My brilliant career or my brilliant marriage
A career as a writer seemed the answer for Stella Miles. At sixteen she started writing her first novel, My Brilliant (?), in an exercise book. Apprehensive of ridicule, as the question mark in the original title demonstrates, she did not tell her family about it. Once it was completed she sent it away to Angus and Robertson, the only Australian publisher of any note at that period. Unfortunately for Miles the managing director, George Robertson, who had a wonderful nose for a saleable manuscript, was away at the time and the manuscript was sent out to a reader. Miles Franklin's prose would always be verbose; Angus and Robertson returned the manuscript with encouraging comments and some suggested changes but without an offer of publication. Their reader had advised that a great deal of editing would be required to make the novel publishable. Bearing in mind the fact that My Brilliant Career without the question mark in its title has gone into at least twenty editions worldwide, Angus and Robertson made a serious error of judgment in not helping Miles carry out the required editorial work. After this rejection, Stella Miles was brave or desperate enough to write for advice to Henry Lawson in Sydney. She was careful to sign her letter 'Miles Franklin', hoping Lawson would assume she was a man and thus (at a time when women's writing was deemed to be sloppy and romantic) take her first novel seriously. She told him she lacked the necessary money to come to Sydney and politely asked for his help.
Her stratagem worked. Henry Lawson wrote back to 'Mr Franklin, saying how much he had enjoyed 'his' work and even referring to it as 'the first great Australian novel', and asked for details of 'Mr' Franklin's career. Later, Lawson admitted that he had a suspicion the author might be female. Eventually Henry Lawson and Miles Franklin met in Sydney. Lawson, best by lack of money, deafness and a rapidly deteriorating marriage, took Miss Stella Miles Franklin home to meet his wife. Bertha Lawson had been very jealous of the interest Henry Lawson displayed before their marriage in the young Mary Gilmore. This time, however, Bertha had nothing against her husband's friendship for Miles, realising that his interest was not romantic but simply that of one writer for another. Bertha took pity on the young, inexperienced girl, and tried unsuccessfully to find Miles a local publisher. In the meantime Miles needed a paid job. Before her marriage Bertha Lawson had been a nurse, and she urged Miles to apply to the Sydney Hospital as a trainee. This would mean she could live away from home, as nursing would provide her with an occupation and some money while she waited to see if anyone would publish her first novel.
Miles was accepted by the hospital, given free board and lodging and paid a small wage as a trainee probationer nurse. Only a few weeks into her nursing course, she received terrible news. Her brother Mervyn had died of typhoid fever and her mother was prostrate with shock. Miles immediately relinquished her place on the course and returned to drought-ridden Stillwater. Linda was away at Talbingo with her grandmother, so Miles took over the housework and cared for her boisterous young brothers and baby Laurel, of whom she became extremely fond. Meanwhile Henry Lawson, who was planning to move to London, asked Miles to post him her handwritten script of My Brilliant (?) Career once he was settled there, after she had made all the alterations recommended by Angus and Robertson's reader. He also made a few more changes, including omitting the controversial question mark from the title, and wrote a glowing preface to the work, describing it as 'Australia's first real novel'. In London Henry Lawson found Miles Franklin a literary agent named J.B. Pinker, who finally sold her first novel to a leading publisher, Messrs Blackwood & Son of Edinburgh. They offered Miles a minute advance and a meagre two and half per cent royalty instead of the normal ten per cent, using the excuse that Australia would be the prime market for this first novel by an unknown writer and it was expensive to ship copies such a distance.
Convinced her book would fail if the critics, all of whom were male, knew it was written by a girl, Miles refused to sign the publishing contract as 'Miss Stella Miles Franklin'. She insisted Blackwood should use her chosen pen name, 'Miles Franklin', which derived from her maternal forebear Edward Miles. What her parents omitted to tell her was that Edward Miles had arrived in Australia as a convicted thief, transported for seven years for stealing two overcoats. In an era when convict forebears were considered shameful, Miles might conceivably have selected a different name if she had known this. The book was finally published in 1901. The influential literary critic of Edinburgh's Blackwood's Magazine loved Franklin's novel. He was perceptive enough to realise that its clever portrayal of the feelings of a sensitive teenage girl on the brink of womanhood must have been written by a female author. He compared Miles Franklin to Emily Bronte, who initially wrote her novel Wuthering Heights under the masculine name 'Ellis Bell'. Meanwhile, copies of My Brilliant Career were shipped to Australia. When Miles examined the published book she realised that the editor, nervous about bringing out such a 'precocious' novel (ie, one which was sexually challenging and anti-religious), had toned down some of her more caustic comments on marriage, which she had described as 'sexual and domestic slavery'. The comments the editor had not removed would still cause a furore when the book appeared in Australian bookshops. Miles believed that if her first novel proved a success she could become a professional writer. However, she knew that she would have to wait a long time to receive her first royalty statement.
My Brilliant Career was a remarkable book for anyone to have written, let alone a teenage girl who had left school before she turned fifteen. Even more remarkable is the fact that Stella Miles wrote much of it by candlelight after a hard day doing household chores and farm work. Miles had no idea that My Brilliant Career would cause a furore in the Franklin family and among their neighbours who, unable to differentiate between fiction and autobiography, believed she had caricatured them in her novel. Her family was mortified by her notoriety and especially by the fact that the novel dealt with the dangers of sex and syphilis, topics considered far too indelicate for ladies. Angry criticism from family members and friends hurt Miles deeply. Alone in her bedroom she wept. Even worse than the rage of her relatives were her mother's angry comments that she had been a 'vexatious' daughter from childhood onwards, that she had disgraced her family and did not deserve to be part of it. The Franklins' lowered social status and lack of money only served to make Susannah Franklin more sensitive. Her father, on the other hand found My Brilliant Career amusing and was not upset by it, even though the heroine's fictitious father was portrayed as an alcoholic.
Angriest of all were Aunt Margaret and Uncle George Franklin, for whom Miles had worked as a governess. They were convinced that in the part of the book where Sybylla Melvyn works for relatives as a governess, Miles had caricatured them as a pair of nouveau riche, bog Irish bumpkins. They believed their neighbours were laughing at them and threatened to sue Miles for damages. Aunt Margaret Franklin, who was not exactly thin, identified with Mars McSwat in Miles' novel and was furious. The fictitious Mrs McSwat weighs sixteen stone, overeating to compensate for the stress of a grizzling infant and several toddlers. She sweats away cooking a stew in a greasy iron pot. Her grubby children and slobbish husband eat together at a wooden table while pigs and fowls wander around them. To make things worse, Miles' opinions about women, that they should receive more education and delay marriage in favour of a career instead of regarding babies as their main purpose in life, were viewed as dangerous and subversive by the Anglican and roman Catholic churches. Describing her battles with clerics, Miles wrote: 'I put forward my pity for overburdened women dying before their time. I advanced cases where even the doctors said the woman would die if they had any more babies'.
Australia's clergy strenuously opposed her point of view. One cleric thundered from the pulpit: 'With common (working-class) people ... if their noses are not kept to the grindstone, rearing families, they would get up to the devil's mischief. We must populate Australia or perish and hold it safe from the Yellow Peril at our doors. Both Protestant and Catholic clergy told married women that as part of their marriage contract they had a duty to 'submit themselves unto their husbands in all things'. This was interpreted as providing sex whenever (and however) husbands demanded their 'conjugal rights'. In the eyes of the law women were mere chattels, the property of their husbands, who were also the sole owners of their children and were automatically granted custody in the rare cases of divorce. such clerical statements as those quoted above angered Miles Franklin: she would make it her lifework to refute them.
The furore over her first novel scarred Miles. For the rest of her life she would protect herself behind a series of pen names and subterfuges and become intensely secretive. Miles was still extremely thin-skinned about her novel. 'It's only a girl's story,' she claimed defensively, 'tossed off in a matter of weeks.' By now it seemed as if the entire reading population of the Monaro and Goulburn were gossiping about Miss Franklin and her shocking book. From being considered a 'nice girl', she became a social outcast. for a time she even wished she had never written My Brilliant Career. She claimed she had withdrawn her first novel from sale, but in fact it went into three further editions in Britain and Australia in the next two years. convinced that she could write a better book and by this means kill off the scandal, Miles finally issued instructions to her publisher that My Brilliant Career was not to be reprinted until after her death.
In March 1902 Miles Franklin received a letter from 'Banjo' Paterson, the famous poet and author of The Man from Snowy River. He invited her to lunch at a suitable place to take a nice young unmarried girl: the ABC teashop in Pitt Street, Sydney. Miles accepted with some misgivings, for her mother told her that he had a reputation as a womaniser. She brought to their meeting some short stories, hoping to obtain his opinion of them. Banjo (whose real name was Andrew Barton Paterson) turned out to be a tall, muscular, dark-haired man. He had just turned forty and had decided to cut down his work as a partner in a legal practice and take up the challenge of becoming a full-time writer. However, his most recent verse collection, Rio Grande's Last Race and Other Verses, had not been nearly as successful as The Man from Snowy River. He was desperately looking for new ideas and younger readers. The poet-cum-lawyer saw a lively bright-eyed girl with a curvaceous figure, wearing a trim black costume with a white collar, ankle-length skirt, a bushman's hat, worn at a jaunty angle, and carrying an umbrella. he was charmed by Miles, and they talked at length about books and writing, about horses (which they both loved) and about the Monaro, an area Paterson knew well.
Susannah Franklin had warned her daughter that, as an unmarried girl, she mist be careful not to compromise her reputation. If Banjo invited her home she must make it clear to him that she was a house-guest of rose Scott, the well-known Sydney socialite and feminist. It was only on the condition that she stayed with rose that Miles was allowed to go to Sydney. rose Scott's feminism dated from her first reading of The Taming of the Shrew, and her conviction that in this play Shakespeare was unfair to women. Along with Sydney socialites Lady Mary Windeyer and Mrs Montefiore and backed by the educationalist Maybanke Wolstenholme, rose Scott had formed the revolutionary Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales to demand votes for women. After she read My Brilliant Career she wrote to Miles inviting her to stay at her house in Sydney. 'Your book is so lifelike, I cannot disassociate you from your heroine,' she told Miles. 'Let me, my dear fellow Australian, my dear fellow woman, serve you in any way I can.
Rose Scott, who was thirty years older than Miles, owned Lynton villa at 294 Jersey road, Woollahra. Like Miles, her father was a grazier who had lost much of his money. On 19 August 1902 Miles wrote to Rose asking if she could stay with her on the night of 21 August and meet Banjo Paterson. 'Mother is in a state for fear I will come to some harm,' she said. rose Scott replied with a telegram that read: 'Welcome, welcome.' So Miles was allowed to go to Sydney and became a welcome guest at Rose's comfortable home, where she met some of Rose's feminist and literary circle of friends. Doubtless Rose also warned her young guest about he handsome poet's reputation as a womaniser. After meeting him, Miles felt that Banjo's attitude to her was patronising. She was wary of his intentions and did not want to commit herself to any form of literary partnership, as she was now working on the sequel to My Brilliant Career. They parted amicably and she was still feminine enough to be flattered by Banjo's interest in her and her writing. Two months later Banjo wrote to Miles again, asking her to help him 'liven up' a 'racing and sporting yarn' which he feared was 'rather flat'. It transpired that George Robertson of Angus and Robertson had told Banjo that clever Miss Franklin might work on the first draft of his novel and 'liven it up with a little more plot'.
Possibly prompted by Rose Scott, her new mentor, Miles wrote back asking which of their names would appear on the book's jacket if she did rewrite some of Banjo's material. Banjo replied flippantly, suggesting they could toss a coin for the honour. It was tempting to collaborate with such a well-known poet and author, but Miles feared she might become nothing but a ghost writer. perhaps rose warned her that she could end up doing most of the work while Banjo Paterson received all the credit. Banjo now proposed that Miss Franklin should accompany him to Fiji on a six-week lecture tour, something no well brought up single girl could do unchaperoned and hope to keep her reputation. Girls with damaged reputations remained old maids, her mother reminded her; she would be regarded as 'second-hand goods' and become a target for gossip and scandal if she accompanied Banjo to Fiji without a chaperone. Moles turned down Banjo's offer. At the end of August Banjo sent Miles another letter, praising her writing skills, her mind and her looks and enclosing five pounds so that she could come to Sydney and work with him on a play. by now Miles' younger sister, Linda, was married and not available to act as chaperone. To accept this invitation without a chaperone would make Miles look 'cheap', her mother maintained (by which she meant sexually available). Having upset her family by writing her book, Miles had no wish to upset them even more. Again, she did not take up Banjo's offer.
Banjo Paterson went to Fiji alone. Before he left, he made the mistake of sending Miles the manuscript Angus and Robertson wanted her to work on before she had agreed to so, and before the question of whose name would appear on the cover had been settled. His highhanded conduct annoyed Miles considerably. Linda, who was now Mrs Graham, believed Banjo Paterson was attracted to Miles and that he might return from Fiji and propose marriage. She wrote teasingly to Miles: 'When are you going to be Mrs Banjo? My word! The next generation ought to be something. Mum an Authoress and Dad a Poet.' Banjo Paterson's feelings remain a mystery. Like most men he found Miles attractive, but he needed money in order to abandon his legal practice and become a full-time writer. Miss Franklin's family were no longer prosperous members of the squattocracy but wee selectors, 'cow cockies'. A rich wife would be an asset to a writer, and Banjo was courting a squatter's daughter at the time. Was he pursuing Miles as a lover-cum-collaborator? Or was he really very attracted by her and might have proposed marriage even though she had no dowry or prospects of inheritance? Did she refuse his invitation to come to Sydney to work with him believing that rejection would make him all the keener? We shall never know the answers to these questions, as thee were no more letters between them.
Within a few months Banjo announced his engagement to Alice Walker, the daughter of a wealthy grazier who owned the prosperous Tenterfield Station with its broad acres. By Easter the following year Banjo and Alice were married and about to move into a large house in elegant Woollahra, aided by a handsome dowry from Alice's father. it seemed that rose Scott was right. The bohemian Banjo probably had planned to take advantage of her, in one way or another. Miles became even more conscious of her family's declining social status and wary of men. Another bohemian fascinated by Miss Franklin was Norman Lindsay, who was a year older than Miles. surrounded by sexually available artist's models, he too had acquired a reputation as a ladies' man. After fathering a son (Jack) by a model named Katie Parkinson, he had been forced to marry her but the shotgun marriage was breaking down. Norman Lindsay, slight, keen-eyed and a great admirer of the female form, was climbing the stairs to see J.F. Archibald, editor of The Bulletin, when he encountered Miles Franklin on her way down after visiting Archibald to discuss the sequel to her first novel. She was wearing a dress her mother had made for her which set off her curvaceous figure to perfection. with her generous bust, wasp waist, thick plait of chestnut-brown hair and snub nose, she looked younger than her seventeen years. Norman Lindsay was just as attracted to her as Banjo Paterson had been, and said as much to Archibald. The Bulletin's elderly editor reminded the artist/writer that he was a married man and should keep his hands off the presumably virginal Miss Franklin.
Years later Norman Lindsay described his first meeting with Miles Franklin in a collection of essays, Bohemians of the Bulletin. The man who would become famous as Australia's most prolific painter of nude women and a connoisseur of female beauty described the young Miles as 'very short but pleasingly plump, (in) a flowered hat and summery ankle-length frock. Her mass of dark hair reached her pert rump, which matched her pert nose. She had fine eyes, arched eyebrows and an alluring pair of lips'.