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My Brilliant Careerby Miles Franklin, Sandra M. Gilbert (Introduction)
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In this ironically titled and riotous first novel by Miles Franklin, originally published in 1901, Sybylla tells the story of growing up passionate and rebellious in rural NSW. where the most that girls could hope for was to marry or to teach. Sybylla will do neither, but that doesn't stop her from falling in love, and it doesn't make the choices any easier.
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My Brilliant Career
By Miles Franklin
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2012 Miles Franklin
All rights reserved.
I Remember, I Remember
"Boo, hoo! Ow, ow; Oh! Oh! Me'll die. Boo, hoo. The pain, the pain! Boo, hoo!"
"Come, come, now. Daddy's little mate isn't going to turn Turk like that, is she? I'll put some fat out of the dinner bag on it, and tie it up in my hanky. Don't cry anymore now. Hush, you must not cry! You'll make old Dart buck if you kick up a row like that."
That is my first recollection of life. I was barely three. I can remember the majestic gum trees surrounding us, the sun glinting on their straight white trunks, and falling on the gurgling fern-banked stream, which disappeared beneath a steep, scrubby hill on our left. It was an hour past noon on a long clear summer day. We were on a distant part of the run, where my father had come to deposit salt. He had left home early in the dewy morning, carrying me in front of him on a little brown pillow which my mother had made for the purpose. We had put the lumps of rock salt in the troughs on the other side of the creek. The stringybark roof of the salt shed which protected the troughs from rain peeped out picturesquely from the musk and peppercorn shrubs by which it was densely surrounded, and was visible from where we lunched. I refilled the quart pot in which we had boiled our tea with water from the creek, Father doused our fire out with it, and then tied the quart to the D of his saddle with a piece of green hide. The green-hide bags in which the salt had been carried were hanging on the hooks of the pack saddle which encumbered the bay pack horse. Father's saddle and the brown pillow were on Dart, the big gray horse on which he generally carried me, and we were on the point of making tracks for home.
Preparatory to starting, Father was muzzling the dogs which had just finished what lunch we had left. This process, to which the dogs strongly objected, was rendered necessary by a cogent reason. Father had brought his strychnine flask with him that day, and in hopes of causing the death of a few dingoes, had put strong doses of its contents in several dead beasts which we had come across.
Whilst the dogs were being muzzled, I busied myself in plucking ferns and flowers. This disturbed a big black snake which was curled at the butt of a tree fern.
"Bitey! bitey!" I yelled, and Father came to my rescue, dispatching the reptile with his stock whip. He had been smoking, and dropped his pipe on the ferns. I picked it up, and the glowing embers which fell from it burnt my dirty little fat fists. Hence the noise with which my story commences.
In all probability it was the burning of my fingers which so indelibly impressed the incident on my infantile mind. My father was accustomed to take me with him, but that is the only jaunt at that date which I remember, and that is all I remember of it. We were twelve miles from home, but how we reached there I do not know.
My father was a swell in those days — held Bruggabrong, Bin Bin East, and Bin Bin West, which three stations totaled close to 200,000 acres. Father was admitted into swelldom merely by right of his position. His pedigree included nothing beyond a grandfather. My mother, however, was a full-fledged aristocrat. She was one of the Bossiers of Caddagat, who numbered among their ancestry one of the depraved old pirates who pillaged England with William the Conqueror.
"Dick" Melvyn was as renowned for hospitality as joviality, and our comfortable, wide-verandaed, irregularly built slab house in its sheltered nook amid the Timlinbilly Ranges was ever full to overflowing. Doctors, lawyers, squatters, commercial travelers, bankers, journalists, tourists, and men of all kinds and classes crowded our well-spread board; but seldom a female face, except Mother's, was to be seen there, Bruggabrong being a very out-of-the-way place.
I was both the terror and the amusement of the station. Old boundary riders and drovers inquire after me with interest to this day.
I knew everyone's business, and was ever in danger of publishing it at an inopportune moment.
In flowery language, selected from slang used by the station hands, and long words picked up from our visitors, I propounded unanswerable questions which brought blushes to the cheeks of even tough old wine-bibbers.
Nothing would induce me to show more respect to an appraiser of the runs than to a boundary rider, or to a clergyman than a drover. I am the same to this day. My organ of veneration must be flatter than a pancake, because to venerate a person simply for his position I never did or will. To me the Prince of Wales will be no more than a shearer, unless when I meet him he displays some personality apart from his princeship — otherwise he can go hang.
Authentic record of the date when first I had a horse to myself has not been kept, but it must have been early, as at eight I was fit to ride anything on the place. Side-saddle, man-saddle, no-saddle, or astride were all the same to me. I rode among the musterers as gamely as any of the big sunburnt bushmen.
My mother remonstrated, opined I would be a great unwomanly tomboy. My father poohed the idea.
"Let her alone, Lucy," he said, "let her alone. The rubbishing conventionalities which are the curse of her sex will bother her soon enough. Let her alone!"
So, smiling and saying, "She should have been a boy," my mother let me alone, and I rode, and in comparison to my size made as much noise with my stock whip as anyone. Accidents had no power over me, I came unscathed out of droves of them.
Fear I knew not. Did a drunken tramp happen to kick up a row, I was always the first to confront him, and, from my majestic and roly-poly height of two feet six inches, demand what he wanted.
A digging started near us and was worked by a score of two dark-browed sons of Italy. They made Mother nervous, and she averred they were not to be trusted, but I liked and trusted them. They carried me on their broad shoulders, stuffed me with lollies, and made a general pet of me. Without the quiver of a nerve I swung down their deepest shafts in the big bucket on the end of a rope attached to a rough windlass, which brought up the miners and the mullock.
My brothers and sisters contracted mumps, measles, scarlatina, and whooping cough. I rolled in the bed with them yet came off scot-free. I romped with dogs, climbed trees after birds' nests, drove the bullocks in the dray under the instructions of Ben, our bullocky, and always accompanied my father when he went swimming in the clear mountain shrub-lined stream which ran deep and lone among the weird gullies, thickly carpeted with maidenhair and numberless other species of ferns.
My mother shook her head over me and trembled for my future, but Father seemed to consider me nothing unusual. He was my hero, confidant, encyclopedia, mate, and even my religion till I was ten. Since then I have been religionless.
Richard Melvyn, you were a fine fellow in those days! A kind and indulgent parent, a chivalrous husband, a capital host, a man full of ambition and gentlemanliness.
Amid these scenes, and the refinements and pleasures of Caddagat, which lies a hundred miles or so farther Riverinawards, I spent the first years of my childhood.CHAPTER 2
An Introduction to Possum Gully
I was nearly nine summers old when my father conceived the idea that he was wasting his talents by keeping them rolled up in the small napkin of an out-of-the-way place like Bruggabrong and the Bin Bin stations. Therefore he determined to take up his residence in a locality where he would have more scope for his ability.
When giving his reason for moving to my mother, he put the matter before her thus: The price of cattle and horses had fallen so of late years that it was impossible to make much of a living by breeding them. Sheep were the only profitable article to have nowadays, and it would be impossible to run them on Bruggabrong or either of the Bin Bins. The dingoes would work havoc among them in no time, and what they left the duffers would soon dispose of. As for bringing police into the matter, it would be worse than useless. They could not run the offenders to earth, and their efforts to do so would bring down upon their employer the wrath of the duffers. Result, all the fences on the station would be fired for a dead certainty, and the destruction of more than a hundred miles of heavy log fencing on rough country like Bruggabrong was no picnic to contemplate.
This was the feasible light in which Father shaded his desire to leave. The fact of the matter was that the heartless harridan, discontent, had laid her claw-like hand upon him. His guests were ever assuring him he was buried and wasted in Timlinbilly's gullies. A man of his intelligence, coupled with his wonderful experience among stock, would, they averred, make a name and fortune for himself dealing or auctioneering if he only liked to try. Richard Melvyn began to think so too, and desired to try. He did try.
He gave up Bruggabrong, Bin Bin East, and Bin Bin West, bought Possum Gully — a small farm of one thousand acres — and brought us all to live near Goulburn. Here we arrived one autumn afternoon. Father, mother, and children packed in the buggy, myself and the one servant girl who had accompanied us, on horseback. The one man Father had retained in his service was awaiting our arrival. He had preceded us with a bullock-drayload of furniture and belongings, which was all Father had retained of his household property. Just sufficient for us to get along with, until he had time to settle and purchase more, he said. That was ten years ago, and that is the only furniture we possess yet — just enough to get along with.
My first impression of Possum Gully was bitter disappointment — an impression which time has failed to soften or wipe away.
How flat, common, and monotonous the scenery appeared after the rugged peaks of the Timlinbilly Range!
Our new house was a ten-roomed wooden structure, built on a barren hillside. Crooked, stunted gums and stringybarks, with a thick underscrub of wild cherry, hop, and hybrid wattle, clothed the spurs which ran up from the back of the detached kitchen. Away from the front of the house were flats, bearing evidence of cultivation, but a drop of water was nowhere to be seen. Later, we discovered a few round, deep, weedy waterholes down on the flat, which in rainy weather swelled to a stream which swept all before it. Possum Gully is one of the best-watered spots in the district, and in that respect has stood to its guns in the bitterest drought. Use and knowledge have taught us the full value of its fairly clear and beautifully soft water. Just then, however, coming from the mountains where every gully had its limpid creek, we turned in disgust from the idea of having to drink this water.
I felt cramped on our new run. It was only three miles wide at its broadest point. Was I always, always, always to live here, and never, never, never to go back to Bruggabrong? That was the burden of the grief with which I sobbed myself to sleep on the first night after our arrival.
Mother felt dubious of her husband's ability to make a living off a thousand acres, half of which were fit to run nothing but wallabies, but Father was full of plans, and very sanguine concerning his future. He was not going to squat henlike on his place as the cockies around him did. He meant to deal in stock, making Possum Gully merely a depot on which to run some of his bargains until reselling.
Dear, oh dear! It was terrible to think he had wasted the greater part of his life among the hills where the mail came but once a week, and where the nearest town, of 650 inhabitants, was forty-six miles distant. And the road had been impassable for vehicles. Here, only seventeen miles from a city like Goulburn, with splendid roads, mail thrice weekly, and a railway platform only eight miles away, why, man, my fortune is made! Such were the sentiments to which he gave birth out of the fullness of his hopeful heart.
Ere the diggings had broken out on Bruggabrong, our nearest neighbor, excepting, of course, boundary riders, was seventeen miles distant. Possum Gully was a thickly populated district, and here we were surrounded by homes ranging from half a mile to two and three miles away. This was a new experience for us, and it took us some time to become accustomed to the advantage and disadvantage of the situation. Did we require an article, we found it handy, but decidedly the reverse when our neighbors borrowed from us, and, in the greater percentage of cases, failed to return the loan.CHAPTER 3
A Lifeless Life
Possum Gully was stagnant — stagnant with the narrow stagnation prevalent in all old country places.
Its residents were principally married folk and children under sixteen. The boys, as they attained manhood, drifted outback to shear, drove, or to take up land. They found it too slow at home, and besides there was not room enough for them there when they passed childhood.
Nothing ever happened there. Time was no object, and the days slid quietly into the river of years, distinguished one from another by name alone. An occasional birth or death was a big event, and the biggest event of all was the advent of a new resident.
When such a thing occurred it was customary for all the male heads of families to pay a visit of inspection, to judge if the newcomers were worthy of admittance into the bosom of the society of the neighborhood. Should their report prove favorable, then their wives finished the ceremony of inauguration by paying a friendly visit.
After his arrival at Possum Gully Father was much away on business, and so on my mother fell the ordeal of receiving the callers, male and female.
The men were honest, good-natured, respectable, common bushmen farmers. Too friendly to pay a short call, they came and sat for hours, yarning about nothing in particular. This bored my gentle mother excessively. She attempted to entertain them with conversation of current literature and subjects of the day, but her efforts fell flat. She might as well have spoken in French.
They conversed for hours and hours about dairying, interspersed with pointless anecdotes of the man who had lived there before us. I found them very tame.
After graphic descriptions of life on big stations outback; and the dashing snake yarns told by our kitchen folk at Bruggabrong; and the anecdotes of African hunting, travel, and society life which had often formed our guests' subject of conversation, this endless fiddle-faddle of the price of farm produce and the state of crops was very fatuous.
Those men, like everyone else, only talked shop. I say nothing in condemnation of it, but merely point out that it did not then interest us, as we were not living in that shop just then.
Mrs. Melvyn must have found favor in the eyes of the specimens of the lords of creation resident at Possum Gully, as all the matrons of the community hastened to call on her, and vied with each other in a display of friendliness and good nature. They brought presents of poultry, jam, butter, and suchlike. They came at two o'clock and stayed till dark. They inventoried the furniture, gave Mother cookery recipes, described minutely the unsurpassable talents of each of their children, and descanted volubly upon the best way of setting turkey hens. On taking their departure they cordially invited us all to return their visits, and begged Mother to allow her children to spend a day with theirs.
We had been resident in our new quarters nearly a month when my parents received an intimation from the teacher of the public school, two miles distant, to the effect that the law demanded that they should send their children to school. It upset my mother greatly. What was she to do?
"Do! Bundle the nippers off to school as quickly as possible, of course," said my father.
My mother objected. She proposed a governess now and a good boarding school later on. She had heard such dreadful stories of public schools! It was terrible to be compelled to send her darlings to one; they would be ruined in a week!
"Not they," said Father. "Run them off for a week or two, or a month at the outside. They can't come to any harm in that time. After that we will get a governess. You are in no state of health to worry about one just now, and it is utterly impossible that I can see about the matter at present. I have several specs on foot that I must attend to. Send the youngsters to school down here for the present."
Excerpted from My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin. Copyright © 2012 Miles Franklin. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Sandra M. Gilbert teaches at the University of California, Davis.
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