My Brilliant Career, by Miles Franklin

Chapter Seven

Was E’er a Rose Without Its Thorn?

I arose from bed next morning with three things in my head — a pair of swollen eyes, a heavy pain, and a fixed determination to write a book. Nothing less than a book. A few hours’ work in the keen air of a late autumn morning removed the swelling from my eyes and the pain from my temples, but the idea of relieving my feelings in writing had taken firm root in my brain. It was not my first attempt in this direction. Two years previously I had purloined paper and sneaked out of bed every night at one or two o’clock to write a prodigious novel in point of length and detail, in which a full-fledged hero and heroine performed the duties of a hero and heroine in the orthodox manner. Knowing our circumstances, my grandmother was accustomed, when writing to me, to enclose a stamp to enable me to reply. These I saved, and with them sent my book to the leading Sydney publisher. After waiting many weeks I received a polite memo to the effect that the story showed great ability, but the writer’s inexperience was too much in evidence for publication. The writer was to study the best works of literature, and would one day, no doubt, take a place among Australian novelists.

This was a very promising opinion of the work of a child of thirteen, more encouraging than the great writers got at the start of their literary career; but it seemed to even my childish intelligence that the memo was a stereotyped affair that the publisher sent in answer to all the MSS. of fameless writers submitted to him, and also sent in all probability without reading as much as the name of the story. After that I wrote a few short stories and essays; but now the spirit moved me to write another book — not with any hope of success, as it was impossible for me to study literature as advised. I seldom saw a book, and could only spare time in tiny scraps to read them when I did.

However, the few shillings I had obtained at odd times I spent on paper, and in secret robbed from much-needed rest a few hours weekly wherein to write. This made me very weary and slow in the daytime, and a sore trial to my mother. I was always forgetting things I should not have forgotten, because my thoughts were engaged in working out my story. The want of rest told upon me. I continually complained of weariness, and my work was a drag to me.

My mother knew not what to make of it. At first she thought I was lazy and bad, and punished me in various ways; but while my book occupied my mind I was not cross, gave her no impudence, and did not flare up. Then she began to fear I must be ill, and took me to a doctor, who said I was much too precocious for my years, and would be better when the weather got warmer. He gave me a tonic, which I threw out the window. I heard no more of going out as nurse-girl: father had joined a neighbour who had taken a road contract, and by this means the pot was kept, if not quite, at least pretty near, boiling.

Life jogged along tamely, and, as far as I could see, gave promise of going to the last slip-rails without a canter, until one day in July 1896 mother received a letter from her mother which made a pleasant change in my life, though, like all sweets, that letter had its bitter drop. It ran as follows:—

My dear daughter, Lucy,

Only a short letter this time. I am pressed for time, as four or five strangers have just come and asked to stay for the night, and as one of the girls is away, I have to get them beds. I am writing about Sybylla. I am truly grieved to hear she is such a source of grief and annoyance to you. The girl must surely be ill or she would never act as you describe. She is young yet, and may settle down better by and by. We can only entrust her to the good God who is ever near. Send her up to me as soon as you can. I will pay all expenses. The change will do her good, and if her conduct improves, I will keep her as long as you like. She is young to mention in regard to marriage, but in another year she will be as old as I was when I married, and it might be the makings of her if she married early. At any rate she will be better away from Possum Gully, now that she is growing into womanhood, or she may be in danger of forming ties beneath her. She might do something good for herself up here: not that I would ever be a matchmaker in the least degree, but Gertie will soon be coming on, and Sybylla, being so very plain, will need all the time she can get.

Your loving mother,

L. Bossier.

My mother gave me this letter to read, and, when I had finished perusing it, asked me would I go. I replied coldly:

“Yes. Paupers and beggars cannot be choosers, and grandmother might as well keep me at Caddagat as at Possum Gully”— for my grandmother contributed greatly to the support of our family.

As regards scenery, the one bit of beauty Possum Gully possessed was its wattles. Bowers of grown and scrubs of young ones adorned the hills and gullies in close proximity to the house, while groves of different species graced the flats. Being Sunday, on this afternoon I was at liberty for a few hours; and on receiving the intelligence contained in the letter, I walked out of the house over a low hill at the back into a gully, where I threw myself at the foot of a wattle in a favourite clump, and gave way to my thoughts.

So mother had been telling my grandmother of my faults — my grandmother whom I loved so dearly. Mother might have had enough honour and motherly protection to have kept the tale of my sins to herself. Though this intelligence angered, it did not surprise me, being accustomed to mother telling every neighbour what a great trial I was to her — how discontented I was, and what little interest I took in my work. It was the last part of the letter which finished up my feelings. Oh heavens! Surely if my mother understood the wild pain, the days and hours of agony pure and complete I have suffered on account of my appearance, she would never have shown me that letter.

I was to be given more time on account of being ugly — I was not a valuable article in the marriage market, sweet thought! My grandmother is one of the good old school, who believed that a girl’s only proper sphere in life was marriage; so, knowing her sentiments, her purpose to get me married neither surprised nor annoyed me. But I was plain. Ah, bosh! Oh! Ah! I cannot express what kind of a feeling that fact gave me. It sank into my heart and cut like a cruel jagged knife — not because it would be a drawback to me in the marriage line, for I had an antipathy to the very thought of marriage. Marriage to me appeared the most horribly tied-down and unfair-to-women existence going. It would be from fair to middling if there was love; but I laughed at the idea of love, and determined never, never, never to marry.

The other side of the letter — the part which gave me joy — was the prospect of going to Caddagat.

Caddagat, the place where I was born! Caddagat, whereat, enfolded in grandmotherly love and the petting which accrued therefrom, I spent some of my few sweet childish days. Caddagat, the place my heart fondly enshrines as home. Caddagat, draped by nature in a dream of beauty. Caddagat, Caddagat! Caddagat for me, Caddagat for ever! I say.

Too engrossed with my thoughts to feel the cold of the dull winter day, I remained in my position against the wattle-tree until Gertie came to inform me that tea was ready.

“You know, Sybylla, it was your turn to get the tea ready; but I set the table to save you from getting into a row. Mother was looking for you, and said she supposed you were in one of your tantrums again.”

Pretty little peacemaker! She often did things like that for me.

“Very well, Gertie, thank you. I will set it two evenings running to make up for it — if I’m here.”

“If you are here! What do you mean?”

“I am going away,” I replied, watching her narrowly to see if she cared, for I was very hungry for love.

“Going to run away becauses mother is always scolding you?”

“No, you little silly! I’m going up to Caddagat to live with grannie.”

“Always?”

“Yes.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Honour bright?”

“Yes; really and truly and honour bright.”

“Won’t you ever come back again?”

“I don’t know about never coming back again; but I’m going up for always, as far as a person can lay out ahead of her. Do you care?”

Yes she cared. The childish mouth quivered, the pretty blue-eyed face fell, the ready tears flowed fast. I noticed every detail with savage comfort. It was more than I deserved, for, though I loved her passionately, I had ever been too much wrapped in self to have been very kind and lovable to her.

“Who will tell me stories now?”

It was a habit of mine to relate stories to her out of my own fertile imagination. In return for this she kept secret the fact that I sat up and wrote when I should have been in bed. I was obliged to take some means of inducing her to keep silence, as she — even Gertie, who firmly believed in me — on waking once or twice at unearthly hours and discovering me in pursuit of my nightly task, had been so alarmed for my sanity that I had the greatest work to prevent her from yelling to father and mother on the spot. But I bound her to secrecy, and took a strange delight in bringing to her face with my stories the laughter, the wide-eyed wonder, or the tears — just as my humour dictated.

“You’ll easily get someone else to tell you stories.”

“Not like yours. And who will take my part when Horace bullies me?”

I pressed her to me.

“Gertie, Gertie, promise me you will love me a little always, and never, never forget me. Promise me.”

And with a weakly glint of winter sunshine turning her hair to gold, and with her head on my shoulder, Gertie promised — promised with the soluble promise of a butterfly-natured child.

SELF-ANALYSIS

N.B. — This is dull and egotistical. Better skip it. That’s my advice — S. P. M.

As a tiny child I was filled with dreams of the great things I was to do when grown up. My ambition was as boundless as the mighty bush in which I have always lived. As I grew it dawned upon me that I was a girl — the makings of a woman! Only a girl — merely this and nothing more. It came home to me as a great blow that 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. Familiarity made me used to this yoke; I recovered from the disappointment of being a girl, and was reconciled to that part of my fate. In fact, I found that being a girl was quite pleasant until a hideous truth dawned upon me — I was ugly! That truth has embittered my whole existence. It gives me days and nights of agony. It is a sensitive sore that will never heal, a grim hobgoblin that nought can scare away. In conjunction with this brand of hell I developed a reputation of cleverness. Worse and worse! Girls! girls! Those of you who have hearts, and therefore a wish for happiness, homes, and husbands by and by, never develop a reputation of being clever. It will put you out of the matrimonial running as effectually as though it had been circulated that you had leprosy. So, if you feel that you are afflicted with more than ordinary intelligence, and especially if you are plain with it, hide your brains, cramp your mind, study to appear unintellectual — it is your only chance. Provided a woman is beautiful allowance will be made for all her shortcomings. She can be unchaste, vapid, untruthful, flippant, heartless, and even clever; so long as she is fair to see men will stand by her, and as men, in this world, are “the dog on top”, they are the power to truckle to. A plain woman will have nothing forgiven her. Her fate is such that the parents of uncomely female infants should be compelled to put them to death at their birth.

The next unpleasant discovery I made in regard to myself was that I was woefully out of my sphere. I studied the girls of my age around me, and compared myself with them. We had been reared side by side. They had had equal advantages; some, indeed, had had greater. We all moved in the one little, dull world, but they were not only in their world, they were of it; I was not. Their daily tasks and their little pleasures provided sufficient oil for the lamp of their existence — mine demanded more than Possum Gully could supply. They were totally ignorant of the outside world. Patti, Melba, Irving, Terry, Kipling, Caine, Corelli, and even the name of Gladstone, were only names to them. Whether they were islands or racehorses they knew not and cared not. With me it was different. Where I obtained my information, unless it was born in me, I do not know. We took none but the local paper regularly, I saw few books, had the pleasure of conversing with an educated person from the higher walks of life about once in a twelvemonth, yet I knew of every celebrity in literature, art, music, and drama; their world was my world, and in fancy I lived with them. My parents discouraged me in that species of foolishness. They had been fond of literature and the higher arts, but now, having no use for them, had lost interest therein.

I was discontented and restless, and longed unendurably to be out in the stream of life. “Action! Action! Give me action!” was my cry. My mother did her best with me according to her lights. She energetically preached at me. All the old saws and homilies were brought into requisition, but without avail. It was like using common nostrums on a disease which could be treated by none but a special physician.

I was treated to a great deal of harping on that tiresome old string, “Whatsoever your hand findeth to do, do it with all your might.” It was daily dinned into my cars that the little things of life were the noblest, and that all the great people I mooned about said the same. I usually retorted to the effect that I was well aware that it was noble, and that I could write as good an essay on it as any philosopher. It was all very well for great people to point out the greatness of the little, empty, humdrum life. Why didn’t they adopt it themselves?

“The toad beneath the harrow knows

Exactly where each tooth-point goes.

The butterfly upon the road

Preaches contentment to the toad.”

I wasn’t anxious to patronize the dull kind of tame nobility of the toad; I longed for a few of the triumphs of the butterfly, decried though they are as hollow bubbles. I desired life while young enough to live, and quoted as my motto:

“Though the pitcher that goes to the sparkling rill

Too oft gets broken at last,

There are scores of others its place to fill

When its earth to the earth is cast.

Keep that pitcher at home, let it never roam,

But lie like a useless clod;

Yet sooner or later the hour will come

When its chips are thrown to the sod.

“Is it wise, then, say, in the waning day,

When the vessel is crack’d and old,

To cherish the battered potter’s clay

As though it were virgin gold?

Take care of yourself, dull, boorish elf,

Though prudent and sage you seem;

Your pitcher will break on the musty shelf,

And mine by the dazzling stream.”

I had sense sufficient to see the uselessness of attempting to be other than I was. In these days of fierce competition there was no chance for me — opportunity, not talent, was the main requisite. Fate had thought fit to deny me even one advantage or opportunity, thus I was helpless. I set to work to cut my coat according to my cloth. I manfully endeavoured to squeeze my spirit into “that state of life into which it has pleased God to call me”. I crushed, compressed, and bruised, but as fast as I managed it on one side it burst out on another, and defied me to cram it into the narrow box of Possum Gully.

“The restless throbbings and burnings

  That hope unsatisfied brings,

The weary longings and yearnings

  For the mystical better things,

Are the sands on which is reflected

  The pitiless moving lake,

Where the wanderer falls dejected,

  By a thirst he never can slake.”

In a vain endeavour to slake that cruel thirst my soul groped in strange dark places. It went out in quest of a God, and finding one not, grew weary.

By the unknown way that the atmosphere of the higher life penetrated to me, so came a knowledge of the sin and sorrow abroad in the world — the cry of the millions oppressed, downtrodden, God-forsaken! The wheels of social mechanism needed readjusting — things were awry. Oh, that I might find a cure and give it to my fellows! I dizzied my brain with the problem; I was too much for myself. A man with these notions is a curse to himself, but a woman — pity help a woman of that description! She is not merely a creature out of her sphere, she is a creature without a sphere — a lonely being!

Recognizing this, I turned and cursed God for casting upon me a burden greater than I could bear — cursed Him bitterly, and from within came a whisper that there was nothing there to curse. There was no God. I was an unbeliever. It was not that I sought after or desired atheism. I longed to be a Christian, and fought against unbelief. I asked the Christians around me for help. Unsophisticated fool! I might as well have announced that I was a harlot. My respectability vanished in one slap. Some said it was impossible to disbelieve in the existence of a God: I was only doing it for notoriety, and they washed their hands of me at once.

Not believe in God! I was mad!

If there really was a God, would they kindly tell me how to find Him?

Pray! pray!

I prayed, often and ardently, but ever came that heart-stilling whisper that there was nothing to pray to.

Ah, the bitter, hopeless heart-hunger of godlessness none but an atheist can understand! Nothing to live for in life — no hope beyond the grave. It plunged me into fits of profound melancholy.

Had my father occupied one of the fat positions of the land, no doubt as his daughter my life would have been so full of pleasant occupation and pleasure that I would not have developed the spirit which torments me now. Or had I a friend — one who knew, who had suffered and understood, one in whom I could lose myself, one on whom I could lean — I might have grown a nicer character. But in all the wide world there was not a soul to hold out a hand to me, and I said bitterly, “There is no good in the world.” In softer moods I said, “Ah, the tangle of it! Those who have the heart to help have not the power, and those who have the power have not the heart.”

Bad, like a too-strong opponent in a game of chess, is ever at the elbow of good to checkmate it like a weakly managed king.

I am sadly lacking in self-reliance. I needed some one to help me over the rough spots in life, and finding them not, at the age of sixteen I was as rank a cynic and infidel as could be found in three days’ march.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 21:53