|Judy Davis played Sybilla Melvyn in the 1979 film, My Brilliant Career|
When writing a short story about a family in Australia during the Great Depression, I recently found myself referencing, almost subconsciously, books I’d read in early childhood. Beatrix Potter, author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and May Gibbs, author of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie both came to mind as I related the differences between a childhood set against an English landscape to that of an Australian childhood spent in the bush. Thinking about those influences a little harder, I realised many of those early experiences of storytelling are still informing my writing now.
I didn’t notice these were female writers at the time; that came later, and when these classics were published many females wrote under male pseudonyms, even when writing specifically about and for girls. But women write differently to men and though I read many books by male writers too, the ones who really reached me were the female voices.
Returning to those women writers who set me on the path to literature and writing has been an inspiration. Miles Franklins’, My Brilliant Career, published in 1901, particularly so because it’s written by a sixteen year old girl, who understands the concerns of girls in an unashamedly chauvinistic world. Franklin’s passion and determination to become a writer, at a time when failing to conform to social mores could subject a girl to judgemental psychoanalytical assessment, has inspired feminists and women writers around the world.
Born in 1879, Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin published the story of Sybilla, trapped on her parents’ farm near Goulburn in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales and forced to choose between a conventional path of marriage and her plans for a ‘brilliant career’. Writing under her great-great grandfather’s name, Miles, but full of barely disguised biographical detail, her protagonist rebels against the dullness of women’s lives and what she describes as the degradation of marriage which to her is nothing short of unpaid drudgery.
Sybilla’s character is the embodiment of the fears, conflicts and torments of every girl and could well be the topic of magazine articles anywhere around the world today. She is plain and therefore not valuable in the marriage market. She equates ugliness with being unloved. She is rejected as abnormal because she is too outspoken. Sybilla is offered marriage to a man who admires her spirit and character but finally rejects him because she cannot have marriage and career.
|2017 winner of Stella Prize, Heather Rose|
She was just a little bush girl with first-hand experience of the struggle to make a living as a writer. Now the Miles Franklin Award is Australia’s most prestigious literary prize. Established through the will of Stella Miles Franklin, her bequest honours a novel of literary merit depicting Australian life in any of its phases.
Now a major literary prize celebrating great books by Australian women, the Stella Award, saw its first winner in 2013. Celebrating women’s contribution to Australian writing, this legacy of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin raises the profile of women’s writing, encourages a future generation of women writers and builds awareness of the work of Australian women.
Next time you fail to find that creative impulse when facing the blank computer screen, try going back to the early writers who inspired you; read their biographies and stories, and rejoice that you are not limited by low expectations, inferior education or intellectual aspersions. In this have-it-all age, when women writers can choose to combine marriage, children, travel and careers with writing, remember Sybilla and her cohorts had much narrower choices.