franklin’s work to celebrate the anniversary of her birth on 14th October. For more details read my article about Miles Franklin on the Australian Women Writers website.
My reading of this book was interrupted by reading three other books at the same time (for Indigenous Literature Week) and visiting Adelaide for a couple of conferences. During one of the breaks at the Australian Historical Association conference some of the people who were tweeting at the conference gathered together and had some photos taken of the group. Many historians were walking past taking little notice of us. Then one small, lively woman asked us what we were doing. When we told her we were taking photos she got into the spirit of things and stood ready to have her photo taken. I gladly snapped her photo. The woman was Jill Roe, the author of the book which I was in the midst of reading! It was one of those lovely, unexpected moments that life surprises us with. Jill Roe and the historian standing next to her, Brett Holman, have kindly consented to having their photo published.
More About Stella Miles Franklin
Two bloggers who I enjoy reading have reviewed this biography:
You might also be interested in these other reviews:
- Review by Hilary McPhee
- Review by Sylvia Martin, History Australia, vol. 6, no. 3 2009.
- ‘Brilliant Career of an Egalitarian Activist‘ by Nicole Moore, The Australian, 1/11/2008.
Ramona Koval interviewed Jill Roe about her biography of Miles Franklin for ‘The Book Show’ on Radio National, 20/11/2008.
And over on the Australian Women Writers blog I have written a post suggesting that we read and review the work of Miles Franklin on 14th October to recognise her birthday. There is a list of her major work at the end of the post.