Miles Franklin

Stella Maria(n) Sarah Miles Franklin (1879-1954), writer, was born on 14 October 1879 at Talbingo, New South Wales, oldest child of Susannah Helena (born Lampe) and John Maurice Franklin of Brindabella station. She was a great-granddaughter of Edward Miles, first-fleeter. Childhood at Brindabella (1963) recalls her first decade. She was educated at home and at Thornford public school after 1889, when the family moved to 'Stillwater', a small holding near Goulburn. About 1902 the Franklins shifted to Penrith, and about 1913, to Carlton, a modest southern Sydney suburb.

Downward mobility heightened Stella Franklin's pride and self-awareness. The talents of Susannah Franklin's 'dearest girlie' were fostered by the old bush culture; and, governessing near Yass in 1897, the example of Charlotte Bronte. Writing delivered independence.

Her marvellously rebellious My Brilliant Career (1901) brought instant acclaim. But, as in My Career Goes Bung (unpublished until 1946), the self-styled 'bushwacker' recoiled from rural notoriety and social-cum-sexual patronage in Sydney, where Rose Scott (q.v.) befriended her. As 'Sarah Frankling' she took up domestic service in 1903-04, seeking literary material. In Melbourne, she met the Goldsteins (q.v.Vida), who advocated Christian Science and emigration.

Without rejecting a proposal of marriage from her cousin Edwin Bridle, Franklin embarked on the Ventura for America in April 1906, intending to work as a 'Mary Ann' and publish manuscripts like Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909). She arrived in San Francisco after the earthquake with introductions to feminists from Vida Goldstein. In late 1906 she reached Chicago. Through Hull House she met Alice Henry and the dashing Margaret Dreier Robins, president of the fledgling National Women's Trade Union League of America, who employed her as personal secretary. Edwin Bridle's correspondence ceased.

By 1908 she was part-time secretary to the League. Her responsibilities increased: secretary in 1910, assistant editor of Life and Labour in 1912, co-editor 1913-14, in 1915, briefly, editor. In strenuous but exhilarating circumstances, she wrote furiously. Her health collapsed in 1912, after a trip to Europe. She redoubled her efforts, but was increasingly unsettled, partly by bright young men. The Net of Circumstance (1915) appeared under the pseudonym 'Mr & Mrs Ogniblat L'Artsau' (Austral Talbingo backwards). On Dearborn Street was not published until 1981.

War in Europe clarified some things. She finally rejected marriage ('rabbit work'), and unnerved by American chauvinism, reasserted her nationality. In conflict with Mrs Robins, she departed for England in October 1915, later resigning from the League.

In London Franklin found jobs in the feminist network while dabbling in journalism and ineffectually negotiating with publishers under male noms de plume. In June 1917 she joined the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service in Macedonia, which proved a stimulating but debilitating experience for 'Frankie Doodle', orderly. She contracted malaria and returned to London in February 1918.

Employed as secretary to the National Housing and Town Planning Council in 1919-26, she mixed in liberal circles and enjoyed Australian contacts, especially with Mary Fullerton (q.v.). She visited Australia in 1923-24 and in 1925 she completed Prelude to Waking, published in 1950. It was her first novel as 'Brent of Bin Bin'.

Imperial malaise, male madness at the office, and aging parents brought her home in 1927. Between 1928-31 Blackwoods published three of a projected nine-volume pastoral saga by 'Brent'. They were well received. Miles obsessively guarded the pseudonym. (The little mystery was unresolved until 1966). Old Blastus of Bandicoot (1931) was the first novel in her own name since 1909.

She returned to London in 1931. Home again by 1933 she completed the Brent project. P. R. Stephensen published Bring the Monkey, a whodunit (1933). In 1935 she received a silver jubilee medal. A prize-winning chronicle, splendidly characterised, All that Swagger (1936) restored her Australian reputation.

Franklin worked long and hard for that. Spanning two literary generations, strengthened by warm friendships and a vast correspondence, spurred by American parallels, she re-entered literary life with zest, deploring parochialism and pomposities (in Pioneers on Parade, with Dymphna Cusack, 1939). Her causes included Catherine Helen Spence (q.v.); Joseph Furphy (1944, in association with Kate Baker); Mary Fullerton's poetry; and an Australian book club. An underestimated, often prophetic, contribution to Australian literary history culminated in her Commonwealth Literary Fund lectures in Perth, 1950, published posthumously as Laughter, not for a Cage (1956).

Living alone in later life, Miles Franklin felt increasingly threatened by change. The dark side of Australian consciousness emerged in the late 1940s: horrified by another war, and the onset of Cold War, she endeavoured to uphold 'our best traditions'. It was an honourable position, but defensive, yet to be evaluated. Miles Franklin died on 19 September 1954 at Drummoyne. Her vision survives in the annual Miles Franklin award, her books, and her voluminous papers - a select archive of Australian culture, of which she was a proud but elusive expression: in Katharine Susannah Prichard's words 'gay, irrepressible, unique'.

Jill Roe

Vera Coleman Her Unknown (Brilliant) Career 1981.