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My Career Goes Bung (1946), 75 years on.
Sybylla Penelope Melvyn was first introduced to readers when Miles Franklin’s debut novel My Brilliant Career appeared in 1901. A sequel was written in just four weeks, in the early 1900s, under the working title ‘The End of My Career’. Jill Roe, Franklin’s biographer, describes how the first draft of Sybylla’s next excursion onto the page was ‘so drastically revised’ before it was published as My Career Goes Bung in the mid-1940s, that it was ‘a different document’. Franklin had made numerous revisions over the years, with one rewrite, completed in the 1930s, seeing Sybylla relent and marry Harold Beecham — the independent girl content to live with him on his Five Bob Downs property. There is no relinquishing of her independence in the final version of My Career Goes Bung, with Sybylla noting in the last chapter that her persistent suitor ‘has had to go to Queensland again to look after his property. It is a safe distance offering respite for the present’.
Such drastic revisions make perfect sense, by the 1940s Franklin was a woman who had spent years living in America and England. She had also been challenged and changed by conflict through her work with the union movement in Chicago, as a volunteer for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals during the First World War and her years as a secretary for the National Housing and Town Planning Council in London.
‘The End of My Career’ was delayed by rejection, again when the manuscript was lost, by Franklin’s poor health and by other writing projects. Though her work was routinely knocked back, Franklin still amassed an extraordinary output between My Brilliant Career and its sequel, including a huge catalogue of journalism, numerous plays, nine novels and a biography of Joseph Furphy. When ‘The End of My Career’, renamed My Career Goes Bung, finally appeared the cover boasted ‘author of All That Swagger’ — Franklin’s epic and award-winning family drama — rather than My Brilliant Career. On the list of works ‘by the same author’ opposite the title page, her novel-turned-instant-classic is also snubbed, with seven of Franklin’s other works listed instead.
On the book’s release in August 1946, The West Australian published a review which heaped praise on Franklin’s ‘refreshing’ protagonist and warned that: ‘Those who like novels in which the heroine conforms to all the conventional standards of womanhood won’t like this one’. Another reviewer, writing for The Age, declared there is ‘much lively humor (and some delicious satire) in this little book, an intense love of country, an intolerance of all forms of humbug and “un-Australian” attitudes’. A small hardcover, with a simple jacket design, the first edition came in at 234 pages (nearly 100 pages shorter than My Brilliant Career). The work is though, according to Roe, ‘much stronger and more amusing, in a radical period way’ than its predecessor. Indeed, the book has a vibrant mix of confidence and self-deprecating humour.
The anxious, fragile Franklin does peep through in Sybylla’s story. Most notably when Sybylla quips that: ‘It must be grand to be free to write what you like, happier still to be so self-satisfied as to like what you write’. It would be hard for readers to not like what was written in Franklin’s follow up to her first novel. Sequels are notoriously tricky things. Readers mature, their tastes evolve, and expectations often increase. Yet, there is traditionally a reluctance to see writers and their characters grow as well. Sequels should, some argue, just be more of the same — an extra set of chapters that allow us to slip back into a comfortable chair and catch up with well-loved friends.
Franklin navigated a difficult path. Decades after introducing Sybylla, Franklin’s alter-ego is just 20 years old. She is the young woman of My Brilliant Career, but as Roe suggests she is stronger.
My Career Goes Bung was widely considered to be an excellent read when it was first released. And Franklin’s glorious heroine does not disappoint — Sybylla is still as wilful, talented and funny today as she was 75 years ago.
Dr Rachel Franks, Scholarship Coordinator
Anon., ‘Autobiography of a Bush Girl’, The Age, 24 August 1946, p 25.
Franklin, Miles, My Brilliant Career, William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh, 1901.
–––, My Career Goes Bung: Purporting to be the Autobiography of Sybylla Penelope Melvyn, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1946.
J.K.E., ‘Flash-Back: Miles Franklin’s Experiment’, The West Australian, 24 August 1946, p 4.
Roe, Jill, Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2008.