The construction of the female characters in the book text of ‘My Brilliant Career’ was different from their representation in the movie text. In the book we are exposed to the narrator’s biassed view of the relevant characters, while in the movie, despite Sybilla still acting as narrator, we are presented with a more general characterization of women in turn-of-the-century Australia.
In the story women were portrayed as of lesser importance than men, with various roles according to their status – Sybilla was fair game to Harry Beecham as a servant in a blossom tree, yet out of bounds as the grand-daughter of the house. Within her household Sybilla’s mother is a powerful figure, but her husband still dictated where they lived and worked.
Sybilla’s grandmother was also a powerful figure at Caddagat (with authority even over Uncle Jay Jay in relation to Sybilla), Aunt Helen below her, then Sybilla, followed by the maids on a much lower level and having power only between themselves and their relative positions in the work-force.
Yet they were all women, with feelings, needs, hopes and desires, all of which were considered, by themselves as well as by men and society in general, as secondary to those of the men around them.
. . . it was only men who could take the world by its ears and conquer their fate, while women, metaphorically speaking, were forced to sit with tied hands and patiently suffer as the waves of fate tossed them hither and thither, battering and bruising without mercy. (Franklin, M. 1979, p.33)
Against this second-rate status Sybilla rebelled openly. And she saw, as the main culprit for maintaining this, marriage that subjugated a woman’s independence of thought and personality. She stated “Marriage to me appeared the most horribly tied-down and unfair-to-women existence going . . . . I laughed at the idea of love, and determined never, never, never to marry.” (Franklin, M. 1979, p. 31 & 32)
In the movie Sybilla’s mother was portrayed as she’d have been in reality – with the film-makers’ hindsight of the period – as hardworking, weighed down by the struggle to keep the family fed and together, despite the drought and a lazy, drunk husband, yet maintaining a semblance of refinement. As evidence of this, although the house was little more than a timber shanty, there were clean lace curtains at the windows, photos in silver frames, and an in-tune though honky-tonk piano in the parlour.
She remained practical in the face of a continually growing family (due to no contraception), yet could not face the humiliation of fetching her husband from the pub – that was for Sybilla to bear. She saw the need to send Sybilla away to work, to help support the family, as an obvious practicality, rather than as Sybilla saw it – as a punishment.
In the book her Mother was shown as hard, unyielding, lacking in kindness and under-standing, and intolerant of Sybilla’s ideas and desires. She appeared to treat Sybilla as a possession to be packed off to Grandmother, then redirected to the M’Swat’s as it suited her. Yet we do see, underlying this characterisation of her mother by Sybilla, the latter’s understanding of the forces that have reduced her beautiful refined mother to behave as she did. We see this from Sybilla’s point of view and are sympathetic with her (from our own position of acceptance and equality in society). Yet we are able to recognise her mother’s hardships, her subsequent bitterness, and her need to take this out on her eldest daughter, who she saw as unmarriageable due to a lack of beauty, and a rebellious and outspoken nature. She saw her as being an indefinite burden on her stretched resources.
Sybilla’s grandmother was characterised, in both book and movie, as very Victorian, with rigid views about a woman’s place in society and the home, how she should behave with decorum and modesty, show refinement and manners. She was affronted at the idea of Sybilla going on the stage – but more because it was her granddaughter – and totally disregarded Sybilla’s views on the matter.
Against this arbitrary decision-making by others, on her behalf and without any concern for her thoughts or feelings, Sybilla also rebelled. Likewise, upon receiving her mother’s letter informing of her transfer to the M’Swat’s as a governess, her indignation and horror was extreme. “The steel of my mother’s letter entered my soul. Why had she not expressed a little regret at the thing she was imposing on me?” (Franklin, M. 1979, p. 162) When asked by her grandmother for her response she exclaimed, “Say? I won’t go! I can’t! I won’t! Oh, grannie, don’t send me there – I would rather die.” (Franklin, M. 1979, p. 162)
In the movie Grandmother was shown as caring for Sybilla, but as less kindly than she was portrayed in the book – as a foil for the character of Aunt Gussie, who though out-spoken was more understanding of Sybilla, in whom she seemed to see herself as a girl. In the book she was a less dominant, more formal figure – Sybilla called her Miss Beecham – and seemed to be there only as a chaperone in the background to add respectability to Sybilla’s visit.
While the movie portrayed these characters a little differently, and compressed the events to suit its running time it did portray the M’Swat family perfectly. Although it omitted details such as Mr M’Swat’s diary, it did show Sybilla’s degradation, as she gradually became dirtier and more depressed. The power struggle between Sybilla and Mrs M’Swat was clearly shown, as was the futility of the existence in the cultural desert of the M’Swat’s squalid home. However, in the scene where the children read the story from the pages of newspaper that lined their walls, the movie also left the viewer with a feeling that Sybilla’s time had not altogether been wasted.
In the book, I was held captive by Sybilla’s misery and frustration with the injustice of her situation. It was hard to believe in the kindness of the M’Swats, although Sybilla stated quite clearly that they were kind, or in the degree of their squalor and ignorance – the movie, however, clarified this giving it reality. Aunt Helen and Grandmother could not believe in this squalor when they received Sybilla’s pleading letters.
Just as the M’Swats were ignorant of the refinement and better quality of life and possessions to be gained by the use of their money, so was the wealthy Grandmother at Caddagat ignorant of how base the lives of others, like the M’Swats, could be. Both the book text and the movie text showed this fact clearly – the movie with a cut to a quick scene at Caddagat, its lush green formal surroundings a stark contrast to the mud and haphazard hovels of the M’Swat’s farm. Aunt Helen, in her elegant clean gown was seen discussing another letter from Sybilla with Grandmother, their disbelief apparent.
Miss Derrick was portrayed in both media as representing everything that a woman should be in society:
Miss Derrick brought herself and her dress in with great style and airs. . . . She sat down with great indifference, twirled her bracelet round her wrist, languidly opened her fan, and closed her eyes as she wafted it to and fro. . . . She would adorn the head of his [her husband’s] table. She would never worry him with silly ideas. She would never act with impropriety. She would never become a companion to her husband. (Franklin, M. 1979, p. 121, & 122)
Obviously, Miss Derrick was everything that Sybilla rebelled against being. In both media the latter was represented as a strong character, outspoken, intolerant of the attitudes of society towards the downtrodden generally, and women in particular. She was treated as an adult, expected to marry well to help the family , yet sent to her room like a child as punishment for a prank. Another example of this dual treatment was evident in the ultimatum she was indirectly given – marry Harry Beecham or be sent to the M’Swat’s farm as a governess/servant. She was expected to make a decision about marriage, but not allowed to make a decision against going to the M’Swat’s. Virtually all other decisions were made for her by her mother or hergrandmother.
Sybilla’s character in the book text was more confused and unpredictable, less outwardly loving and maternal than in the movie. In the book she hated being touched by a man, resisted all attempts at being kissed – one very violently with a whip, which symbolized power throughout the story, and male dominance over female – and yielded antiseptically to a parting kiss from Harry when he left, broke – it was accepted, but not enjoyed. Yet in the movie she was shown romping in the parlour in a man’s arms, and pillow-fighting in the meadows, openly trying to provoke Harry into taking some form of action. When he finally did she rebuffed him, as mentioned, with a whip.
Later when Harry came to claim her, in the movie she turned him down compassionately, and maternally kissed his forehead. Yet in the book this scene was much more passionate. In answer to one of his many pleas she said bitterly, “. . . leave me; go and marry the sort of woman you ought to marry. . . . A good conventional woman, who will do the things she should at the proper time.” (Franklin, M. 1979, p. 221 & 222) There was no farewell kiss – instead, she wrote him a note which she gave to him as he was leaving the next day.
At this point in the narrative, I as a reader lost some sympathy for Sybilla. Admittedly she was very confused – she seemed to want to marry him, yet resisted, believing “I am not good enough to be your wife, Hal, or that of any man” (Franklin, M. 1979, p. 222) To me this statement was hypocritical – she did to him what she resented being done to her – she made a decision on his behalf. In the movie, however, the audience’s sympathy is maintained as her reason for not marrying was quite clear – she wished to remain independent, and believed that by marrying and joining her life with someone else’s she would lose this independence.
As a sixteen year old would probably be, Sybilla was very confused, and constantly referred to her egotism, which she didn’t want to become sublimated to a man. Her egotism seemed to be a lifeline – a means of preventing her from becoming just another woman in society if she could manage to keep it intact. In the movie egotism was not mentioned, her character was much clearer, less confused and more mature, and her objectives in life were more defined.
The movie ended with her standing at the gate in the peaceful and greening landscape. A feeling of hope for the future and contentment with choices made was the overriding effect. Sybilla seemed to be finally at peace with herself. Although the ending of the book was similar, I was left with a feeling of dissatisfaction for things left unresolved.
In conclusion I believe that the differences in the construction of the female characters between the book text and the movie text were important and justified. The film-makers needed to portray the story that Miles Franklin wrote in a believable and balanced fashion. An audience would not really credit Sybilla’s mother as being as hard as her daughter depicted her, and it was important that this audience be kept in sympathy with Sybilla.
The Directors, by being able to cut from scene to contrasting scene, to make their visual and audible media work for them, were able to show in moments what Miles Franklin took pages to describe. After all, they had a limited time in which to tell their captive audience a story that could be read over any period of time at liesure. So despite needing to compress scenes, omit characters, events and symbols ( e.g. the power symbol of the whip), the Directors were able to portray the essential elements of the book – in particular the struggle needed to attain womanly independence in the Victorian society of turn-of-the-century Australia.
(C) Jud House 28/08/2005
Clancy, Jack Bringing Franklin up to Date: The Film of My Brilliant Career Jack Clancy in ALS, Vol 9, 1979-80, pp 363-367
Coleman, Verna (1981). Miles Franklin in America: Her Unknown (Brilliant) Career. London: Angus and Robertson.
Franklin, Miles Childhood at Brindabella, My First Ten Years Sydney: Arkon (paperback), Angus and Robertson.
Franklin, Miles (1979). My Brilliant Career. Sydney: Arkon (paperback), Angus and Robertson.
Franklin, Miles (1981). The End of My Career. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Mathew, Ray (1963) Miles Franklin, Australian Writers and Their Work series, Melbourne: Lansdown.
McInherny, Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career and the Female Tradition, ALS, Vol 9, 1979-80, pp 275-285.
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