Miles Franklin as a baby

MITCHELL LIBRARY, STATE LIBRARY OF NEW SOUTH WALES
Pages from Weigel's Journal of Fashion papered the walls of the Franklin home near Goulburn

MITCHELL LIBRARY, STATE LIBRARY OF NEW SOUTH WALES
Talbingo Homestead
MITCHELL LIBRARY, STATE LIBRARY OF NEW SOUTH WALES
A young Stella Miles Franklin
MITCHELL LIBRARY, STATE LIBRARY OF NEW SOUTH WALES
Business card of Miles Franklin, 1910-14
MITCHELL LIBRARY, STATE LIBRARY OF NEW SOUTH WALES
Miles Franklin with a Furphy water cart, 1937
MITCHELL LIBRARY, STATE LIBRARY OF NEW SOUTH WALES

Her life

Background & Childhood

MY DEAR FELLOW AUSTRALIANS,
Just a few lines to tell you that this story is all about myself – for no other purpose do I write it.

(The opening lines of My Brilliant Career, first published in 1901.)

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin was born at her grandmother’s home at Talbingo, New South Wales on 14 October 1879. The eldest of seven children, she spent the first happy years of her life at Brindabella Station. In 1889 Stella’s father moved his family near Goulburn where he thought he could earn a good living as a livestock trader. His efforts were unsuccessful; the family moved several more times, losing money with each move.

The Franklin Family, 1894; Miles is at the far left
Photo: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Despite financial hardships, Stella received just enough education to stimulate her lively mind. Ambitious, imaginative and restless, she was not yet 20 when she completed her first book, initially titled My Brilliant (?) Career. The question mark was later dropped, much to the author’s annoyance. Although the novel was rejected for publication in Australia, it was published in Britain by William Blackwood & Sons in 1901 under the name ‘Miles Franklin’.

Miles – as she was known from this point onwards – hoped to keep her gender a secret. But her mentor Henry Lawson put paid to this by announcing in the book’s introduction ‘that the story had been written by a girl’. As described in the sequel, My Career Goes Bung, the ‘girl’ was ill-prepared for her book’s reception, which ranged from neighbours taking offence at imagined insults to the gushing praise of Sydney high society.

Abroad & At Home

Following publication of My Brilliant Career, Miles met and befriended some prominent feminists, including Rose Scott and Vida Goldstein. These friendships kindled her interest in women’s suffrage and inspired her next adventure – a move to the United States in 1906. She spent nine years in Chicago working for the National Women's Trade Union League of America.

NWTUL march, Miles is second from left

MITCHELL LIBRARY, STATE LIBRARY OF NEW SOUTH WALES
In 1915, the First World War drew Miles to Europe. During the war, she worked at a series of odd jobs in London and spent a year as a cook/orderly in Macedonia. Later she worked for the National Housing and Town Planning Council, an influential social organisation. During her years abroad, Miles Franklin produced many manuscripts, but only two were published.

Miles in uniform
Photo: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Ageing parents and a yearning for ‘home’ brought Miles Franklin back to Australia in 1927. She struggled with the burden of caring for her parents as well as a lack of money, but her fortunes took a turn for the better in 1928 with the publication of Up the Country. This was the first of six books Miles published under the pseudonym ‘Brent of Bin Bin’ and she went to extraordinary lengths to keep ‘his’ true identity secret.

In 1936 Miles Franklin’s place in the literary world was confirmed with the publication of her book All That Swagger. It was hailed as an instant classic, winning the S. H. Prior Memorial Prize and restoring Miles to the forefront of Australian literature.

Literary Legacy

For the next twenty years, Miles devoted herself (as much as family demands and dwindling funds permitted) to promoting Australian literature. She won the Prior Memorial Prize again in 1939 and championed both writers who had inspired her – like Joseph Furphy – and the younger writers following her. This work culminated in a lecture series at the University of Western Australia (lectures posthumously published as Laughter, Not for a Cage) on the history and criticism of Australian literature.

Franklin’s diaries, which she kept for most of her life, hint at prolonged ill-health. Despite this, she lived to the age of 74, dying in September 1954. True to her wishes, her ashes were scattered on Jounama Creek at Talbingo where she was born.

It was only after Miles’ death that perhaps her greatest contribution to Australian literature came to light. Her will left provision for the foundation of a literary prize, originally intended to be called ‘the Franklin Award’. Its aim was the ‘advancement, improvement and betterment of Australian Literature.’

Jounama Creek, where Miles' ashes were scattered
Photo: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Miles was never wealthy; at times she struggled to make ends meet. The legacy must have meant years of scrimping and saving on her part. It is testament to her generosity that she noted in her will her hope that the prize would ease the financial burden of other authors.