Learn English while learning about daily life in Australia, with Rob McCormack
Podcast Number 122 – Classic Australian Novels – My Brilliant Career
(This podcast is 13 minutes and 46 seconds long)
Australia, like other countries, has produced many fine writers of fiction. While I am not an avid reader of fiction, my interest in Australian fiction has always been for those classic writers who helped describe the unique rural life in the Australia of the 1800s and earlier parts of the 1900s. Back then, we were more a people of the rural landscape than we were of the cities and towns. Farming was the major employer, much more so than today. Today we are largely city and town dwellers who work mostly in service based industries. Back then, because of the unique and challenging nature of the Australian climate, bush and wildlife, the people who lived and worked there developed particular characteristics and approaches to life. The focus of many of our early writers and novelists was on this unique environment and how people coped with life. These writings helped us to form a view of what is unique about being Australian. While the climate and landscape are often harsh and unforgiving, I believe that Australians have adapted well to it, thus helping to mould who we are as a people.
Of particular interest to me are those Australian writers who might be described as the writers of classic Australian literature. Examples might include (among many others) Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson, Steele Rudd, Miles Franklin and Jeannie Gunn. These writers typically lived and wrote during the late 1800s up to the mid 1900s. During Melbourne’s second coronavirus lockdown, I decided to read a classic Australian novel – in this case My Brilliant Career by (Stella) Miles Franklin. In this podcast, I would like to talk a little about this famous Australian classic novel.
Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin (known as Miles Franklin) was born in October 1879 on a farming property in the Brindabella Ranges in New South Wales, about 450 km from Sydney. She wrote from an early age. In fact, by the time she was 18 years old, she had written her first novel, which she called My Brilliant Career. Henry Lawson, a famous and popular author of the day, helped her get the book published. On a trip to London, he managed to get a publisher interested and the book was published in September of 1901. It was very well received. In the years from 1906 to 1932, Miles travelled and worked in England and the United States. During that time she continued to write although with limited success. She returned to Australia to live in 1932 and continued to write, including several successful novels under a pseudonym of Brent of Bin Bin. In 1936 her second acclaimed novel titled All That Swagger was published, this time under her real name. In total in her career, she wrote 17 books. She never married and passed away at the age of 74 years in 1954. Throughout her life she had encouraged new writers and, in her will, she left a sum of money so that a new annual award and prize for Australian writers could be established, now called the Miles Franklin Literary Award. This annual award is the most important and coveted prize for writers in Australia. The prize is awarded each year to a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases. https://www.perpetual.com.au/milesfranklin. Notwithstanding the importance of this award today, it is for My Brilliant Career that Miles Franklin is best remembered and respected as one of Australia’s great classical writers.
This novel describes the early life of a single-minded and determined young girl, Sybyll, as she struggles to get through her teenage years, growing up on a rural property in country New South Wales in the 1890s. Her family is down on its luck. The father drinks too much and their life is very tough and arduous, as was the case for poor dairy farmers at that time. Sybyll wants to be a writer but can see no end to her terrible situation, locked in a life of hard and back-breaking work from dawn till dusk.
Luckily, when she is 15 years old, her mother sends her to stay with her grandmother for an extended period on another farming property, in another part of New South Wales. Life there is very comfortable and easy and Sybyll meets a well-to-do young man, Harold, from a neighbouring farming property. Their relationship develops and he eventually proposes marriage to her. Sybyll is a very strong-willed and independent young lady and, against the expectations of that time, does not want to devote her life to being a wife and mother. She says she will accept his proposal in 3 years’ time, if he, at that time, proposes once more. Soon after, he finds that he must leave the district and she fully expects that he will not return for her. Next she receives unwelcome news from her mother that her family is in debt and she must help out by going to be a governess for a farming family near her home. Unfortunately, this family’s lifestyle and living conditions are much worse than those of her own parents. Once more her life is unbearable and she struggles to cope. Eventually she becomes sick and is sent home. The last part of the novel describes what happens when Harold does eventually return to propose to her once more, after 3 years have elapsed. To the reader’s surprise, Sybyll turns him down, determined to live an independent life as a writer and there the story ends.
The book is very memorable for several reasons. First, once I had read a few pages, I could not put it down. What a great treat it is to find a book so enjoyable that you must continue reading it for hours on end. Secondly, the book is written from the perspective of a young woman, an unusual and often neglected view. We see Australia as it was back then, totally dominated by men and their role as the decision makers in all situations. You can clearly see how women had very limited choices in life – basically to get married, have children, bring them up and support their husbands – that was it. Sybyll rebels against that, and through Sybyll, so does the young Miles Franklin. Miles has been described as one of the first feminists, as she was arguing, through her main character Sybyll, that women had every right to choose a different path in life, to control their destiny and be respected as the equals of men. Third, the book paints a vivid picture of life in the Australian outback in the 1890s, its pleasures and hardships, the landscape, the climate, the family ties, the workers, the bosses, the husbands, the wives, the siblings, the extended family relationships, the good and the bad, all of which went to creating the society at that time. I found it fascinating. The language is somewhat poetic, so it can seem a little over exaggerated at times through the eyes of an Australian living in 2020, however that just makes the story telling so much more interesting for me.
I must admit I found the actions of Sybyll perplexing at times, as she is certainly a strong willed and excitable young woman. However in that sense, Miles has achieved her aim in challenging the reader to some extent. The most enduring qualities of the book, for me, are the wonderful descriptions of the land, the climate, the people and the lives they lead. I was thoroughly entertained. When a writer can do that, then they have succeeded. The book was also made into a successful film in 1979.
If you have a question or a comment to make, please leave it in the comments box at the bottom of this page. Or, you can send me an email at email@example.com. I would love to hear from you. Tell me where you live, a little bit about yourself and what you think of my Slow English podcast. I will write back to you, in English of course. If you would like to take a short quiz to see if you have understood this podcast, you will also find it on my website. Goodbye until next time.
Podcast 122 Quiz - Did you understand the podcast?
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If you got all the questions right, well done! If you got some questions wrong, don’t worry. It’s normal for language learners to take time to develop their understanding.
Question 1 of 10
True or False? – Australians in the 1890s mostly worked on farms.Correct
Question 2 of 10
True or False? – Rob is mostly interested in Australian fiction writers from the late 1900s.Correct
Question 3 of 10
True or False? – Miles Franklin and Brent of Bin Bin were the same person.Correct
Question 4 of 10
True or False? – Miles Franklin was the first winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award.Correct
Question 5 of 10
True or False? – The main character in the novel, Sybyll, was very unhappy living at home on the dairy farm.Correct
Question 6 of 10
True or False? – Sybyll was an independent young woman who wanted to do something different to that of a housewife.Correct
Question 7 of 10
True or False? – Sybyll went to work as a governess because she wanted to be a writer.Correct
Question 8 of 10
True or False? – Miles Franklin, if alive today, would most probably call herself a feminist.Correct
Question 9 of 10
True or False? – Rob thinks that the poetic language used in the novel makes the book less interesting.Correct
Question 10 of 10
True or False? – Rob thinks that this novel gives him a good idea what it was like for Australians in the outback in the 1890s.Correct
acclaimed = when everyone says it is good
adapted = to change so that you can survive
annual award = a prize that is given every year
approaches = ways of doing things
arduous = very, very hard
avid = enthusiastic, when you really like something
challenging = when something is difficult to do
characteristics = features, things which help us to identify something
classic = something of high quality, made long ago
conditions = how things are, what state they are in (e.g. good or bad)
coped = when you have been able do a job
coveted = when people like something and want it for themselves
dairy farmers = farmers who keep cows to get their milk
debt = when you owe money to someone else
destiny = what is planned for you
determined = when you really want to do something and won’t stop
district = area
dominated = (here) when one person always tells others what they can or can’t do
down on its luck = unlucky
dwellers = people who live in a place
employer = the person who gives you a job
encouraged = telling someone they should do something
enduring = long lasting
established = started
exaggerated = sounds large, bigger than normal
excitable = when someone gets easily excited
expectations = what people expect you to do
extended = made longer
extended family = your wider family. For example, you uncles, aunties, cousins, grandparents
fascinating = when something is very, very interesting
feminists = women who want to have the same freedom to decide as men
fiction = a story that is made up, not true
focus = when you pay attention to just one thing
governess = a teacher or carer of children, who lives in the home where the children live
hardships = things that make life hard
harsh = when someone or something is very difficult or unkind
landscape = how the land looks, e.g. hilly or flat, with or without trees, etc
limited success = when you are not very successful
literary merit = (here) when some writing is good
literature = stories and poems that are written down
managed = was able to
mould = shape, change
neglected = when something or someone is not looked after
notwithstanding = despite this
novelists = people who write novels or stories
particular = (here) when talking about something and excluding others
passed away = to die
perplexing = when you can’t understand something
perspective = (here) the viewpoint of
poetic = (here) when words are used with sound like they are in a poem
property = the land and the buildings on it, e.g. a farm
proposes = (here) to ask someone if they will marry you
pseudonym = when an author uses another name and not their own
published = when a book is printed many times and is sold to the public
rebels = (here) the act of ignoring the rules, not following the rules
respected = when people like what you have done
rural = areas away from the city or town
service based industries = jobs where you give services, instead of making things
siblings = brothers and/or sisters
single-minded = when you don’t change your mind, don’t change your decision
situation = how things are at a particular time
strong-willed = when you don’t give up, when you don’t change your mind
struggles = (here) when you find it very, very hard to do something
successive = following after one another
terrible = very bad
thoroughly = a lot
turns him down = says no
typically = when something is seen many times, is average, is normal
unbearable = when something is very bad and you can’t bear it any more
unforgiving = (here) when and you must not make mistakes or you will be hurt
unique = there is nothing else like it
vivid = when something is easily remembered
well received = (here) people liked it
well-to-do = from a rich family
will = (here) the instructions to say who will get your things after you die
September 2, 2021 at 10:48 pm
l understand a reader’s enjoyable feel when who find a great novel. thanks for introducing me an invaluable book. Nevertheless I guess I can’t read English novels by my English level. But l want to know what the title of the film adapted from the novel is.
September 3, 2021 at 8:58 am
Hi Dep. Thanks for your comment. The film has the same title as the book – My Brilliant Career, starring Judy Davis and Sam Neill. It’s a great film.
Have a great day.
August 24, 2020 at 10:22 am
Thanks for your recommand, Keep go on. I will do my best to learn english,.then write dwon a series of article in plain English to share intersting story .
August 24, 2020 at 11:41 am
Many thanks for your comment. Writing stories in English is a great idea.
Have fun learning English.