Last Wednesday night Anna Funder won the 2012 Miles Franklin Literary Award for her first novel All That I Am. Not only does Funder’s novel focus on events that took place far from Australian shores, but Funder herself was far from Australian shores when the announcement was made. She accepted the award in a pre-recorded video message from the UK, where she’s on tour from her current home in New York.
So continues the extraordinary success Funder has found with All That I Am, which since its release last year has been bestselling, award winning and widely published.
But what I’m interested in is the novel’s unambiguous European focus in the context of Miles Franklin’s stipulation that the award she bequeathed to her nation was for a literary work which ‘must present Australian life in any of its phases’.
Here’s how Funder’s novel opens: ‘When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.’ It proceeds to tell the fictionalised stories of real people – including Dora Fabian, Ernst Toller, Ruth Blatt and Hans Wesemann – who actively resisted the Third Reich in the 1930s, before the world knew of the tragedies it was unfolding.
Ruth Blatt eventually made her way to Melbourne after escaping a German prison, which is where the teenaged Funder met her. Blatt’s courage, in particular, inspired Funder to write about her: ‘In conversation, Ruth would move from criticising Hitler to criticising our own government at the time, in a way that made it clear that when you are living through something, there are some people who can see things for what they are (whether that’s dire, or just moderately unpalatable), and will always speak out. It is this kind of courage that fascinated me, along with the moral compass that underlies it.’
As we know, Ruth Blatt was one of many thousands who fled Nazi Germany, wartime Europe and its aftermath, and ended up in Australia. And so the stories of Europe – and the world – become Australian stories, as they have done at least since 1788. Here’s how the Miles Franklin judges put it:
‘Funder’s novel calls upon its readers to bear witness to atrocities that are not remote history, but alive still as part of contemporary Australian heritage and society.’
The trustees of the Miles Franklin Award prefigured Funder’s possible win in their media release of 3 May, when they announced the shortlist (Tony Birch’s Blood, All That I Am, Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread, Frank Moorhouse’s Cold Light and Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows). There they made the following statement:
‘For the first time this year the five person judging panel were formally authorised by the Trustee to use their discretion to modernise the interpretation of Australian life beyond geographical boundaries to include mindset, language, history and values.’
So the Miles Franklin Award now honours Australian fiction bounded not by our nation’s geography but by its ‘mindset, language, history and values’. Wow. That sure opens it up (what worlds are contained in ‘mindset’, ‘values’?). And I think in the 21st century it’s about time.
In the context of this massive revisioning of what Franklin’s ‘Australian life in any of its phases’ might mean, it’s worth thinking about Franklin’s own writing life, which informed her decision to leave her money for a literary award and her stipulation that it award a novel about ‘Australian life’.
Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin
Miles Franklin began writing stories when she was 12 years old. Having left behind her beloved early childhood country – the Monaro – for Goulburn, Franklin turned her mind to creating thrilling romances like those she read in the Goulburn Evening Penny Post, where she sent her stories hoping for publication. But the editor declined to publish them, suggesting instead that Franklin focus her literary attention on her local scene. This was just the stimulus she needed.
‘The idea sprouted. Huh! I’d show just how ridiculous the life around me would be as story material, and began in sardonically humorous mood on a full-fledged novel with the jibing title My Brilliant (?) Career.’
She began My Brilliant Career on 20 September 1898, just before her 19th birthday, and finished it six months later, when she immediately posted it off to publishers Angus & Robertson in Sydney.
The urgency of its creation is evident in its exuberant pages. It’s an irreverent story told by a boisterous young girl afflicted by the need to write and a deep resistance to the idea of marriage and any other thing offered to her that might threaten her freedom: ‘Marriage to me appeared the most horribly tied-down and unfair-to-women existence going.’
Its spirited narrator, Sybylla Penelope Melvyn, also agonises over her self-perceived ugliness, which she believes makes her unfit for marriage – and alternately longs to be an ordinary girl suited for marriage and to escape from her perceived destiny in wifedom as an impoverished woman in the 19th-century Australian bush.
But above all, Sybylla remains true to her deepest desire – to write: ‘I arose from bed the next morning with three things in my head – a pair of swollen eyes, a heavy pain, and a fixed determination to write a book.’
Sybylla declares of her story: ‘This is not a romance – I have all too often faced the music of life to the tune of hardship to waste time in snivelling and gushing over fancies and dreams; neither is it a novel, but simply a yarn – a real yarn.’ She’s inspired by the bush poets: Adam Lindsay Gordon, Henry Kendall, Henry Lawson, Banjo Patterson.
‘The pleasure, so exquisite as to be almost pain, which I derived from the books, and especially the Australian bush poets, is beyond description. The weird witchery of the mighty bush, the breath of wide sunlit plains, the sound of camp-bells and jingle of hobble chains, floating on soft twilight breezes, had come to these men and had written a tale on their hearts as had been written on mine.’
My Brilliant Career first appeared in 1901, the year of Australia’s federation, and was called by the Bulletin‘s AG Stephens the ‘very first Australian novel to be published’. And yet it could not find a publisher in Australia.
Rejected by Angus & Robertson and returned to the author by the Bulletin, the manuscript soon found a local champion in Henry Lawson. After glancing over the manuscript, Lawson wrote immediately to its author: ‘I believe that you have done a big thing.’ Comparing it to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm, Lawson took Franklin’s manuscript with him when he sailed for London in April 1900. There Lawson’s agent found a home for My Brilliant Career with the noted Edinburgh publisher William Blackwood.
Although My Brilliant Career received immediate critical acclaim in Australia and England on its publication, in 1910 Franklin removed her novel from sale. She prevented it from being reprinted in her lifetime and on her death left instructions that it not be published for a further 10 years.
Why did she take such ruthless steps to suppress her own work?
Franklin had written her rebellious story of a young girl under the assumption that her authorship would remain a secret, and that her novel would not be mistaken for a teenage girl’s autobiography. On receiving Blackwood’s offer, Franklin had written to him in February 1901 outlining her conditions for publication. Among them was her specification that the ‘note of interrogation’ in the title be kept, making it My Brilliant (?) Career. She also demanded that her identity remain secret, ‘as I do not wish it to be known that I’m a young girl but desire to pose as a bald-headed seer of the sterner sex.’ Hence her use of only part of her birth name, Miles Franklin.
But Franklin’s letter with its conditions arrived in London too late to be acted upon. The novel was published without the title’s mocking question mark and Lawson revealed the author’s identity as a young girl in his preface to the book. Shocked by the literalness with which My Brilliant Career was subsequently read and dismayed by ‘the absurdity of girls from all over the continent writing to tell me that I had expressed their innermost lives and emotions’, in 1902 Franklin wrote a feisty sequel as ‘a corrective’ – My Career Goes Bung – but this wasn’t published until 1946.
Ironically for one now so associated with Australia and Australian writing, soon after My Brilliant Career was published Franklin left Australia for the United States. She settled in Chicago and spent nine years working for the National Women’s Trade Union League. She resigned from the League in 1915 and moved to London. During the First World War she worked as a volunteer in Macedonia with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service and only in 1925 did she return to writing about Australia: a proposed 9-volume pastoral saga under her new pseudonym ‘Brent of Bin Bin’.
Franklin returned to Australia in 1932 after her father’s death and devoted herself to writing – and to Australian writing and writers generally, including a biography of Joseph Furphy (1944). Her support for Australian writing continued after her death in 1954 when she left money in her will to found an award for Australian literature. The inaugural Miles Franklin Literary Award was presented to Patrick White’s Voss in 1957.
I think Franklin would be pleased to know that a novel by a woman inspired by courage and born from Australia’s connection with the wider world – one which also contains a glowing portrait of Sydney’s natural beauty – which immediately found a publisher in Australia and was then published internationally, has won the latest literary award she bequeathed to her nation almost 60 years ago.
And one day an Australian publisher might even reinstate the question mark in the title of Franklin’s first novel.