Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 30, 2009

Stella Miles Franklin, A Biography (2008), by Jill Roe

StellaMilesFranklinRoeJ9523_fI’m not in the habit of writing fan letters, but I am very tempted to write to Jill Roe to thank her for writing this magnificent biography. Stella Miles Franklin, A Biography is not just an authoritative exploration of the life of one of my literary heroes, it’s also an intriguing read in its own right.  It’s excellent because it is so well structured, because the author’s prose is a pleasure to read and because the scholarship shines through without being heavy-handed.

Roe has not only read Franklin’s oeuvre and her voluminous correspondence, she has also read the books that Franklin enjoyed and considered memorable; she has read the most obscure of reviews about Franklin’s work, and she has the knack of using an apt comment from her sources to amplify her own analysis of events.  It is this perceptive analysis which sets this biography apart from the Margaret Olley biography which relies too much on commentary instead.

My Brilliant CareerAlmost everyone is familiar with My Brilliant Career – from the film if not from the novel – but I was intrigued to see that whereas today this book tends to be analysed in terms of gender and psychology, in Franklin’s day it was viewed through the perspectives of autobiography and class. Sybylla was rebellious and ‘unladylike’ it is true, but it was the gulf between the impoverished selectors and the squatters that lay at the heart of her rejection of Henry Beecham.  Even though she mellowed a little in her old age, Franklin was always radical in her opinions and politics, and nationalism and feminism were equally important in shaping both her professional and personal life.

Franklin’s friendship with Henry Lawson is a reminder of what The Bulletin used to be.  (It folded in 2008) In its early days it was a radical journal, definitely not the politically conservative magazine it was in my adulthood.  It was a strange mixture of nationalism and xenophobia; it was racist and anti-feminist; it was pro trade unionism and Australian independence, and it published the poetry and stories of working people such as Henry Lawson, Joseph Furphy, Vance and Nettie Palmer, and yes, Miles Franklin.  It was Lawson who helped her to achieve publication for My Brilliant Career, but he did her a disservice in promoting its author as a ‘girl’; in the end Franklin had to publish under a male nom-de-plume in order to be taken seriously as a writer.

For a long time all her subsequent efforts seemed to fail.  She dashed off another novel to Blackwoods in London with an hubristic letter about wanting to avoid the fuss when it was published, only to have it rejected out of hand.  Many of her efforts were unpublishable, no matter how hard she tried, yet she was lionised as the ‘bush girl’ author, met numerous famous people and was taken up by feminists like Rosie Scott.  (At the same time, in her early twenties, she was being nagged by Granny Lampe about being left on the shelf).  It was embarrassing to have nothing published and she began writing columns for the papers but as was common at the time these were under pseudonyms and did not ease the pressure she must have felt.   Roe suggests that journalism was really what she was better suited to, but lacking the kind of mentor she needed she kept trying to write books which no one wanted to publish.  Her patrons all thought of her as a little girl, and she was too far ahead of her time with her social commentary, especially since she was a woman.  (Roe says that female journalists have never been taken as seriously as men in this country, and I think she’s right.  There are only two that I can think of: Pamela Bone – who transformed the so-called Women’s Pages into something worth reading – and Michelle Grattan, who was the first female editor of a metropolitan daily, The Canberra Times (and published my one-and-only venture into journalism!) but is now back with The Age.)

It must have taken courage for Miles Franklin to set off alone for America.  She arrived just as the San Francisco earthquake struck which must have been a shocking experience.  (Oddly, she seems not to have written about it).  In the US she began a career in the service of progressive causes:   in Chicago with the National Women’s Trade Union League, and then in London to work in housing reform.  She also worked as some kind of nurse in Serbia during WW1, and felt an affinity with the simple people she met, because they too were ‘unlettered’ like her.  These jobs were demanding, but she had a rich social life, numerous attentive boyfriends and a network of wonderful feminist friends with whom she kept contact throughout her lifetime – and she wrote, constantly, despite countless setbacks and rejection slips.  Like many writers today in paid employment, she found that her work reduced time for writing, but she was prolific – and indefatigable.

milesfranklin_webFranklin’s great talent would not have been compromised in the way that it was, had she been able in adulthood to go to university, and she always felt this lack of education keenly.  (She would have loved the Whitlam reforms!) She needed a sympathetic editor to guide her choice of subject matter, but as Roe says she also needed to attend to her writing style which fared badly as modernism came of age.  She was mystified by Patrick White and Rex Ingamells, and she didn’t like the ‘ersatz’ Americanism of Harp in the South, and Come in Spinner .  Even when she found success writing under the pseudonym Brent of Bin-Bin she was a bit old-fashioned in style and although popular in their time these books do not, apparently, read well today.  Reading between Jill Roe’s lines it seems that of the countless novels and plays, nearly all unpublished and unpublishable, most had daft plots, stereotypical characters recycled either from life or her own romantic fantasies, and all seem deluged by her political and feminist radicalism.  Franklin wrote all the time – dashing things off to publishers and dramatists (she was keen to be a playwright) and recycling earlier efforts time and time again – but without a structured education and anyone to help her, she seems not to have learned to edit and improve her own work.  It is tragic that the ardent supporter of Australian literature as it blossomed had her talents wasted like this.

There are all sorts of interesting snippets in this biography.  Like Franklin herself, I was unimpressed to learn that in 1912 Sir George Reid, Australia’s High Commissioner in London and a former Prime Minister, had refused to meet Chicago suffragettes who wanted to know about the female vote in Australia.  (Australia was way ahead of the rest of the world; women had had the vote since since Federation, and in some states, before that).  His justification was that there was bad feeling about suffragettes in the UK, but Miles was outraged.  She wrote to Andrew Fisher, the Labor PM, wanting to know why Reid wasn’t proud of Australian progressivenes, and why wouldn’t he support equal suffrage as enshrined in our Constitution.  (About the only progressive thing in it, IMO).  She was even more unhappy that the progressiveness that had shaped the Federation years had been lost by the time she visited in 1923.

Opinionated, obsessive and dedicated to politics I don’t relate to even when I agree with her perspective (e.g. feminism in the 1930s) Franklin  nevertheless became very interesting to me through the pages of Roe’s biography.  I was amused by her wit; I liked her generosity and I admired her tenacity.  I would have liked visiting her in her old age.  Depite my reservations about Franklin’s style and themes, I found Roe’s summaries of the books tempting and I began wanting to jettison the TBR and re-read My Brilliant Career and My Career Goes Bung instead.  I find it sad that so much of Franklin’s oeuvre lies unread in the Franklin Papers at the State Library of NSW, but some at least are available at Project Gutenberg Australia.  I’d like to browse All That Swagger (1936), maybe the biography Joseph Furphy: The Legend of a Man and His Book (1944) Pioneers on Parade, the parody that she co-wrote with Dymphnia Cusack;  her survey of Australian literature Laughter, Not for a Cage (published in 1956 two years after her death), and Childhood at Brindabella.  Already I’ve been down to the Op Shop and found books by Franklin’s contempories including Katharine Susannah Pritchard’s Coonaroo and Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Helen Spence – maybe if I continue to keep an eye out for Franklin’s, I’ll find some of them as well.

Update 11/2/17 Bill at The Australian Legend has been reading and reviewing these largely forgotten books by Miles Franklin, and you can find these reviews and his other explorations of the life and career of Miles Franklin by following his Miles Franklin tag.

Franklin’s return to Australia in the 1930s and her passionate defence of Australian literature is what her prize is all about, a point sometimes missed in the annual debate.  She did not like the sexualisation of literature and would have disapproved of Breath (the winner of the 2009 Miles Franklin Award) – she said she had to keep reminding herself that young people were interested in reading about sex!  (As a ‘first-wave feminist’, (p465) she felt that modern feminism was wrong to champion sexual freedom for women because ‘sexual indulgence’ did not solve the problem of unwanted children, over-population and the impact of fecundity on women’s choices).  She probably wouldn’t have liked Voss as a winner either because she didn’t like Patrick White’s first novel, Happy Valley, but I think she’d have loved My Brother Jack by George Johnson.  I think she would have been very pleased to see that her award is Australia’s most high profile literary award – the one that serious writers want to win – because she knew the value of prizes,  not only for the financial support they offered but also for the psychological boost to the solitary writer and the affirmation that the work is valued by others.   She was a wonderful woman and I am so glad to have ‘met’ her through this biography.

There are other reviews of this fine biography but I can’t find Hilary McPhee’s incisive  ‘Spotting the Real Thing’ in the Australian Literary Review online . Brilliant Career by an Egalitarian Activist by Nicole Moore is (despite its inane and inaccurate headline) worth reading.

I haven’t read the joint winners of the 2008 National Biography Award (These Few Lines: A Convict Story – The Lost Lives of Myra and William Sykes by Graham Seal and Napoleon, 1769-1799: The Path to Power by Philip Dwyer) but they must be remarkably good to have taken precedence over Stella Miles Franklin, A Biography by Jill Roe!

Yvonne Perkins at Stumbling Through the Past was impressed too.

Author: Jill Roe
Title: Stella Miles Franklin, A Biography
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2008.
ISBN: 9780732275785 (hbk)
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings.

Fishpond Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography (pbk)


  1. Lovely review Lisa…I’ve been wanting to read this book since I saw it appear. She was a fascinating woman. I do have her letters that were published a few years ago and that I have dipped into. Reading these books does make you want to read more about the subject and era doesn’t it? I read Coonardoo in my teens/early twenties and enjoyed it, but would love to read it again. It jointly won the Bulletin prize with M Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built.


  2. Yesterday when I went to the Independent Type Exhibition at the State Library of Victoria I was a little disappointed not to find anything about Miles Franklin. She was of course, a Sydneysider, and it was about Victorian writing and publishing, but I would argue that her importance transcends state borders!
    If you want to read it again, I’ll happily lend you Coonardoo once I’ve read it:)


  3. […] you can see, TBR (#BT) is now a shadow of its former self.    Jill Roe’s superb biography, Stella Miles Franklin, is there, with a nice little children’s novel called The Princess Academy which I am […]


  4. […] Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards 2009 The Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction has gone to Wanting by Richard Flanagan and the History award has gone to Jill Roe’s Stella Miles Franklin, A Biography. […]


  5. […] Medal (for the best biographical writing on an Australian subject by a female author): Jill Roe for Stella Miles Franklin: A […]


  6. […] also ANZLitLover’s review of the book, and a review by Nicole Moore in The Australian This entry was posted in Australian […]


  7. […] ANZ LitLovers LitBlog […]


  8. […] more to it than this, I think.  I am remembering Jill Roe’s biography of Miles Franklin (see my review), in which she comments that Franklin never repeated the success of her early work because she […]


  9. […] Jill Roe’e Stella Miles Franklin: A biography (2008). This is a biography that I should read, given the importance of its subject to Australian literature and given the reputation of the biography itself. I can, though, suggest you check out Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) review. […]


  10. […] reviewed 18 of them on this blog and I have another half dozen on the TBR.  My favourite is Jill Roe’s award-winning biography Stella Miles Franklin which is a must-read for anyone wanting to know more about the woman whose name graces our most […]


  11. […] Jill Roe, Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography (2008), ANZLL Review […]


  12. […] She is best known for her comprehensive award-winning biography of Miles Franklin (see a review by Lisa, ANZLitLovers), but she wrote many books and was, among other things, a regular contributor to the […]


  13. […] considering how to use these experiences in her writing.  I resisted the temptation to investigate Jill Roe’s biography to see what she had to say about it, but I have no doubt that the author has taken liberties with […]


  14. […] Jill Roe’s biography of Miles Franklin (see my review), [..] she comments that Franklin never repeated the success of her early work because she lacked […]


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