Oh, Sybylla Melvyn! I adore you. You name is added my list of favorite literary young heroines, below Anne Shirley, Josephine March, and Elizabeth Bennett.
My Brilliant Career, published in 1901 and written by Miles Franklin when she was, unbelievably, a teenager, is a perceptive coming-of-age tale partially set on Sybylla’s father’s austere dairy farm (where life is hard and unrelenting) and partially set at her grandmother’s more patrician home, complete with luxuries completely lacking in her father’s house.
Sybylla is at turns wild, irrepressible, sharply intelligent, talented, simultaneously vain and self-critical of her looks (in that way teenagers often are), and above all unsatisfied. She longs for more, whatever it is she’s doing or experiencing. She is wonderfully exasperating, in the way impulsive teenagers often are (and apparently were, even back in 1901!).
So often, Sybylla would have an outburst at one character or another, and I would inwardly cringe and start to chastise her in my head: “Now, Sybylla, dear, did you really mean to say such things?” And sure enough, Sybylla in the book would almost immediately repent and begin to walk back her outburst.
Some wisdom we gather as we grow older, and this is the wisdom that is generally most celebrated. Certainly many of Sybylla’s scrapes or outbursts do not seem particularly steeped in wisdom. But many times I was struck by how wise Franklin was in her construction of her character – how clear-eyed and explicit she was about what it meant to be young and poor and to be faced with limited choices, especially as a woman.
In a way, Franklin captures a particular type of wisdom that, if anything, is often lost with age, not gained – the wisdom of saying exactly what’s going on, without euphemisms, tiptoeing, or metaphor.
There was a movie made of it in 1979, which was Judy Davis’ film debut, and it was directed by Gillian Armstrong (who happened to direct the 1994 Little Women). I remember enjoying the film version of My Brilliant Career a great deal, but the film couldn’t explain Sybylla’s inner thoughts well enough to satisfy a viewer and explain her choices – at least not for me. I found myself understanding her choices so much better after reading the book.
And while the film was certainly lovely, the book’s descriptions are, in my opinion at least, even better. Franklin holds nothing back in describing Australia’s sweeping views, oppressive heat, flora and fauna. Her youthful enthusiasm for her home country matches the energy of her main character, who never seems to stop moving, talking, or learning.
I just finished the book, but already I want to start it over again – a delight! But I do need to move on to other books, of course.
It is Black History Month here in the states, and it’s been my tradition for the last several years to read only books by African American writers for the month of February. I am starting with Zora Neale Hurston’s debut novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine.
I’ve also begun a novel that’s not, technically, from the 20th century: An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. I saw her speak recently at Loyola University and she was amazing, and while I’ve read her essays, I’ve yet to read her fiction. Very excited for this one!