Miles Franklin is a central figure in Australia’s literary landscape.
Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin was born on 14 October 1879 at Old Talbingo Homestead, near Tumut, New South Wales, the home of her maternal grandmother, Sarah Lampe. One of the greatest Australian writers of the twentieth century, ‘Miles’ commemorated Edward Miles, an illiterate ancestor who had arrived in Sydney as a convict in 1788.
Jill Roe, one of Franklin's biographers, describes Franklin's mother Susannah (born 1850) as ‘a well-regulated and rather humourless person’ and her father John (born 1848) as a ‘native-born bushman [with] a touch of poetry in his make-up’. The family lived at Brindabella station in a valley on the western edge of present-day Canberra, 110 kilometres along treacherous mountain tracks from Talbingo. Stella — as she was always known to those closest to her — was their first child but soon joined by a sister. Eventually the family grew to seven children.
Stella was educated by a private tutor, Charles Blyth, who thought highly of her abilities and found in the young Franklin the conventional reward of teachers: ‘the responsive student’. It was a happy childhood in an idyllic setting, though Stella was aware of how her mother’s life was circumscribed by domesticity.
"I have never seen a like combination of courage, industry and organizing ability – (wasted)."
Miles Franklin writing about her mother in her diary, 13 June 1939.
Franklin returned to Talbingo several times during her childhood. There, surrounded by her grandmother and a number of aunts and uncles, she was treated as a ‘pet and a prodigy’. Throughout her long life Talbingo remained synonymous with unconditional love and security.
In May 1889 the Franklin family moved to a property that Susannah Franklin named Stillwater. It was near Bangalore, a railway stop about thirty minutes from Goulburn. This move would prove to be an economic failure. Stella went to the newly opened Thornford Public School and was encouraged in her writing by her teacher, Mary Gillespie, who would become a long-term supporter of Franklin. Tom Hebblewhite, editor of the local newspaper, the Goulburn Evening Penny Post, was another early supporter of the young Franklin.
Franklin’s first known literary effort, a verse entitled ‘Man’s a Fool’, was written when she was eight. At the age of sixteen, Franklin’s first known publication, an account of her school picnic, appeared in Hebblewhite’s newspaper (though some articles which appeared earlier may have been written by her). In 1896, Franklin wrote several short pieces including two that she signed ‘S.M.S. Miles Franklin’, the first time she used the name ‘Miles Franklin’ that would become such a significant thread of Australia’s literary fabric.
My Brilliant(?) Career
"Nothing great has been attempted, merely a few pictures of Australian life … There will be no mistakes in geography, scenery or climate as I write from fact not fancy. The heroine, who tells the story, is a study from life and illustrates the misery of being born out of one’s sphere."
Letter from ‘S.M.S. Miles Franklin’ to publishers Angus & Robertson, 30 March 1899
Franklin gave an early version of what would become her best-known novel to Hebblewhite, who offered a constructive and enthusiastic assessment. On 20 September 1898, just a few weeks short of her 19th birthday, Franklin began afresh, completing her manuscript by March 1899. A number of rejections followed and, in desperation, in November 1899 she approached Henry Lawson, whom she only knew from his poetry.
Lawson was very impressed with the manuscript and he arranged publication in Britain. My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (her preferred name for publication) appeared in April 1901 and reached Australia in September. Franklin was upset that the question mark in her title — My Brilliant(?) Career — had been omitted, that her language had been toned down and that Lawson who wrote an introduction to the novel, had revealed that the author was a woman. When the book reached Australia, Franklin ensured that Hebblewhite received a copy (and, when the book was lost years later, she replaced it for him ‘with remembrance from his pupil Miles Franklin’).
"It is the very first Australian novel to be published ... Her book is a warm embodiment of Australian life, as tonic as bush air, as aromatic as bush trees, and as clear and honest as bush sunlight."
A. G. Stephens, Bulletin, 28 September 1901