Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography by Jill Roe

Cover of Stella Milses Franklin: A Biography

Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography by Jill Roe, Harper Collins, 2010.

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?

Logo for Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012Jill 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.

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An Aside

Jill Roe and Brett Holman at the Australian Historical Association conference in Adelaide, 2012.

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.

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More About Stella Miles Franklin

Two bloggers who I enjoy reading have reviewed this biography:

You might also be interested in these other reviews:

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.

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20 thoughts on “Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography by Jill Roe

  1. Fascinatiing. You have a genius for finding books that surprisingly overlap with my U.S. history background. Alice Henry was another wonderful woman.

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    • I am glad that you have read this – I was thinking of you when I wrote this review. There have been many significant connections between Australia and the United States since European settlement in Australia, eg. the movement of people after the discovery of gold in California and Victoria during the mid-nineteenth century. The less well-known connections that I have come across in my reading over the last few months attests to the depths of the connections between the two countries.

      Do you know if anyone has written a biography of Alice Henry?

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  2. Thanks for the insight! I book I have been meaning to read since I was recommended it while researching Australian military nurses. And in a similar situation I had the honour of meeting Jill Roe at the Annual History Lecture several weeks ago – a lovely lady!

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    • Miles Franklin packed so much into her life that I didn’t have space to mention that she worked for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in Macedonia during World War I. There is something for everyone in this biography!

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  3. I don’t know of a biography of Alice Henry. Someone should write one. I read her book on trade union women in grad school, but I had forgotten if I ever knew, that she was from Australia. I know her mostly as one of the remarkable group of women from the Progressive era who were addressing both gender and class. Single, radical to varying degrees, they had a real impact. In Chicago they clustered around Hull House and Jane Adams; some moved on later to Washington, D.C. and into the New Deal. Most of them shared that blind spot on race. Knowing few blacks themselves, they accepted the popular views of African inferiority.

    I just posted my review of John Maynard’s book. Thanks for suggesting it.

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  4. I’ve only just caught up with this review because I was overseas when you published it. Thank you for reminding me about a book that I really enjoyed:)
    I loved every word of this biography – it brought Miles Franklin alive for me and despite its length I’d happily read it again if I didn’t have so many other literary biographies jostling for attention on my TBR. Jill Roe has such an engaging writing style, I do hope she’s working on something/someone else …

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    • I should have asked her what she was working on when I met her! Yes, I wonder too.

      In a post on the Australian Women Writers blog I have suggested that we read/review some of Miles Franklin’s work for 14th October in recognition of the anniversary of her birth. I noticed in your review that you too were interested in reading more of her work after having read this biography. Your comment has reminded me to go to the library and borrow some of her work.

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      • Hmm. I’m snowed under with reading at the moment, but I’ll try and find a scrap of time to support you and do something too.

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      • I have downloaded My Brilliant Career on my NOOK and will plan to read it for her birthday, but i am not sure I can see anything that you Australians don’t already know. I will try to get the biography, but 700 pages is daunting.

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      • But there might be a lot that Americans and people from other countries don’t know about Miles Franklin and this book? I agree that the length of the biography does make it daunting. In fact this was the most common comment I had from people when I said I was reading it which is a shame. To do the book justice readers need to assign the kind of reading time a 700 page book needs. This is tricky in a busy life!

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  5. Pingback: Stella Miles Franklin, A Biography by Jill Roe « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  6. Pingback: My Brilliant Career, by Stella Miles Franklin. « Me, you, and books

  7. Pingback: AWW 2012 Challenge Wrap-up: Literary Awards/Classics Part 1 « Australian Women Writers Challenge

  8. Pingback: Miles Franklin | LauraMcKenna

  9. Pingback: AWW 2012 Challenge Wrap-up: Literary Awards/Classics Part 1 | New Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

  10. Pingback: The Scottish Women’s Hospitals – The American Unit | Little stories of big History

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