We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

My Brilliant Career · 23 January 05

Dear Nobody,

Last night I had some mild enjoyment watching Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979 film).
on a videocassette at home on my TV. I find it to be
meant and often successful as an uplifting feminist tale.
I have not read the very early 20th
century Australian novel by "Miles Franklin" (actual
name Stella Maria Sarah Miles Lampe Franklin)
from which this film adaptation was taken.

The film’s story line is that of a heroine who lives in the bush,
outback with parents who are doing poorly economically,
and as the film opens we see her writing a book. The
rest of the film is flashback until we return to this scene.
We watch Sybilla Melvyn (Judy Davis) grow up with
great difficulty. We see her sent visiting to very
prim and Anglo richer relatives; she finds herself
naturally urged to have and herself beginning to
respond to love affairs. The young man she would
chose, Harry Beecham (Sam Neil) is deemed above
her, but he is good as gold and wants to marry her
out of love. She refuses repeatedly. She is pressured into
going to work as a teacher in a place where learning
is the last thing valued, and when last seen has returned
to her family, is no longer pressured into becoming
a governess (for the moment) and has written her
book. The closing moment show her against a beautiful
shot of Australian landscape putting a large manuscript
into a mailbox, "My Brilliant Career" and sending it off
to Blackwood’s in Edinburgh.

It’s woman-centered movie. We see Sybilla in relationship
with her mother (bedraggled and desperate, from so
many children and debts), her aunt (repressed in a tight
gown; her husband simply deserted her), her grandmothers.
We see the men in her life through her eyes. A couple
of scenes seemed to me to look forward to Jane Campion’s
perspectives. The best moments were quietly Proustian.
Little slow vignettes capturing the feel of a moment in
life, not overdone, not melodramatic. The script was
not good (Eleanor Witcombe is credited),
but the movements and shots and pace were.
We are to feel ambiguous about her choice at the end
though uplifted and rooting for her. She refused lovely
Harry because to have a child every year and be an
outback wife would preclude her having any career
(as she understands this).

Beautiful shots of Australia itself. The film captured
the Anglophilic nature of the upper class and aspiring
culture and also the complete irrelevant of intellectual
culture or any unconventional thought to people in
outback life. You saw how stratified the parties were
explicitly—just as in a Barchester novel by

Less thrilling—simply a bit dull—was the Masterpiece
feel of some of the sequences and the center which
was a love story told in simplistic ways. Harry was
ever so good and Sybylla too ever so well meaning.
She didn’t want to marry him lest she hurt him; he
was too good for her & so on.

I did enjoy it and recommend it to those who may have
missed it (as I did). It bespeaks another more hopeful
time in our century. Little violence, almost no lipservice
to commercial careerism, but (unreal of course) also
none to the networking aspects of getting to be a
professional writer. And nowhere realistic (hard) enough on
the social world which surrounded her. For example, it’s ludicrous to present the young man who longed to marry the
young woman as so ideal. It turns a serious plight into silly romance.

From the Gale database I gather she really did write
from the outback, her book was (natch) read literally
and autobiographically sheerly; she did go to
Sydney, but did not stay as she found it inimical
to her talent and whole character. Her distress manifested
itself in another pseudonym: "Brent of Bin Bin."
And she emigrated: first to the US, where she
worked in Chicago in the National Woman’s
Trade Union and then onto London for (so to speak)
World War One. She never herself returned to Australia
though she established a 500 pound annual prize
to the "best novel illuminating Australian life."
She does not appear to have married—just like
the film :)


Posted by: Ellen

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