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Franklin, (Stella Maria Sarah) Miles

Source:
The Oxford Companion to Australian History
Author(s):

Kay Ferres

Franklin, (Stella Maria Sarah) Miles 

(1879–1954)

has been recognised primarily for her significant, and controversial, part as a writer in shaping cultural nationalism. Her influence and the controversy continue in the interpretation of the terms of her bequest—the Miles Franklin Award for Australian literature—which require that the successful novel portray some aspect of Australian life. Franklin's advocacy of Australian writing has been more often interpreted against current debates about radical nationalism than in terms of her own diverse social and political commitments.

She was born at Talbingo, NSW, and her first novel, the autobiographical My Brilliant Career, appeared in 1901. The story of a young woman's rebellion against the strictures of her life on her parents' dairy farm, her life as a pupil teacher in a bush school, and her rejection of marriage to a young squatter, the novel drew on aspects of her own life. Henry Lawson supplied a preface which praised the work lavishly while describing it, with a touch of condescension, as ‘girl's work’. The promise of the first novel was not fulfilled until All That Swagger (1936) won the S.H. Prior prize. The four novels Franklin published as ‘Brent of Bin Bin’, and the considerable energy she expended on the secret of the pseudonym, have diverted attention from her social commentary. Her critical works include a biography of Joseph Furphy (1944), written with Kate Baker, and her lectures on Australian writing, Laughter, Not for a Cage (1956), which promoted the works of Furphy and Brent as it sketched the contours of an ‘Australian’ literature. That collection and her correspondence reveal a more complex engagement with social change and politics than a narrowly conceived nationalism can accommodate.

In 1905, through affiliations with feminists Rose Scott and Vida Goldstein, Franklin went to Chicago where she worked with the Women's Trade Union League and plunged into the politics of labour reform. With Alice Henry, she co-edited Life and Labour, a journal for women workers, whose industrial and intellectual interests she addressed through her own contributions, and stories from writers like Elizabeth Robins and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Franklin's Chicago experience, described by Verna Coleman in Her Unknown (Brilliant) Career (1981) and Drusilla Modjeska in Exiles at Home (1981), left its literary traces in The Net of Circumstance (1915) and On Dearborn Street (1981).

After the collaboration with Henry broke down, Franklin moved to London in 1915. There she established a similar labour and feminist network, working in housing and urban reform movements. She waitressed at the Women's Freedom League's Minerva Café, and worked at Margaret McMillan's school for working-class children in Deptford. Among her friends there were Margaret Hodge and Harriet Newcomb, who had run a progressive school in Sydney. Franklin's friendship with the poet Mary Fullerton was also established in this period. Franklin acted as an agent for Fullerton's work and Fullerton reciprocated, acting as an intermediary for ‘Brent of Bin Bin’.

Franklin returned to Australia permanently in 1932. A voluminous correspondence, collected by Jill Roe in My Congenials (1993), records the continuation of her American and English friendships. She also found a place in Australian literary and political life. She was active in the Fellowship of Australian Writers and kept in contact with an influential circle of women writers. These exchanges are reconstructed in Carole Ferrier's As Good as a Yarn With You (1992). They reveal racial prejudices and an apparent sexual conservatism that should be scrutinised rather than dismissed.

Miles Franklin's reputation has largely been left to literary critics. The comment by her biographer Marjorie Barnard in 1967 that Franklin's writing is indivisible from her living has been the measure of critical response. Franklin's endorsement of cultural nationalism produced a backlash from modernist critics who cringed at her shrill, even mindless, radicalism; others romanticise her interest in Australia and the bush as an expression of nostalgia. Feminist critics sought to retrieve her reputation by situating her work more critically within the nationalist tradition, or within a broader tradition of women's writing. An alternative account might specify the wider contexts of Franklin's work: attending to the political affiliations and personal associations which sustained it and to her own critical understanding of the role of literature in constructing ‘Australian’ experience.

Kay Ferres