by Bill Holloway
“A wallaby would have done just as well as a human being to endure the nothingness of existence as it has been known to me.”
And so, with my all-time favourite opening line, begins My Career Goes Bung, and it goes on:
This, I suppose, is why I want to tell of the only two lively things that have happened in a dull, uninteresting life. You don’t know me from a basket of gooseberries, or wouldn’t if only I had kept myself to myself, but as I didn’t I shall endure the embarrassment of bringing myself to your attention again …
The narrator of My Career Goes Bung is Sybylla Melvyn, which is also the name of the narrator of the famous My Brilliant Career, also by Miles Franklin, and so we infer that the author now regrets publishing My Brilliant Career – “if only I had kept myself to myself” – and wishes to offer an explanation. If this was the case then she was to be severely disappointed, as My Career Goes Bung, offered to publishers as The End of My Career in 1902, was rejected, the ms was lost for 40 years, then found, revised, and finally published in 1946.
Franklin wrote My Brilliant (?) Career, dashed it off in a few weeks, she says, while still a teenager, the story of a girl on a poor dairy farm, made poorer by her father’s drinking; who goes to stay on her grandmother’s station in the NSW high country; who receives and rejects a proposal of marriage from a rich, handsome squatter; who is ‘sold into slavery’ as governess to the children of a squalid neighbor to whom her father owes money; and who finally comes home to a lifetime of spinsterhood while her beautiful younger sister lives the high life at grandma’s.
The ms was offered to Angus & Robertson who rejected it, and in desperation, or a moment of inspiration, she sent it to her idol, Henry Lawson, who took it with him when he sailed for England in 1900 and was able to arrange for it to be published, without the “(?)”, by Blackwoods in Edinburgh. And so it was, some time in 1901, that Franklin, going down one day to the end of the track to get the mail found not only her first ever letter from another country, but a parcel of six books:
But they were all the same book. Each had the same picture on the cover. I had never seen so many of one book except school readers. And the title of the book was my spoof autobiography – and there was my name in print below it!!! It looked so different in print – so conspicuous somehow, that I was frightened.
The great difficulty for Franklin was that her book was both popular – ordinary Australians were not used to seeing themselves in print – and was treated as factual, not least by her neighbours. “The literalness with which My Brilliant Career was taken was a shock to one of any imagination.” And of course, although the plot was a complete invention, the characters were drawn from life, very well drawn too, and so the “literalness” was difficult to refute, and this caused her ongoing problems with her neighbours, her wider family, and with her mother in particular, who had to endure her fall in caste being made the subject of popular discussion.
Franklin’s response over the next couple of years was to pen two further ‘spoofs’ – The End of My Career and On the Outside Track – using basically the same characters, which, if published, would have provided the basis for a very post-modern discussion on the intersection of fact and fiction, with the author writing of herself as both a fictional author and the fictional subject of the fictional author’s mock autobiography. However, it was not to be, neither was published, at least at that time, and eventually Franklin refused also to allow My Brilliant Career to be republished in her lifetime, or for ten years after.
To escape the scandal, and for her family it was a scandal, Franklin went up to Sydney, initially staying with Rose Scott (1847-1925), a wealthy single woman with an adopted son (Harry, the son of her late sister) and who, with Louisa Lawson, was a founding member of the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales.
Rose Scott and Harry were probably the models for Mrs Crasterton and her son Derek in My Career Goes Bung (these and a number of other unfavourable portraits, particularly of a thinly disguised Banjo Paterson, were the main reason Franklin was unable to find a publisher. Although they also cited her excessive sexuality!). Franklin’s portrayal of Scott hardly rewarded her for her generosity:
Mrs Crasterton threw off her shawl to meet arrivals. I was abashed to be in close proximity. Her bosom was like two vast white puddings, her waist was sinfully compressed, she rocked on silly little heels, but she was as fashionable as Wheeler, the expert, could make her.
Mrs Crasterton’s silliness and vanity in her ancient lineage hardly accords with Rose Scott’s politics and philanthropy, but perhaps this is just Franklin’s well known perverse sense of humour.
My Career Goes Bung is often, wrongly, treated as a sequel to My Brilliant Career. In fact it frames the earlier book. The Sybylla of MCGB, unlike the Sybylla of MBC, is good looking, the only child of loving and responsible parents. She leads a relatively carefree life riding and flirting with the local boys and, of course, she is the author of an entirely fictitious ‘mock biography’.
When her book is read and condemned by all the locals Sybylla goes up to Sydney to stay in Mrs Crasterton’s habourside home. She visits the offices of The Bulletin and meets Norman Lindsay and starts an ‘affair’ with Australia’s “one great literary man” Goring Hardy (Banjo Paterson), visiting him in his flat, alternately inviting his attentions and rebuffing him. In Cockatoos (based on the unpublished On the Outside Track) the heroine in the same situation is kissed. She is immensely upset by this and flies to her older cousin Milly Poole in the bush to be assured she won’t get pregnant; and this fear probably also explains Sybylla’s exaggerated response to Harry (in MBC), when he kisses her and she strikes him across the face with a whip. Throughout her career as a writer Franklin is both excited and made anxious by the idea of sex and this makes for some very strange interactions between her male and female protagonists.
My Career Goes Bung is far more explicit in its feminist politics than MBC. Right from her school days Sybylla rebels against being advised to use her good looks and feminine wiles to achieve her ends, “The first foul blast from the tree of knowledge was that we weren’t to be allowed any unadulterated HUMAN merits. Sexual attractions alias WOMANLINESS was to be our stock-in-trade.” She argues with the local Catholic priest that his religion kills women by forcing them to have babies, and in Sydney, pre-1902 when women voted for the first time in a federal election, she argues in favour of the suffragists.
Eventually she returns to her parents to help on the farm and, as she has rejected every other proposal, she finally, but conditionally, rejects rich squatter Henry Beauchamp who is sure he is the model for Harry, Sybylla’s suitor and the owner of 2 Bob Downs in My Brilliant Career. “I have not quite dismissed him,” writes Sybylla, ” because only in marriage can respectable women satisfy curiosity.”
My Career Goes Bung
first pub. 1946
Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1980
see also: The Australian Legend, Miles Franklin page
Bill Holloway, the author of this review, blogs at The Australian Legend. He is an old white guy the subject of whose (very) mature age M.Litt thesis was ‘The Independent Woman in Australian Literature’.