All That Swagger by Miles Franklin (North Ryde, NSW: Angus & Robertson, 1984).
Today is the anniversary of the birth of Miles Franklin – 14th October. In a post for the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge I suggested that we remember Miles Franklin by doing what all authors want most and read a book written by her for the anniversary of her birth. But yesterday morning I awoke with some consternation – Miles Franklin was sensitive about her age during her lifetime and shaved off some years publicly. She would hate for the date of her birth to be remembered with precision. Never mind, I thought, I won’t disclose how many years it has been since her birth and at any rate, she has probably moved on from such concerns now!
I have just finished reading Franklin’s book, All That Swagger. I’m not a great reader of fiction and fussy about what I touch when I do read it. All That Swagger would not normally be included in my ‘To Be Read’ (TBR) pile. I chose to read it because it was Miles Franklin’s best-selling book and I have been encouraged to broaden my reading as a result of my participation in the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. All That Swagger won a major Australian literary award, the S.H. Prior Memorial Prize, in 1936 but I had never heard of it until I read Jill Roe’s biography of Miles Franklin. Would it stand the test of time?
I was absorbed from the beginning. All That Swagger is a saga about the Delacy family. Young and newly married, Danny and Johanna came to New South Wales as poor immigrants from Ireland in the 1830s. They settled in the vicinity of today’s Canberra, breeding horses and keeping cattle. I felt for Johanna’s plight, having little choice about where or how she lived, struggling to raise a family in a very basic shelter. Franklin conveys the oppression of the isolation Johanna Delacy endured and captures Johanna’s fear of the Australian bush well. She recognises Johanna’s heroism but also discloses her flaws.
The character of Danny Delacy resonated with me – a likeable but stubborn individual. To his wife’s chagrin he did not judge people according to their social standing but according to moral principles. As historians such as Penny Russell and Kirsten McKenzie have noted, to understand colonial society we need to understand the social mores, the rules of etiquette and manners, and the operation of scandal in regulating the community. Danny Delacy was not as observant of these rules as his wife, adding to the friction in his marriage already exacerbated by the loneliness and hard work his wife was subjected to.
Marriages and material objects helped established the social hierarchy. It was a great day when one Delacy household acquired a piano. “Even the bullocks had gained prestige through hauling the piano” notes Franklin wryly. The anxieties about social status that were heightened when the prospect of marriage was considered have their right place in this book, however, I took Danny Delacy’s side in all this and got rather impatient at how superficial many of these attitudes were.
Miles Franklin has much to say about marriage, but I could not go past this:
… the girls of his day did not expect the impossible in husbands: they had it. They did not quail before the impossible in life: they unconsciously achieved it.
The book is punctuated by riveting drama such as a serious fall from a horse and a house fire – incidents which may be serious today but are alleviated by emergency services being close on hand and medical advances. Another part of the story which particularly moved me was the tension between Darcy Delacy and his mother when he left home. And who could not feel sad when Danny Delacy died?
On reflection transport was a theme that burbled throughout the narrative. The horse which was the mainstay of colonial life and development gave way first to bicycles, then cars and other motorised transport. The Delacy’s had a strong emotional attachment to horses which was reflected in their business decisions. Through this book we get a glimmer of understanding about of how significant the change was to people’s lives when the horse was replaced by other modes of transport.
While this review has indicated that Miles Franklin has a lot to say about women, I would have liked to hear more. While reading the book I noted that during Johanna and Danny’s prime, Franklin rushes with the story rather than giving a deeper sense of her day to day life, particularly with young children. Johanna and Danny Delacy’s eldest daughter, Della, was regarded as an ‘old maid’. Franklin created a fascinating character in Della. As a reader I would have liked to be able to go inside Della’s head and gain a better understanding of her.
As Jill Roe notes in her biography of Miles Franklin the author was both a person of her times but in other respects her views could be seen as being unconventional for her era. On occasion the expression of how concerns about the desire to increase Australia’s population does not sit comfortably with a twenty-first century reader but this is a minor distraction. What surprised me is how she included Aboriginal people in her story. I was not expecting passages such as this (about the country between the Lachlan and Murray Rivers) to be included in a book written in 1933:
… from whence came news of desperate encounters with inhabitants who resisted invasion, or who executed summary justice upon men who upheld white prestige in desecrating black women.
The history of violent resistance of the colonisation by the indigenous inhabitants was acknowledged by this white author and must have been noticed by her many readers.
Franklin does not stop there. Danny acknowledges taking Aboriginal country and allows them access to camp and fish on his property and gives them an animal or two each year as ‘rent’. The Delacy’s adopt two Aboriginal children, one of whom Danny finds seriously burned and nurses back to health. Franklin notes about the adopted Aboriginal boy that serves the Delacy’s faithfully for the rest of his life, “[a]s many another of his race he did not fail in his trust, and has gone without medal or monument to add to the rich aura of his incalculable country.” (p. 87) Yet the words ‘tame’ and ‘pet’ to describe Aborigines reminds the reader that this book is written in the first half of the twentieth century.
This family saga spans four generations, a hundred years and thousands of square miles of Australian bush. Miles Franklin has managed it all with aplomb. This book is not only readable but at many times it is a gripping read. Remembering Miles Franklin in this way has been very enjoyable. I’m now planning what I’m going to read for the anniversary of Miles Franklin’s birth next year…
This review was written as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge. You may also be interested in reading these related reviews:
- Stella Miles Franklin, a biography by Jill Roe, reviewed by me.
- My Brilliant Career reviewed by Jessie, Lucy Graham, Writereaderly, Marilyn Brady.
- My Career Goes Bung reviewed by David Golding.
If you have written a review of a book by Miles Franklin or her biography, please let me know in the comments below so that I can add it to this list.