Academic journal article Antipodes

Miles Franklin's Dramatic Ambitions, or, Why Stella Really Came Home

Academic journal article Antipodes

Miles Franklin's Dramatic Ambitions, or, Why Stella Really Came Home

Article excerpt

"YOU KNOW, MILES DEAR, YOU'RE RATHER SLOPPY about Americans," wrote St. John Ervine to Stella Miles Franklin, commenting on her dramatic characterization. "They aren't all charming, and a vast majority of them are plain damned fools" (Franklin, "Correspondence" 340). He went on to concede that Americans could be unsurpassably likeable, but unlike Franklin he felt under no obligation to exalt them whilst simultaneously belittling the English, a habit that Franklin could no doubt be accused of in her writing for the theatre. For various reasons, Franklin did indeed seem to have a beef against the English, in stark contrast to her sentimental attachment to all things American. Her time spent as an expatriate in England and (particularly) America was permanently enriching and astoundingly exhausting, and it was during this period that Franklin was intensely engaged in her ambition to become a successful playwright. Despite the fact that the Franklin Papers held in Sydney's Mitchell Library contain over twenty plays written during this era, Franklin, then and now, secured little reputation as a playwright. The reasons for her "failure" to achieve success and its impact upon her life are the subject of this essay.

That the announcement of the short-list for the 1994 Miles Franklin Award for Australian literature caused a furor is now entrenched in Australian literary folklore. The judges were accused of being too literal in their interpretation of the clause in Franklin's will, which stipulated the qualifications for entry as being "a published novel or play portraying Australian life in any of its phases" (qtd. in Stapleton). They excluded some entries that were highly considered works on the grounds that the narrative was not located in Australia. Critics and authors alike clamored to know what defined Australian content-Was it character, location, or perspective?-and in so doing cast aspersions on the judges' interpretations of the conditions of the prize. Furthermore, these decisions engendered a larger debate, behind which was a desire to identify Franklin's exact intentions. Did she envisage that her bequest would solely promote and encourage Australian literature, or was her intention to reward portrayals of Australia from wherever derived?

The narrow, literal definitions of "Australianism" imposed by the judges, and the questioning of those interpretations by their opponents,1 not only reflect a conundrum specific to contemporary Australia, but they are in fact dilemmas that Franklin encountered in her own writing life in the early twentieth century. Franklin spent her most formative years as a writer in "exile"-an expatriate. Ironically, in the twenty-first century, the arbiters of her prize would exclude from consideration a considerable quantity of her corpus, especially when the theatrical writing is taken into account. Consequently a sophisticated explanation of the stoush must extend beyond the financial stakes of prize money won and, more importantly, the added bonanza of exponentially increased sales, to incorporate philosophical issues that relate to definitions of authorial success, status and acceptance in the precarious world of the publishing industry. In a further ironical turn, these are all issues with which Franklin herself grappled throughout her writing life, and they can be reduced to the simple but related questions of what does it mean to be an Australian writer, and what value (financial, status etc.) is placed in being so defined and recognized? Miles Franklin spent precious time contemplating these questions, but she spent even more time formulating the answers in the guise of solid, hard work. Her writing can speak for itself-if we formulate the right line of inquiry. Such an interrogation would ask how Franklin-as a professional woman, a socialist, a suffrage feminist, and an Australian expatriate writer-negotiated her place in the early twentieth century. Subsidiary to this, we must question how she formulated her authorial identity. …

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