By Miles Franklin
This wonderfully brilliant novel was published in 1901, but it feels so timeless and universal it could have been written yesterday, albeit by a precociously gifted young writer. This is the kind of book that makes me realize why I love reading great fiction so much. It also makes a 6 hour train ride to Toronto so much breezier and sweeter!
The tale is archetypically simple yet strikingly and passionately written. Sybylla Melvyn is a fiery, headstrong girl growing up in an impoverished farm way out in the Australian bush. Too clever for her own good, she longs for an artistic life far removed from the reality of unending farmwork and drudgery. By a stroke of good fortune, Sybylla is sent to live with her wealthy grandmother in her estate along with her jovial uncle and lovely aunt. She soon strikes up an unlikely romance with the neighbouring landowner, Harry Beecham.
Yes, this all sounds like a typical Victorian fairy tale, except this is where our plucky heroine turns down the man at the end, refusing to marry in order to maintain a sense of true independence. This is the kind of totally left-field ending that’s practically unheard of at that period in history. What’s even more remarkable is that the book was written when the author was only 16. You gotta wonder where a young girl, even a precocious one, got such ideas having only grown up in an isolated rural community in New South Wales at the turn-of-the-century, as this is truly a feminist's happy ending.
The book was a big hit in Australia and abroad, and much speculation was made about the autobiographical aspects of the novel. Indeed the fictional Sybylla Melvyn and the young Franklin are very much one and the same (the author’s full name is Stella Franklin, as she used her more masculine-sounding middle name, Miles, for professional and practical reasons). Sybylla/Stella is impulsive, egotistical and self-centred, but somehow she becomes one of the most endearing characters I've come across in fiction in a long while, and I was quickly hooked. This is also definitely a tale from the Australian bush, a world which Franklin knows intimately. There are plenty of rich, detailed accounts of the landscape and life in the outback, from the harsh and impoverished conditions of nomadic farmhands and sheepherders to the privileged and leisurely pursuits of the upper classes.
The average male reader may not be so interested in this book. But if you’re a fan of Jane Austen and such, this is a must-read. Definitely recommended for female readers young and old, as this has been a highlight read of the year so far! It’s even inspired me to re-rent the equally brilliant 1979 film adaptation by Gillian Armstrong, featuring a young Judy Davis and Sam Neill!