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Franklin, Stella Maria Sarah Miles (1879–1954)

by Henrietta Drake-Brockman

from West Australian

Writers should be read and not seen. To meet an author is too often to meet disappointment. But to meet Miles Franklin was as invigorating as to ride on a spring morning across the wide Monaro plains she so dearly loved and immortalised for the rest of Australia.

She had the most sparkling and merriest wit yet found amongst our novelists. It bubbled up in her conversation like champagne; though when she was aroused in defence of her beloved continent, or exacerbated to boiling point by "denigrating nonentities," it could scald as well.

There can never be another Miles Franklin. Hers was a sophisticated wit nurtured and conditioned by the simplicities and frustrations, no less than the courage, of pioneering days.

To her close friends the world is a colder place without her, to her myriad acquaintances scattered throughout three continents her death means a broken link; to the Commonwealth the loss of a daughter who has helped greatly to build the Australian tradition.

Fame came to Miles Franklin incredibly early. She was the literary contemporary of Henry Lawson. As a girl, she lived on her father's property, later going with her family—six brothers and sisters—to Goulburn. She longed to study music, but there was small opportunity. To ease her heart, the young girl wrote.

Henry Lawson, impressed, took that first book to London. It was published. The little station girl of 17 was hailed as a genius. My Brilliant Career was called by A. G. Stephens "the very first Australian novel."

She began a lifelong correspondence with Joseph Furphy, whose biography, in association with Kate Baker, she was to publish in 1944.

Home again after having been lionised in Sydney, disillusioned by the limitations and vanities of city life, she wrote My Career Goes Bung. Considered too "daring" for publication (it did not appear until 1946), this failure, combined with a public who persisted in thinking her first book an autobiography, to turn Miles back to music.

A few years later she went to America. She found it too late to combat early faults in musical training, but thought no more of writing.

She said she "fell among reformers"—her way of expressing years of editorial work with the National Women's Trade Union League. This was the era of Votes for Women and reform in general for the status of women.

This association led people to imagine Miles an ardent feminist, which she stoutly denied. She believed that to be an "ist" of any sort is bad for a writer.

When war broke out in 1914, rather than give up British nationality, she crossed to England. Soon she joined the famous Scottish Women's Hospital and journeyed to Serbia with her unit.

In 1923 she returned to this country on a visit to her parents, the first of several trips from Sydney to London, always via America.

At last she began to write again—but meanwhile a mystery had started.

In 1928 appeared Up the Country by a personage called Brent of Bin Bin—a sparkling, passionately Australian novel of pioneering, set to the song of the Murrumbidgee River. Ten Creeks Run and Back to Bool Bool followed.

Soon the mystery centred on Miles. Even the most casual critic could not fail to assume that these books were either enormously influenced by Miles, or Miles enormously influenced by them. Nevertheless, she protested innocence and ignorance almost (but not quite) complete.

Recently two more of this series of six have appeared—Cockatoos, but a few weeks ago. When the last is published— or perhaps, alas, now sooner—we shall discover the author.

Meanwhile Miles Franklin won the J. H. Prior Memorial Prize with All That Swagger, first published in 1936 and gone to many editions. Danny Delacy and his "Brave Johanna" live in the gallery of Australian characters along with Lawson's Mitchell, Joe Wilson and his mates, and Furphy's Tom Collins.

Miles's versatile genius wrote a thriller and a play or two, and, together with Dymphna Cusack, her wit satirised pretentious caperings in Pioneers on Parade. Little books, Sydney Royal and Old Blastus of Bandicoot are full of fun.

Laugh with Miles you must; though under the laugh will lie the ache that springs from a vision of high endeavour undaunted by circumstance or fate.

In 1950 she visited Western Australia to give the Commonwealth Literary Fund lectures at the University, shortly to be published in book form. Despite illness that then overtook her, none who listened are likely to forget.

An abiding figure in the Australian scene in her own name, should Miles add to her laurels the vital leaves of Brent of Bin Bin, she must be regarded as one of the most significant and well-beloved writers of the land.

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Citation details

Henrietta Drake-Brockman, 'Franklin, Stella Maria Sarah Miles (1879–1954)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/franklin-stella-maria-sarah-miles-6235/text25257, accessed 24 November 2014.

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