Australian teen's first novel is winning readers 90 years later; My Brilliant Career, by Miles Franklin. New York: St. Martin's Press. $9.95
"My Brilliant Career" is a novel which fits into none of the usual categories. Set in a rural Australia during the 1890s, the story derives much charm from its surroundings. Sybylla Melvyn, its first-person narrator, is a winning heroine, yet the book is far from being a "good read."
From the very beginning Sybylla promises not to bore the reader with anything as pedestrian as plot, and in the ordinary sense the novel has none. Sybylla is in her mid-teens -- self-absorbed, precocious, and trapped in her family's downward spiral of poverty. When her parents can no longer afford to feed their eldest daughter, she is taken in for a while by her wealthy grandmother. With affluence to shore up her spirits Sybylla becomes less dreamy, more spunky, and delightfully annoying.
She courts a handsome and eminently eligible young farmer just seriously enough to have the fun of refusing him, but when her parents' situation deteriorates even further she is sold "into service" as a governess to a squatter's family. She falls from a gracious country life to hardscrabble squalor in a matter of days, and only physical collapse saves her from a family whose livestock range in the house.
Both the style and the quality of Miles Franklin's writing are very uneven, which is hardly surprising since Stella Maria Miles Lampe Franklin was only 16 when she "tossed off" the novel "in a matter of weeks."
What was this extraordinary bush girl reading in the outback in 1895? There are traces of Dickens in her work and perhaps of Thomas Hardy, but she is at her most tedious when trying to imitate these masters. Strangely enough, the book is better when we hear echoes of the "heart's-ease" style of romantic fiction which was mass produced around the turn of the century to fill the imaginations of young ladies with socially convenient illusions.
In the hands of an older, more practiced writer, the "heart's-ease" influence would have turned the book into a piece of hackwork, but Miles Franklin was too young to have learned the tricks of writing badly for money. Her natural talent transforms many of these scenes from mere cake decorations to passages of insight and power.
Although she handles a romantic style with great success, she is still hopelessly untutored in the more adult emotions of love and courtship, and her first novel suffers from this lack of experienced feeling. Indeed, Sybylla spends more energy reacting against the stereotypes of love than she invests in love itself.
What Miles Franklin did understand was the drudging, inelegant poverty of the outback farm family, which can make the sensitive and gifted its first victims. The chapters in which Sybylla lives among the squatters are the best in the book.
It may seem mean spirited to be so critical of the novel of a 16-year-old farm girl, but her gift was great, and she transcended enormous obstacles of youth and isolation to produce that rare literary animal -- the work of naive genius.
After publishing "My Brilliant Career" Miles Franklin left the outback and worked as a journalist in Australia and London. She published a sequel, "My Brilliant Career Goes Bung," and later worked as an organizer for labor and socialist causes in America. During the 1930s she published a trilogy of novels dealing with pioneer life in the outback. In all she published 17 books, 12 of them novels. None of this later work is in print in America.
St. Martin's Press has reissued "My Brilliant Career" as an "Australian classic," an honor undercut by the book's cheap paper and glued binding; the volume seems to have been rushed into print to capitalize on the popularity of the recent film version of the book. Perhaps the publisher can make up for this by publishing the mature work of a great talent who died in 1954, unknown to m ost American readers.