Monday, October 14, 2019

Couldn’t you get married now?

‘Washing up after tea Jack [Franklin] expressed his regret that I was unmarried. “Oh, Auntie, such a pity you are wasted. You would make such a splendid wife. Look at the way you make cakes, and iron Dad’s shirts, and the way you can shop and cook! Couldn’t you get married now?” ’ This is from the diary of Australian writer, Miles Franklin, born 140 years ago today. She remains much revered for her novel My Brilliant Career as well as for her encouragement of other early Australian writers.

Franklin was born at Talbingo, New South Wales, on 14 October 1879, the eldest child of Australian-born parents. She grew grew up on a property called the Brindabella Station (in the Brindabella Valley) where livestock was reared on crown land (squatting - without legal rights, though they rights come in time through usage). She was educated at home, and then at Thornford Public, where she was encouraged in her writing, not least by the editor of the local newspaper. While still a teenager, she wrote a romance to amuse her friends, but then sent it to the Australian writer, Henry Lawson. He wrote a preface and submitted it to his own publisher in Edinburgh. My Brilliant Career was published in 1901, and became an immediate success. However, Franklin became distressed because the public saw similarities with characters from her own family. She withdraw the novel from further publication, and it was not reissued until after her death. A sequel, My Career Goes Bung, she had written around the same time, was not published until 1946.

Franklin turned to other ways to earn a living, nursing and being a housemaid. In 1906, she moved to the US, where she undertook secretarial work 
in Chicago for Alice Henry, also an Australian, at the National Women’s Trade Union League. She also co-edited the organisation’s journal. While in the US, she wrote On Dearborn Street (not published until after her death) and Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909). She suffered regularly from ill health, and spent time in a sanatorium. In 1915, she moved again, this time to England, where she worked as a cook and freelance journalist. During the latter stages of the Great War, she served in the Balkans as a cook and orderly for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. From 1919 to 1926, she worked with the National Housing and Town Planning Association in London. She organised a women's international housing convention in 1924.

Franklin returned to Australia in 1927, where she published several historical novels under a pseudonym, though one - All That Swagger - was published under her own name in 1936. However, she again felt dissatisfied with home and Australian literary life and so returned to London, via the US, in pursuit of publishers. She was back in Australia in 1932, after her father died. She joined the Fellowship of Australian Writers in 1933 and the Sydney P.E.N. Club in 1935, and became an active campaigner for Australian literature, encouraging young writers, and supporting literary journals. She never married, and died in 1954. She left a bequest to establish a literary prize - the Miles Franklin Award - which was first won by Patrick White in 1957. Further information is available online at Australian Dictionary of Biography, State Library (New South Wales) or Wikipedia.

Franklin left behind a large hoard of autobiographical written material, diaries and notebooks, held by the State Library, New South Wales. The library lists its Franklin holdings as follows: pocket diaries, 1909-1954; literary notebooks, 1934-ca.1948;  diaries, 1926-1954; and miscellaneous notebooks, [ca. 1850-1954?]. It has also made available online images of more than 300 or so pages from one of Franklin’s pocket diaries (1917-1918). In 2018, Franklin’s last ever diary - which had been thought lost - was found in an old suitcase, and donated to the State Library; see The Age for more on this. The article includes Franklin’s last ever diary entry, on 16 September 1954: ‘Went to Eastwood by ambulance to be X-rayed. Ordeal too much for me. Day of distress and twitching. Returned to bed’.

In 2004, Allen & Unwin, in association with the State Library, published The Diaries of Miles Franklin as edited by Paul Brunton. According to Brunton, none of Franklin’s material, with the exception of the pocket diaries, is strictly chronological. He says he selected diary entries from all the different sources and placed them in one chronological sequence (though each one is given a precise citation at the back of the book). Some pages can be read online at Googlebooks. An interesting academic essay on Franklin and her diaries by Sandra Knowles can be accessed via the Sydney University Open Journals website. Knowles finds Franklin’s diaries more authored and less revealing than Brunton’s commentary suggests: ‘This essay,’ she says, ‘argues that Franklin’s diaries are a performance of privacy and authenticity, through a consideration of her diary audience. Her diaries do not reveal an artificial Franklin, but rather challenge the notion that diaries produce authentic representations of their diarists.’

Here are several extracts from Brunton’s book.

31 August 1935
‘Mother particularly cross, & needing to be endured and humored. Went to door at 11 a.m. and there were Ed & Maggie [Bridle] come to spend day. Glad to see them especially Maggie - but there goes my day. And on Saturday afternoon after I have finished charing the house and polishing the floors I find myself stiff with fatigue. When I wash the dirt from me I lie down for an hour in the afternoon as then Mother seems appeased for a while by the sacrifice of me to charing - but here went my respite . . . Nor & Jack [Norman and Jack Franklin] went to movies and kept me awake till 12.05 a.m. By that time I was so nervous & weary I couldn’t sleep at all and had to arise early to get Norman’s breakfast.’

20 December 1936
‘We called on Miss G [Gillespie] on the way home. Washing up after tea Jack [Franklin] expressed his regret that I was unmarried. “Oh, Auntie, such a pity you are wasted. You would make such a splendid wife. Look at the wav you make cakes, and iron Dad’s shirts, and the way you can shop and cook! Couldn’t you get married now?”

“I’m too old.”

“That oughtn’t to be against you. You could keep house well, and write books in your spare time. I’d marry you, only you are my relation.”

“Consanguinity as well as age spoils my chances,” said I, smothering a grin. The dear youngster was the general as well as the particular Australian male. Write books in my spare time. People 3 & 4 times his age have no more understanding of writing & its demands upon the writer.’

12 January 1938
‘Hot day. Mother spiteful. Norman morose. Ivy A. [Abrahams] in tears. I took Lily to town & did chores: typewriter, looking for washer for Mother etc. Life Hell - can’t write, nothing to hope for - even death has ceased to be a refuge.’

6 September 1943
‘And I am left alone in the desolation of my family graves. Anguish, desolation, nostalgia. It is sad beyond endurance to return to old scenes, but when the scene is empty the arena cold . . .

Each death in my circle, and particularly the going of those who have known or shared my childhood, drenches me with chill terror of the emptiness of this strange isolated land. It is as if I felt the tremors of the first exiles. We took it from the Aborigines. We do not yet possess it spiritually. We destroy, deface, insult, misunderstand it - whack it - but it resists. In the shock of bereavement - the thinning of family support - I see a dark spirit running over the land, a spirit akin to a sardonic smile, with the same mockery that is in the laugh of the kookaburra - that laugh which is loud, robust, hilarious, but aches with a mystery so baffling that it is tragic. That dark smile that runs over the land as if all the nostalgia of oblivion lay there unquenched and unforgiving.

I must not again go alone. The gone-awayness is too sapping. The sunlight caresses the gravestones and the wind sweeping over them intones the very essence of that oblivion from which we came and to which we go.’

12 June 1951
‘Early morning temperature still 2 points below normal. Grey, drizzling mild day again. I telephoned May - Leslie still in bed, poor girl. I began to go over ‘Ten Creeks’ finally for the printer. Solitary confinement - it takes willpower to suffer it without depression.’

1 July 1951
‘Showery day again. Big fire all day. Returned to essay but the discomfort of cold and chilblains kept me from accomplishing any but a page or two. Solitary confinement all day, not even a telephone call in or out.’

22 July 1951
‘Cold day - soon greyed over. I stuck close to essay - didn’t even read paper. At 4 p.m. washed my head, then washed floor & lavatory. Must have been too much. I suddenly had to feel sick so lay on bed till 7. Took no tea. Listened to radio & went to bed. Lit fire at 9.30 a.m. Solitary confinement all day. One telephone call - did not answer it.’

12 September 1951
‘Fine day again, didn’t even take Mrs Morgan’s chicks the greens. Went to butcher, so fatigued I find my stuff is full of repetition & disjointed - a rough draft really and I ache so I can’t straighten my shoulders. Wanted to get to bed by 9 but Mrs Fogden came in & wasted 40 minutes, then jean telephoned & now it is 9.30. Too tired to go for bread so took some of that Mrs A threw over for the chooks.’

8 October 1951
‘Cold cloudy day. Very tired. Pottered. Cut down another limb off the loquat tree, etc. etc. Totally alone all day, not even a wrong number on the telephone. Read some more of ‘Kon-Tiki’. Such a decent book. Perishing - had the heater again in the evening.’

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