Edited extract from A Certain Style: Beatrice Davis, A Literary Life by Jacqueline Kent
‘I May Not be a Great Genius … but Nevertheless My Tonnage Cannot be Ignored’: Miles Franklin
Miles Franklin cast a long shadow. In her fifties when Beatrice met her, she had been one of Australia’s best-known literary figures for more than thirty years, My Brilliant Career having appeared in June 1901 when she was only twenty-one. Attractive, wilful and opinionated, with a distinct writing voice of her own, Miles Franklin had apparently been destined for a brilliant literary career, and if she never quite repeated the success of her first novel, she nevertheless produced at least a dozen others and collaborated on a well-researched biography of the writer Joseph Furphy. Despite her many years abroad, her subject was almost invariably Australia, particularly the Brindabella country in southern New South Wales where she grew up: with the passing of time, this became an ever more insistent presence in her mind. Her first book displayed the insouciant freshness and high spirits of young womanhood, and as she grew older her writing scarcely changed – though what had been refreshingly casual writing in her youth became perhaps a little forced later in life.
When Beatrice met her, Miles had returned to Australia to live and was an important member of the Sydney literary scene. She had joined the city’s major writers’ groups and, having forgiven George Robertson for turning down My Brilliant Career, she kept a proprietorial eye on Angus and Robertson. She could be sharply critical: A&R, she said, had too many authors and concentrated too much on ‘trash’. She and the forthright feminist writer Jean Devanny were once outraged to see that A&R’s display for Sydney’s Royal Easter Show featured the books of only two novelists: Timms and Idriess.
In some circles Miles was considered cranky. Journalist and short-story writer Thelma Forshaw, who met her at FAW meetings in the early 1940s, described her as having ‘a long truculent upper lip, scorn for makeup and dress, the earnest dominating voice propounding – such an aggressively unfurnished personality I found forbidding’. However, to Dal Stivens she was a sweet lady, shy, gentle and generous. ‘True, she was feminist’ – note the qualification – ‘but she was never a battle-axe.’ The poet Jill Hellyer saw her as a small, gentle person who wore rose-trimmed hats, was kind to her friends and was retiring and unobtrusive.
None of these spinster characters from Central Casting rings quite true. Certainly Miles Franklin, who was small, straight-backed and snub-nosed, who wore neat collars and brooches, long skirts with polished shoes, and whose twinkling brown eyes were hidden by round glasses, looked like a sweet little old lady. But sweet, retiring spinsters are not gen erally noted for their robust wit or their idiosyncratic way of looking at the world, as Miles Franklin was. Her voice was slightly deeper than average and she knew how to use it for dramatic effect. She spoke as she wrote, using vivid and pungent imagery from her rural background: to Miles a dishevelled person looked as if he had just burst through a paling fence; Xavier Herbert, struggling over a book for many years, was ‘egg-bound’. Her best work is probably the hundreds of letters she wrote to the friends she called her ‘congenials’, displaying the acuity, tartness and vitality that were so much part of her personality.
Miles was usually one of the moving spirits at literary meetings, but Beatrice quickly discovered that the assertive opinions which could make Miles appear so formidable were only part of her. ‘It was when we were alone, her mask of aggression put aside,’ wrote Beatrice in Overland magazine years later, ‘that I came to know and love her.’
Their relationship became more comfortable, perhaps more equitable, when they met at A&R as author and editor. Though Miles had a joking, sparring friendship with her near contemporary Walter Cousins, it was Beatrice, young enough to be Miles’s daughter, who did the literary spadework on her books. The first Franklin book Beatrice worked on was Pioneers on Parade (1939), a novel that Miles co-wrote with Dymphna Cusack lampooning Sydney’s sesquicentennial celebrations; Beatrice did very little to their manuscript.
She was more directly involved with Miles’s next book, a biography of Joseph Furphy, author of Such is Life. A collaboration with Kate Baker, a former teacher who had encouraged and helped Furphy during the writing of his novel and who devoted herself to promoting his work after his death, Joseph Furphy: The Legend of a Man and His Book was plagued with problems, not the least being the personality clash of its authors. A&R had planned to publish in 1943, to coincide with the centenary of Furphy’s birth and the fortieth anniversary of his novel’s first publication, but wartime lack of paper and staff held it up for another year. By the end of 1943 Beatrice had not finished editing the manuscript and the two authors were squabbling about whose name should go first on the title page. Beatrice pushed ahead and Miles thanked her: ‘I so much appreciate your toe tracks on the sands of my saga,’ she wrote to Beatrice in December 1943. (Since she called the book ‘my saga’, it’s easy to see why she and Baker did not get on.) The book appeared midway through 1944 and, with a reissue of Such is Life, set off a revival of interest in Furphy’s work.
As well as being literary colleagues, Miles and Beatrice were gradually becoming friends. Miles treated Beatrice like a favourite niece or daughter, scolding her for working too hard. ‘Attacking the weeds, running a beautiful house … the weight of a great institution on your rare and special gift and all the lame ducks and other calls and connections of life. Where is your love time, your play time, your special outlet music time?’ she asked. She also lectured Beatrice about employing her gifts for the betterment of Australian literature, writing, perhaps wistfully, that the younger woman was prettier, better educated and had had greater opportunities than she herself had been offered. Like most people who had anything to do with Angus and Robertson, Miles was shrewdly aware that Beatrice was probably the brightest person in the company, writing to Dymphna Cusack that A&R’s general editor was ‘the one spark of leaven in directors of sheer stodge’, and she noted how writers courted Beatrice.
Miles’s friendship was important to Beatrice, who, inclined to be overconscientious, appreciated Miles’s bracing approach to life, once telling her that ‘I always feel a bit dull compared with you’. (Beatrice’s letters could be too eager, even gushy.) And when she travelled overseas for the first time in mid-1952 it was Miles to whom she confided her impressions of London:
Everything in London was exactly as I had expected it to be, from the smell and the feel of it to the policemen and the lions in Trafalgar Square. I had to force myself to go sightseeing, and settled into a nice little rut in my attic in Bloomsbury Street, going to theatres, wandering around on buses, and meeting lots of people, and being roused from my lethargy only when somebody had the impertinence to congratulate me on not seeming like an Australian. There’s something about the condescension of that remark that always makes me mad with rage. It’s difficult to define the difference I feel between the English and us – we are the same people, yet – the class distinctions perhaps strike you most, and the badly fed, runtish look of so many of the lower orders, but you can’t generalize. I have still really to talk to English people who have ideas and say what they think, instead of taking refuge in that aloof poise that is sometimes the essence of all rudeness … Travelling doesn’t make me feel very intelligent, only rather dazed and blotting-paperish. Perhaps I’ll feel later on that I’ve profited from it.
From the late 1940s Beatrice occasionally stayed overnight with Miles at ‘Wambrook’, Miles’s small turn-of-the-century brick cottage about ten minutes’ walk from Carlton station on Sydney’s southern train line. For Beatrice, who lived on the north side of the harbour and worked in the city, the working-class suburb of Carlton was foreign territory indeed. The house, which had belonged to Miles’s mother, had what Vance Palmer called a ‘hearty rural atmosphere’. One felt, he said, that there might be a horse hitched to the fence in front and an army of fowls in the backyard. Photographs show a small suburban cottage rather too hemmed-in for a country look, though Miles did keep a few bantams in the backyard, one of which laid her eggs in an ancient felt hat on top of the copper in the outside laundry.
Beatrice was well aware that a visit to ‘Wambrook’ involved a certain amount of ceremony and preparation: like many older people who spend a lot of time alone, Miles took visitors very seriously. She always gave Beatrice careful and strict instructions about using the outside lavatory, and told her to bring nothing but a comb and tooth-brush. ‘I have a clean washed hair brush and a tin of salmon,’ she told Beatrice. ‘If you can eat a salmon mayonnaise, that’s one dish without trouble.’
‘Wambrook’ was very small, though not necessarily cosy. The main room was the parlour, with a mantelpiece on which stood jars of variously coloured earth from different parts of Australia, some collected by Miles, others given her by friends. In the centre, in pride of place, was Miles’s Waratah Cup, a Royal Doulton cup and saucer decorated with waratahs. It was a mark of high approval to be invited to take tea from this, and the privileged visitor was also asked to sign and write a note in the visitors’ book, known as the Waratah Book, which featured the signatures of Australia’s foremost writers. In the parlour, too, was a piano, which Miles often insisted Beatrice play, though she apologised for its poor quality. The rest of the house – two bedrooms, tiny dining room and kitchen – held the solid family furniture that Miles’s mother had brought from the country. The house was always tidy, if a little musty.
Though Miles spent very little money, living on the rent from a couple of local shops inherited from her mother as well as her meagre royalties, she was a great stickler for appearances. Beatrice was never a big eater and she must have been dismayed to see fruit, chocolates and cake spread before her while Miles, urging her to eat up, put on a starched white apron and grilled chops and cooked vegetables at the small gas stove. Dinner, in the dining room at the back of the house, was served on a white linen tablecloth with heavy family glassware, crockery and cutlery.
Sitting at the kitchen table, sipping a dry sherry from a specially bought bottle, Beatrice would chat to her hostess. They talked of mutual friends and acquaintances: Dymphna Cusack and Henrietta Drake-Brockman, Douglas Stewart (grudgingly approved of by Miles even though he was a New Zealander), younger writers such as Margaret Trist and Nancy Keesing. They discussed literary politics, particularly the fortunes of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. Miles insisted that the society was going to the dogs, failing to attract real ‘writers of tonnage’ as members, deploring that significant writers such as Eleanor Dark hardly ever came to meetings. What the country needed, she thought, was a literary organisation prepared to tackle the real issues confronting contemporary writers – more than a tea-and-sandwiches society. It was ridiculous nonsense for leftist writers’ groups such as the FAW to send approving cables to their colleagues in Russia, or to order the USA to stop persecuting communist writers: they should be working closer to home. The problem was that all Australia’s ‘writing guns’ were in Melbourne, not Sydney – Vance and Nettie Palmer, Flora Eldershaw, Frank Dalby Davison, Alan Marshall, David Martin, Arthur Upfield – but the country’s premier city should be making more of an effort. What was being done to promote Australian writing, to make life easier for local writers, to honour their work? Miles Franklin fretted constantly about the lack of practical support available to Australian writers, and was determined to do something about it.
She and Beatrice, with differing tastes, also argued about what constituted good writing. Beatrice liked vividly descriptive, poetic and inventive prose: then and always she was a great admirer of Eve Langley’s work and the short stories of Hal Porter. Miles pooh-poohed the work of both writers, labelling them phony, one of her favourite disparaging adjectives. Beatrice also respected the work of Patrick White: Miles thought his writing was ‘by Joyce out of D.H. Lawrence’ (not a compliment) and that his first novel, Happy Valley, had got the Snowy Mountains – which she considered her own special territory – all wrong. But they both liked the novels of Christina Stead. Beatrice always regretted that Stead was committed to another publisher, while Miles identified with her living abroad for many years while she wrote about Australia.
Miles generally preferred clear, realistic writers whose work echoed her own vision of ‘the real Australia’, which generally meant life outside the cities. She enjoyed the rough-hewn camaraderie expressed in Sumner Locke Elliott’s wartime play Rusty Bugles (1948), while Beatrice thought it was too episodic and sparsely plotted to be a successful play. Miles also applauded the courage of Frank Hardy in writing Power Without Glory (1950) – not one of Beatrice’s favourite books – which brought out her moralistic streak. ‘We are just as low in public morality as the USA,’ she wrote to Florence James.
But for Miles there was realism and realism. She heartily disliked Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South, set in the slums of Sydney’s Surry Hills, when she read it serialised in the Sydney Morning Herald at the end of 1946. ‘Ruth Park’s great achievement was to fit all those bedbugs into the Sydney Morning Herald,’ she sniffed to a correspondent. ‘She will never surpass that.’ Miles seldom missed an opportunity to stick a knife into the young author, criticising everything from her work to her appearance; it was a dislike that was almost obsessive. Ruth Park later speculated that Miles’s bitchiness was due to jealousy, which seems a reasonable conclusion. Like Park, Miles had once been a promising and admired young writer, and, not having fully developed that promise, per haps she found unbearable the thought that another might succeed where she had failed. Miles was also cruelly dismissive of Catherine Gaskin, whose first novel was published when she was sixteen and whose historical novel Sara Dane, published in 1954, was a worldwide bestseller.
Miles was always very interested in Beatrice’s personal life, though Beatrice did not discuss it with her in any detail, knowing that Miles had her quirks where sex and men were concerned. Energetic and scornful general discussion of male foibles was permissible, but Beatrice’s intuition would have told her that discussions of love and loss were touchy. Though Miles had always enjoyed flirting with men, she rejected any closer relationship. She wore a wedding ring for a very typical double reason: to tease people into wondering about her past and to serve as pro tection against unwanted male attention. Miles herself confided nothing about her private life, telling Beatrice that she would find out everything in her diaries, to be published posthumously. Like Miles’s other friends, Beatrice was sceptical about this – why would the obsessively secretive Miles reveal herself on paper, even after her death? (Miles Franklin’s diaries, still in the Mitchell Library, were published in 2004, edited by Paul Brunton.)
Some of Miles’s friends thought she was afraid of intimacy. Henrietta Drake-Brockman wrote to Beatrice after Miles’s death:
Really a strange, untrusting nature. Perhaps that’s why she could never bring herself to marry, or sleep with anybody … She only seemed to remember passion in terms of being “adored” by [a man]: What about her own desires? I am certain, really; that Miles never got further than, at best, preliminary skirmishes!
Miles had definite views about sexual morality, some of which amused Beatrice. For instance, she disapproved of single women sleeping in double beds, and once Beatrice had gently to persuade her that a woman character in an English novel who quickly yielded to the attentions of a male was not a nymphomaniac.
Miles seems to have been far too fond of Beatrice, however, to judge her according to her own strict rules. She knew that, since Frederick Bridges’s death, Dick Jeune was no longer a husband-approved escort but had become firmly ensconced as the man in her life. Like Beatrice’s other friends, Miles had met Jeune at literary gatherings; after FAW meetings in the city, he would obligingly go out of his way to run some of Beatrice’s friends to Central station in his car. ‘He is like the old squatto cracy, gives his opinions unbridledly,’ Miles wrote to Dymphna Cusack. ‘B had warned me it was useless to either pinch or hush [him] as it only stimulates him to reiteration.’ But she approved of Beatrice’s comment that Dick was to be ‘bullied and cherished’, saying she thought Beatrice well able to do both.
Early in 1950, with money from the Bridges estate, Beatrice bought a property in Tizzana Road, Sackville, about fifty kilometres north-west of Sydney and ninety minutes away by car. She wrote to Henrietta Drake-Brockman about it in July:
I have acquired about 20 acres of a broken-down orchard with an old ramshackle house on it as a country retreat. It is on the Hawkesbury River and the scenery is the sort that makes me feel tranquil and happy. She-oak trees and willows on a river bend, orange trees and a lagoon with black swans on it, but fruit has to be picked, and fences put up, and the house tidied up, so it may be some time before it is as peaceful as it should be.
Just down the hill from a picturesque stone church and not far from the local winery, the house, with a verandah on two sides, was intended to be a haven, a place to invite friends for weekends.
It also became the home of Dick Jeune, now retired, who rapidly assumed the mantle of local character. (The house was not far from the local post office which controlled the telephone exchange. Whenever there was a call for Dick, who was deaf as a post, one of the Morley family who ran the post office had to rush down the hill to tell him his phone was ringing. One wonders how he managed to hear the caller.) Dick looked after the orchard and tried his hand at raising poultry: on the electoral roll, no doubt with tongue firmly in cheek, he described himself as a farmer. The place at Sackville gave Beatrice something unique in her life: a place to indulge in tranquil domesticity. ‘A weekend at Sackville, packing Valencia oranges, stuffing cushions with kapok, admonishing broody hens and admiring Dick’s 200 new chickens,’ she wrote to Miles. ‘The river looked heavenly with its willow curtains and mountain backdrop, and yesterday we had tea on a boat chuffing down its widest reaches. To retire and live here would be bliss – for a while at least.’
Miles Franklin was one of Beatrice’s first visitors at Sackville. The two women continued to see a lot of each other, mainly because Miles’s literary career had revived during the 1940s. Not only was there the biography of Joseph Furphy, but Colin Roderick included her work in two anthologies. One of these, The Australian Novel (1945), included some of Miles’s fiction written under the pseudonym Brent of Bin Bin. Encouraged by this, Miles asked A&R to republish the six novels she had written under that name, though she presented herself not as the author but as Brent’s agent. As Beatrice dryly noted years later, it says something for Miles’s personality and persuasiveness that A&R agreed. She was also being disingenuous: clearly in Miles’s case Beatrice allowed friendship to overrule literary judgement.
Miles Franklin played the Brent of Bin Bin game for years. (She had a tin ear for names; an unpublished novel carried the pseudonym of Mr and Mrs Ogniblat l’ Artsau, or Talbingo, Austral[ia], her birthplace, spelled backwards, more or less.) Not only did she quote ‘the old gentleman’ and write many letters under his name (astute observers noted that Brent used the same typewriter as Miles did), but she once wrote an elaborate account of meeting him. And where did the name come from? Perhaps Miles was giving a defiantly Australian twist to an English form of title, which would have been like her. Beatrice thought Miles knew someone called Brent; the name was printed on a man’s collar she found in an old suitcase that Miles left behind after one of her visits. When A&R agreed to publish the Brent of Bin Bin series, Miles told them that the true identity of the author would be revealed when the final volume appeared.
The first two novels in the series, Up the Country (1928) and Ten Creeks Run (1930), had been published in the UK by Blackwood and edited by Miles’s friend Mary Fullerton. In 1950 Beatrice decided to start the A&R series with Prelude to Waking, the first manuscript written under the Brent pseudonym, originally submitted to Blackwood – and rejected – under the title of Merlin of the Empiah. Beatrice thought there was a very good reason why the novel had never seen the light of day, but she kept her misgivings to herself, even managing to write to Miles about it with some enthusiasm. Angus and Robertson published Up the Country and Ten Creeks Run, the best two in the series, in 1951, followed by Cockatoos (formerly rejected as The Outside Track) in 1954, with Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang (originally and puzzlingly entitled Piccadilly’s Pants on the Hoof), and Back to Bool Bool in 1956.
In all her dealings with Miles about these books, Beatrice followed the convention that Miles Franklin and Brent of Bin Bin were two different people. She sent letters addressed to Brent of Bin Bin (and deciding how to address him must have caused a few unsettled moments: Brent? Mr Bin Bin? Lord Bin? Beatrice sensibly settled for ‘Dear Sir’), c/– Miss Miles Franklin, 26 Grey Street, Carlton, and she wrote to Miles’s other friends about Brent with a straight face: ‘Brent, by the way … says he will reveal his identity when all six of the books are pub lished but will burn the unpublished volumes, if he is revealed before then. So we are not trying to fathom the mystery, though we are madly curious – and wonder what part Miles might have played. She is inscrutable.’ Years later she wrote that she never had the nerve to tell Miles she thought her guilty of pointless deception. ‘She could have had reasons that were important to her, and I loved her too much to upset her.’
It is interesting that Angus and Robertson so readily published the Brent of Bin Bin books when their general editor thought them undistinguished at best. After Miles’s death, Beatrice allowed herself to be much tougher and franker than she had been while the author was alive: ‘With her intelligence, I find it almost incredible that in all those years, with all those rejections, Miles learned almost nothing about literary style. She was an innocent who believed that vitality and love of Australia were enough.’ Perhaps Beatrice convinced her male colleagues that Miles’s books, however ordinary, should be brought back into print as a contribution to Australian literary history. It is just as likely that she was fond enough of Miles to want to make her happy, to assure her friend that her work had not been forgotten.
Beatrice recognised that the casual, ‘spoken’ quality of Miles’s style translated much better to the lecture hall than to the page. In 1950 Miles gave a series of CLF-sponsored lectures in Perth about Australian literature. Beatrice had offered to read her notes with a view to publication, and she was relieved to find that they were good. Angus and Robertson published the material as a series of essays entitled Laughter, Not for a Cage in 1956.
Beatrice continued to keep an anxious and loving eye on Miles, as did Miles’s other woman friends. She worried when Miles developed an ulcerated throat in Perth, continued to give her books, sent her a new typewriter when Miles’s was being mended. Miles had asked Beatrice to be her literary executor, assuring her that very little needed to be done, but never during her lifetime did Miles Franklin drop so much as a hint about the bountiful gift she was preparing for Australian writers.
In the early 1950s, though she was well into her seventies and battling depression and cardiac problems, Miles was still spirited, not to say acerbic, defensively quick to stamp on any remark she considered patronising, especially if uttered by a man. She wrote to Dymphna Cusack that at an English Association dinner she had sat next to ‘a Prince Alfred gun-doctor. He said, “You are a graduate of this university?” I said I was illiterate. He recovered from that sufficiently to remark that one doesn’t have to go to a university to learn to write. I said no, my mother taught me my alphabet. That really sunk him …’
Despite such flashes of self-assertion or crankiness, Miles often seemed depressed. Beatrice worried that she spent so much time alone, but she recognised Miles’s impregnable independence and knew there was little she could do. As Miles’s health declined, Beatrice grew more and more concerned. The final corrections to Laughter, Not for a Cage were due early in 1954, and Miles was unable to decide what to change and what to leave alone. Realising how ill she was, Beatrice decided to trouble her no further, giving the manuscript to young Nancy Keesing for final checking. In June Miles had a heart attack and was taken to the home of her cousin Mrs Perryman in Cheltenham, a northern suburb of Sydney, to convalesce. Hating her inability to look after herself, Miles fretted about her book, alternately demanding to know why it could not be published immediately and saying she wanted it destroyed.
In August 1954 she wrote to Beatrice saying she was short of breath with a savage pain under her left collarbone. ‘I don’t seem to have enough zip to pull out of this illness if the fact will be that I’m an invalid,’ she wrote in jagged, tiny handwriting. ‘I have struggled so long already. Still not able to read paper or to talk … memory gone and I blame phenobarb.’ Beatrice wrote to Miles’s former doctor, Douglas Anderson, the husband of her dear friend Vincentia, describing Miles’s symptoms in detail and asking whether her heart disease was getting worse. Dr Anderson recommended that she move around as much as she could, and Miles recovered enough to get out of bed.
In early September she had to go into hospital to have fluid on her lung removed. The operation went well and she was about to come home again when she had another heart attack. Miles Franklin died on 19 September 1954 at the age of seventy-five. She had asked for a simple funeral, with no death notice in the Sydney Morning Herald and no flowers. In her will she said she wanted her ashes scattered ‘on Jounama Creek just opposite the Old Talbingo Homestead where there used to be a crossing’. After all her years away, Miles wanted to return to her birthplace.
‘I feel completely bereft when I realise, which is difficult, that she is no longer with us,’ wrote Beatrice to the poet Rex Ingamells, who had inquired on behalf of Georgian House whether A&R still intended to publish Laughter, Not for a Cage. ‘She was trying to go through the ms I had edited, but was not able to complete the job.’ The final work on Laughter must have been sad and difficult for Beatrice, with Miles’s wit and aggressive Australianism permeating every line. When the book appeared in June 1956 Katharine Susannah Prichard wrote to Beatrice to congratulate her:
As a last word from Miles I felt so moved as I read. Although I read the lectures in manuscript, they seem better and have benefited from careful editing. But the best of Miles is in them – her unique and enigmatic personality. Miles, who seemingly was such a simple lovable person and yet more than that. Someone we never knew … [W]ith all her quirks and witty intransigence, she was incomparable …
Henrietta Drake-Brockman commented perceptively, ‘Dear Miles, what a wit she was, and far from confident, too, in those later days. After all, it was a shield.’
The newspaper tributes and obituaries were respectful – many mentioned the ‘unsolved mystery’ of Brent of Bin Bin’s identity. (Some-times it seems that nobody fell for Brent of Bin Bin except journalists.) On receiving a copy of Cockatoos in October 1954 Dymphna Cusack wrote to Beatrice, ‘It is unbearably poignant to open Cockatoos and feel again that pulsing vitality, that sparkling commentary on life.’
In 1963 Angus and Robertson published Miles’s last book, Childhood at Brindabella. An account of her first ten years on her parents’ station, it was written in 1952–53, but Miles had been too tired and ill to revise it. She wrote it at the urging of a friend, the children’s writer Pixie O’Harris, who wanted her to publish a children’s story based on her own early life. At first Miles refused – she loathed stories for children, she said – but the idea of a memoir stuck. Perhaps because it is an autobiography, a deliberate looking back, an attempt to recapture in memory the part of the world that Miles Franklin drew most from, Childhood at Brindabella lacks the jauntiness of her other work. But even in a memoir she couldn’t be straightforward, changing all the place names and identifying most of the people by their initials. Miles Franklin’s need for secrecy pervades even something as charming and unpretentious as Childhood at Brindabella.
A few months after Miles’s death the Permanent Trustee Company, which administered her estate, wrote to Beatrice that Miles had bequeathed her ‘a silver brooch of a fish on a South Sea paddle and a silver necklet in the shape of grape leaves’. Beatrice knew that Miles’s important papers had been left to the Mitchell Library and that her accountant and Colin Roderick from A&R had been appointed to burn those marked to be destroyed. Friends and family received small bequests; portraits and manuscripts were to go the Mitchell Library. Miles also decreed that My Brilliant Career was not to be reprinted until ten years after her death. But when her will was made public in January 1955, its major clause caused astonishment in Australian literary circles. Miles Franklin, who, as everybody knew, had led a quiet and frugal life for years, had left almost £8000 for the benefit of Australian writers. Her will stipulated that the Franklin Awards – so named for her family, not for herself – were to be given annually to ‘Authors for the advancement improvement and better-ment of Australian literature to improve the educational style of such authors to help and give incentive to authors and to provide them with additional monetary amounts and thus enable them to improve their literary efforts’. The will did not specify how many awards there should be, but Miles Franklin seems to have been thinking of only one major prize. This was to be ‘awarded for the Novel for the year which is of the highest literary merit and which must present Australian life in any of its phases’. If no novel was deemed worthy of the prize, it should go to a play for stage, radio or television or ‘such medium as may develop’, though not for farce or musical comedy. The judges of the award, to be chosen by the Permanent Trustee Company, were to be any three among a group comprising Beatrice, the librarian of the Mitchell Library, the poet Ian Mudie (one of Miles’s ‘congenials’), Colin Roderick, and Miles’s accountant George Williams. The trustees could appoint replacement judges and any others they might think fit, and they also had the power to suspend the award of the prize for as long as they wished.
The prize, first given in 1957 and always known as the Miles Franklin Award, was almost unique at the time because it was funded from the income of a person of modest means, not an endowment made by a corporation or a wealthy individual. The money came from the sale of the Carlton house and the shops Miles had owned, and her royalties, which had been invested by the Permanent Trustee Company. The prize money in the first year of the award was £500, equivalent to more than $10 000 today, and the capital was greatly increased two decades later with the sale of the film rights to My Brilliant Career.
Beatrice was not alone in being appalled at the deprivations Miles must have endured for the sake of the award (her diary entries describe her eating crusts of bread for dinner). She realised, too, that Miles had insisted on the publication of some of her own books partly to increase the amount of money available for writers of greater talent. It was Miles Franklin’s last and best-kept secret, and her friends deduced that she must have gained a great deal of satisfaction from it. Beatrice, who described herself as ‘bereft’ after Miles’s death, always recognised her friend’s special qualities. As she wrote to Rex Ingamells, ‘There was no one like her, nor is there very likely to be again.’