Born: 14 October, 1879 – Talbingo, Australia
Died: 19 September, 1954 – drummoyne, Australia
Known as: one of Australia's most beloved authors and feminists
Like many female authors of decades past, the author we know as Miles Franklin was not born with that name. Instead, Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin opted to write under her two surnames to hide her gender in a male-centric publishing world.
Born in the Australian outback in 1879, Stella was raised on a literary diet of the English classics, fuelling a passion for the written word. Her father’s work as a farmer inspired her love of Australia and gave her a fiercely nationalist view – in her mind, there was nothing quite as beautiful as Australia, and nothing so unique as the Australian voice. When she began writing the novel which would make her a household name, it was with this in mind. My Brilliant Career, written while Stella was still a teenager, was a romance purely created to amuse her friends, but within it lingered the themes Stella would eventually receive wild acclaim for: rural Australia, socialist values, feminism, and a passionate adoration for her mother country. She wrote by candlelight after completing farm chores; she had no formal secondary education, but she had an innate talent for writing.
My Brilliant Career was initially rejected by Angus & Robertson, so Stella turned to another literary icon for guidance. She presented the manuscript to Henry Lawson, and did so anonymously. Lawson, immediately seeing the “startlingly, painfully real” depictions of Australian culture (“the work,” he said, “was Australian – born of the bush”), arranged an agent. He begged Stella to reveal her gender; Stella remained adamant that her novel make no reference to the fact that its author was, indeed, a woman. But by its publication, it seems Stella revealed herself, or Lawson had sleuthed his way to a solution – whatever the reason, Lawson included a bold (if entirely fictional) assertion that he “at once” knew the story had been written “by a girl”.
Much to Stella’s dismay, this would influence the critical reception of her novel. As many female writers have experienced, there is a subconscious bias inflicted on the voices of women in prose – this, back in the 1900s, was even more prevalent. (Even today, the majority of literary awards in Australia are won by men.) Her heroine was criticised as “distinctly unpleasant” and an unfair depiction of “a type of Australian bush girl.” “Bold, forward and selfish Sybylla is the sort of girl that is happily rare in Australia,” said one reviewer. The book was even withdrawn due to “unwelcome notoriety” due to its unsavoury associations as an autobiography, despite being a work of fiction. Nevertheless, Stella continued to write, and this writing would prove her freedom. She instead wrote under myriad pseudonyms, which would be received to much acclaim – all while Stella fiercely protected her real identity.
While wandering in the NSW literary and feminist circles, Stella was encouraged to visit America, where she would work for various philanthropic and union organisations. Upon World War I’s outbreak, she immediately left for Europe, where she worked in Macedonia as a cook for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service. She would return to London and stay there until 1927, but then resettled permanently in Australia in 1932 following her father’s death.
Stella discovered Australia was largely changed in its literary sphere, and while caring for her widowed mother, she continued writing under her favoured pseudonyms. This time, her writing was critically acclaimed: she won the SH Prior Memorial Prize for All that Swagger, and the King’s Silver Jubilee Medal for Literature. She also worked for the ABC as a broadcaster during World War II.
As she worked, Stella lived a thrifty life, secretly saving her money for what would become her biggest legacy. In her will, the extent of her frugality became known. Created from a desire to cultivate the unique Australian literary voice, and emerging Australian authors, Stella willed her money to the foundation of a literary prize in her name. The Miles Franklin Award is now recognised as the preeminent literary award in Australia, and used as a barometer of quality Australian literature. When literary critics noticed the majority of these awards were won by men – purely due to exposure – another award, again in Stella’s name, was created. The Stella Prize aims to honour the author’s goals in helping Australian women writers find their voice and contribute to the Australian literary landscape.
After her death, Stella experienced true celebrity – finally openly acknowledged as the woman who had so ably captured the Australian voice on the page. Her exploration of Australian culture, and her ceaseless campaigns to establish Australia on the global literary stage, has transformed Australian literature as we know it.