This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981
Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin (1879-1954), writer, was born on 14 October 1879 at Talbingo, New South Wales, eldest child of native-born parents John Maurice Franklin, of Brindabella station, and his wife Margaret Susannah Helena, née Lampe, who was the great-granddaughter of Edward Miles (or Moyle) who had arrived with the First Fleet in the Scarborough with a seven years sentence for theft. Childhood at Brindabella (1963) illuminates Stella's first decade amongst pioneering families of the Monaro. She was educated at home and at Thornford Public School after 1889, when her family moved to Stillwater, an unrewarding small holding near Goulburn. About 1902 the family took up unspecified farming enterprises at Cranebrook, near Penrith, and later at Chesterfield, and finally by 1915, giving up the land altogether, went to the modest south-west Sydney suburb of Carlton: her much diminished inheritance.
Downward mobility heightened Stella Franklin's pride and self-awareness, and contributed much to the making of Miles Franklin, nationalist, feminist and novelist. She readily appreciated her father's loss; shared hardships suffered especially by her more vigorous mother; and surmounted her own educational disadvantages proving thereafter an enterprising aspirant to literature. Her bush-bred talents were fostered by Charles Blyth, tutor at Brindabella, Thomas Hebblewhite of the Goulburn Evening Penny Post, and, after governessing near Yass in 1897, the example of Charlotte Brontë. Writing, rather than teaching, nursing and Edward O'Sullivan's testimonials, delivered independence.
Completed by 1899, her marvellously rebellious My Brilliant Career, rejected locally and published with the aid of Henry Lawson by William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh and London, in 1901, brought instant acclaim. The ambiguities of publication were soon impressed on an otherwise resourceless 22-year-old female. As translated into the contemporaneous My Career Goes Bung (unpublished until 1946), the self-styled 'Bushwacker' recoiled from rural notoriety and social-cum-sexual patronage in Sydney, including Banjo Paterson's sporting offer of collaboration in 1902. She struggled towards a literary niche, sheltered by the O'Sullivans and from 1902 Miss Rose Scott, who introduced her to sophisticated feminist circles. For a year in 1903-04, disguised as 'Sarah Frankling', she worked in domestic service in Sydney and Melbourne seeking literary material. In Melbourne she met Joseph Furphy, a mutual and lasting inspiration, Kate Baker and the Goldstein women who encouraged her to Christian Science and, more effectively, emigration.
Without rejecting a marriage proposal from her relative Edwin Bridle in 1905, Franklin boldly embarked in the Ventura for the United States of America on 7 April 1906, intending to work as a 'Mary Ann', and publish at least one of the three manuscripts written since 1901, maybe Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (Edinburgh, 1909), set near Penrith. She arrived to the debris of the San Francisco earthquake. Her ill-documented first months in California appear to have been determined by a shipmate nurse of Seventh Day Adventist persuasion and letters of introduction to feminists from Vida Goldstein.
Reportedly set for New York, she had traversed America as far as Chicago by late 1906. There she stayed until October 1915. Directed to Jane Addams's Hull House, she was welcomed by fellow-Australian Alice Henry, and impressed the philanthropic Margaret Dreier Robins, president of the fledgling National Women's Trade Union League of America, who in October 1907 offered her a post as personal secretary. Edwin Bridle's correspondence ceased.
Franklin's responsibilities grew steadily: in 1908 she was, unofficially, part-time secretary to the league, from 1910 secretary at a salary of $25 a week, in 1912 unofficially assistant editor to Alice Henry on its monthly journal, Life and Labor, in 1913-14 co-editor and, briefly, editor in 1915. In her limited spare time she took singing and piano lessons. Something of those dynamic years on Dearborn Street, Chicago, may be gleaned from her little-known romance, The Net of Circumstance, published in London in 1915 under her pseudonym 'Mr and Mrs Ogniblat L'Artsau'. Of feminist and biographical significance, it was her only American-based creative work to be published. Miles Franklin now had two careers, both pursued full-pelt. Her ever-worrying health collapsed in 1912, shortly after her first visit in 1911 to England and France. Then in her early thirties, she redoubled her literary and political efforts. But she was increasingly unsettled, partly by the attentions of bright young men.
Declaration of World War I in Europe clarified some things for Franklin: she finally rejected marriage, which she considered 'rabbit' work and, unnerved by American chauvinism, she reasserted her nationality. Faced by mounting ideological or personal conflict within the league, she took three months leave and sailed for England on 30 October 1915, vaguely envisaging war-work. From London she resigned, severing links with Chicago, although not her many friendships or affection for America.
Exhausted, Franklin worked briefly at Margaret McMillan's crèche at Deptford, and 'kept the wolf from the door' as a cook at the Minerva Café, High Holborn, meanwhile ineffectually negotiating under male noms de plume with publishers or dabbling in journalism. In June 1917 she joined as a voluntary worker the 'American' Unit of the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service stationed at Ostrovo, Macedonia, and commanded by Dr Agnes Bennett and Dr Mary De Garis, a stimulating but debilitating experience for 'Franky Doodle', orderly. She returned unwell to London in February 1918, apparently not enticed to stay by the possibility of a paid post as cook on a twelve month contract. An inquiry about joining the Women's Royal Air Force foreshadowed her enthusiasm for the air-based defence of Australia.
Miles Franklin remained in London another eight years, punctuated by visits to Ireland in 1919 and 1926 and Australia, via America, in 1923-24. From 1919 she was employed as secretary with the influential National Housing and Town Planning Council in Bloomsbury, until wearied with male madness at the office in 1926. She had accumulated manuscripts, including many plays, but post-war malaise in London plus renewed Australian contact and refreshing companions like the Victorians, Mary Fullerton and yarner P. S. Watson, re-ordered her literary priorities. Her transition to nativism was symbolized by the completion of Prelude to Waking in December 1925 (published 1950, but the first work under her new pseudonym, 'Brent of Bin Bin').
Family pressure, health and hope of 'Brent' brought her home in 1927, where she pursued her vocation by hiring a Hurstville hotel-room for typing, and eschewed 'tuft-hunters'. Between 1928 and 1931, Blackwoods published three of a projected nine-volume pastoral saga by 'Brent of Bin Bin'. The novels were well received and the little mystery of authorship exuberantly sustained until after her death by the author, her intimates and her publishers.
Dissatisified with home and Australian literary life by late 1930, and in pursuit of publishers, Franklin left for London via America, returning late 1932. During that time her father died (1931); her finances dipped alarmingly; and Old Blastus of Bandicoot (London, 1931) appeared under her own name, the first such since 1909. In 1933 she published a pot-boiler, Bring the Monkey and completed the six 'Brent' novels. Also the splendid, opinionated chronicle, All that Swagger, which won the S. H. Prior Memorial Prize in 1936, was published by the Bulletin and, especially through the characterization of Danny Delacey, restored her Australian name.
Franklin worked long and hard for that, despite being 'diverted by sociology' and the pains of expatriatism, as unpublished writing indicates. Ironically she returned a writer at an unsustainable zenith, to draining, uneventful domesticity at Carlton. Exulting in her native land, whilst opposing its sectarian politics (voting Social Credit in 1934), oppressive censorship and parochial pomposities, she devoted herself to an Australian literature—for which she received King George V's Silver Jubilee medal in 1935—and intellectual work. Spanning two literary generations, strengthened by knowledge of American parallels, also by the welcome of sensitive women writers and the esteem of C. Hartley Grattan, whose second tour in 1936 she helped to organize, she entered literary life with customary vigour: insofar as carefully controlled resources, a demanding mother who died in 1938 aged 88, and an expansive correspondence enabled, joining the Fellowship of Australian Writers (1933) and the Sydney P.E.N. Club (1935).
The largest hope faded first, with the demise of Percy Stephensen's publishing projects, first mooted in London in 1932. Franklin thereafter promoted her own causes: Mary Fullerton's poetry; Lawson; reminders of Joseph Furphy (1944) in painful collaboration with Kate Baker (an earlier essay on Furphy had won them the Prior Memorial prize in 1939); protection for 'the last literary frontier'; and such promising young writers as Jean Devanny, Sumner Locke Elliott, Ian Mudie, David Martin and Ric Throssell. She supported new literary journals, Meanjin and Southerly, the United Association of Women, Mary Booth's nationalistic projects, and various fellowship schemes to nurture Australian writers, including Commonwealth Literary Fund lectures (though later doubting 'the Government Stroke'). Indeed, her contributions to Australian literary history and appreciation culminated in lectures delivered at the University of Western Australia (1950), published posthumously as Laughter, Not for a Cage (1956).
The bungled Australia First Movement (1941) confused cultural nationalists. Franklin condemned the exploitative Stephensen's politics as 'silly and reactionary', and his internment in 1942. Play-readings for troops, aid to the Soviet Union and the publication of outstanding manuscripts engaged her anxious wartime energies. She endeavoured to uphold 'our best traditions', dissociated from ideology. It was a passionate partisan stand, nonetheless, defensive of an Anglo-Saxon and Celtic inheritance.
Miles Franklin openly feared death, which came with coronary occlusion on 19 September 1954 in hospital at Drummoyne. She was cremated with Anglican rites (she had been confirmed at All Saints Anglican Church, Collector, in 1894); busybodies removed relatives' wildflowers from her coffin. Her ashes were scattered on Jounama Creek, Talbingo. She left the residue of her estate, valued for probate at £8922, to found an award for Australian literature. Her vision survives in the annual Miles Franklin award (first won by Patrick White for Voss in 1957), her published work, the international screen success of My Brilliant Career (a development she anticipated for Australian novels in the 1930s), and in her voluminous papers, willed to the Mitchell Library, Sydney—a select archive of the paradoxes of Australian history and culture, of which she was a proud and challenging, but elusive, expression. She had proved 'a real hard doer', as they used to say up country.
Jill Roe, 'Franklin, Stella Maria Sarah Miles (1879–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/franklin-stella-maria-sarah-miles-6235/text10731, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 12 March 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981