My Classic Club spin book – and what a joy it was re-reading this book, thank you Classic Club.
My Career Goes Bung is the sequel to Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, written in 1902 it wasn’t published until 1946. It is Franklin’s response to the fame and notoriety she received following the publication of her autobiographical novel My Brilliant Career in 1901. In her Foreword to this edition Verna Coleman explains why this second book was not published when it was first written. Miles Franklin had caused quite a stir when My Brilliant Career first appeared, Franklin was an outspoken young woman ahead of her time, an early feminist, who spoke against the accepted way of things, and she shocked her community with what appeared to be very advanced views on the position of women. Her publisher felt unable to publish this second work as several characters were just a little too recognisable as real life members of Sydney society.
The heroine of both books is Sybylla Melvyn, who like her creator, grew up on a bush station as part of the ‘squattocracy’. Life in Possum Gully is often difficult, sometimes the rains don’t come and there is no spare money for luxuries and lots of hard work to be done, writing is easily seen as a silly indulgence. Sybylla’s mother had been born into a rather better family, and has married a little beneath her, Sybylla’s father a former local politician, is not very good at business. Sybylla often incurs her mother’s irritation over her wilful ways, her writing and her outlandish opinions.
“I entered into the life of struggling incompetent selectors. The chief burden of that, for the women, was unrestricted child-bearing, and I was now a woman, as Ma reminded me, a fact which made me rebellious. Ma said I was always a wilful and contradictory imp and that during the throes of rearing me, she was frequently put to such confusion that despite I was her first and last and only child there were times when she could have cheerfully wrung my neck. Ma said most girls felt the way I did at first, but soon settled down. All girls wished that they were men.
At that I flashed out like a tornado, insulted. Never in my life had I a wish to be a man. Such a suggestion fills me with revulsion. What I raged against were the artificial restrictions.”
Sybylla entrusted her manuscript of her autobiographical novel to a famous Australian writer to whom she sent it. The book is published – unknown to Sybylla until she receives a parcel of books with her name on the front. The reaction at home is one of horror, that Sybylla should have written such things about her own young life, her home and a fledgling love affair while she was away visiting her grandmother (the story of My Brilliant Career essentially). Soon it is apparent that other people from their scattered community and the nearby town have read the book – everyone has an opinion, and it generally is not favourable. The first two of Sybylla’s unsuitable suitors rear their heads at this time, one of them a man old enough to be her grandfather and the other a middle aged man whose name is similar enough to the love interest in her book to have – he claims – caused him some embarrassment.
Invited to be a guest of Mrs Crasterton, and chaperoned around Sydney society, Sybylla leaves Possum Gully for her adventure into society. In her simple white muslin dress, cashmere stockings, wearing her hair like a school girl, Sybylla becomes an unexpected literary hit in a society that she often struggles to understand. Sybylla meets those who want to change her, those who want to court her, those who lionise her and those who criticise, but none of them had reckoned on the irrepressible Sybylla Mervyn who is already very sure of who she is. Sybylla wants to experience life, and she has no wish to be constrained by society – she is puzzled how so many of the people who have applauded her book – now seem to seek to change the young woman who wrote it.
“What puzzled me was that my first attempt was praised for its sincerity, and yet every man who wanted to marry me or to help me in my career immediately set out to change me into something entirely different. Why not in the first place seek the writings and the girls they wanted me to be like? There were plenty of them. No one would ever have heard of me had I not been different, but that difference was immediately to be erased.”
Poor Sybylla, falling victim to the society gossip columnist – who accuses her of having cotton stockings – surrounded by a succession of potential suitors, captivated by her new friend the beautifully assured society darling Edmée Actem, has no evening gown to wear. Refusing to have clothes bought for her, Sybylla does accept a pretty blue sash from Mrs Crasterton’s brother Gaddy to wear with her white muslin. Soon Sybylla will have to return to Possum Gully – and what if anything will she have learnt from Sydney society when she does?
This further story of Sybylla Mervyn is fabulously engaging, funny, and with much still to say about the gender roles of men and women and societal expectations. I enjoyed this novel every bit as much as My Brilliant Career.