The winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award for 2021 was announced just a few days ago with the prize going to Amanda Lohrey for her novel The Labyrinth. I haven’t actually read any of the books on the shortlist, which is quite normal for me, as I generally tend to catch up with recommended and shortlisted books quite some time down the track. It doesn’t really worry me because I have always believed that a good book will still be a good book whenever I eventually get around to reading it. And if it is a really good book it should still pass the test of time no matter how much time has passed.
The Miles Franklin Literary Award was named after and founded by Australian author Miles Franklin (1879-1954). Probably best known for My Brilliant Career (1901), some of her other works include All That Swagger (1936), My Career Goes Bung (1946), and a pastoral series published under the pseudonym of “Brent of Bin Bin,” of which Up the Country (1928) was the first. Although devoted to Australian literature, Franklin spent extended periods in the US (1906-1915) and the UK (1915-1927). After her death in 1954 the remains of her estate were used to found the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the first prize was awarded in 1957. You can read an excellent biography about Miles Franklin here.
While Up the Country was originally published in 1928, this special edition was released by Angus and Robertson in 1984. Convinced that publishers were prejudiced against female writers (probably quite true), Franklin used a long list of pseudonyms including Brent of Bin Bin, but her true authorship of Up the Country was one of those literary secrets that had been well guarded for over 30 years! Secrets like that barely last any time at all these days. According to the publisher’s note, Up the Country, together with My Brilliant Career and All That Swagger, were the only three of Franklin’s novels for which she experienced any real success in her lifetime. Loosely based on her grandmother’s life, Up the Country is considered by some to be Franklin’s finest work. This edition originates from an earlier manuscript that was found among Franklin’s papers after her death. The publishers notes explain that it has been
“… edited more severely than Miles Franklin herself would ever have allowed. At the same time the unmistakable Franklin style has been retained. We have also taken the liberty of deleting her long, anti-climatic ending. We believe this results in a book with a strong narrative and considerable vitality.”
Set in the New South Wales high country during the 1850s, Up the Country deals with a number of themes, such as the challenges faced by women, the changing nature of class relations, and the relationship between the early settlers and the indigenous people of the area. While a number of characters move in and out of the narrative, the story mainly centres on the lives of the Mazere family. Rachel Mazere, the matriarch of the family, is an extraordinary women. At the age of 44, she already has five grandchildren and has given birth to twelve children, of whom nine are still living. With her eldest daughter already married, and preparations for another daughter’s marriage well on the way, her youngest children are still quite young, but
“she was still not able to feel out of the woods at the age of 44 in that era where there was no circumvention of natural fecundity save affliction more devastating than child-bearing itself.”
Marriage and childbearing were a constant theme of women’s lives in that time, however Rachel is determined that her own daughters will not be ushered down the aisle too soon, insisting that they be at least eighteen, although it “would be even better to wait till twenty-one.” Even though this is an era in which women had few rights, Rachel demonstrates a deft hand when it comes to managing the men in her life. Rachel’s husband, Philip Mazere Sr, prides himself on being the strong patriarchal head of the family, with an often fiery and bullish nature, yet Rachel quietly manages to get her own way. When he strictly forbids her to cross a flooded river to assist a woman in childbirth, she goes anyway, and underneath all the bluster, we see the tender heart of a man who actually loves his wife very dearly.
Although Franklin never married she displays a quick and incisive wit when it comes to the relations between men and women. For those men who like to think they are the king of the castle Franklin has some words of truth.
“Master in his own house, eh? His pronouncement was not, however, quite as masterful as it seemed, for in those days, as today, men often thought they were masters in their own houses, when all the time their wives were too kind, or too canny, to undeceive them.”
Franklin, though, also has some words of advice for any woman in love who thinks they can change their man,
“as girls will in the egotism of passion, oblivious of the evidence that if God and his mother cannot make a man, there is seldom much to be done with the spoiled material.”
And here is one that is still so perfectly apt for our contemporary era…
“Since men suffer the delusion that courage is a male prerogative…for when courage blazes forth conspicuously in a woman, they are shamed. Men have not yet learned, or if they have, possess not yet sufficient moral courage to admit that male courage is often nothing but recklessness. But women’s courage is conceived in cold blood and thought upon, and that is why it is the more deadly. When men have the moral courage to realise that they are not the stronger, braver sex, and that in fact it is fear that drives them to amass their ghastly engines of destruction, with a maniacal lack of logic that by their amassing safety is promoted, the human race will be some thousands of years further on the way to the millennium than it is at present.”
Up the Country also highlights the prejudices that were held against former convicts and “foreigners”, and the very strange double standards displayed by many of the male characters. Philip Sr becomes enraged at his son’s marriage to a former convict’s daughter and disinherits him, until he is won over by her gentle nature and a grandchild. Meanwhile, the “native born” sons of the local squatters resent Mazere’s future son-in-law because he is a “foreigner.” Seem to have a short memory. But the strangest thing of all was the men’s reluctance to let their wives and daughters socialise with some working class women, despite the fact that they seemed to be on a very friendly basis with those same women themselves! Yet change was on the way. The old order was breaking down, accelerated by the Gold Rush and a “new breed of squatter, some of whom were of questionable stamp.”
These days one of the things that many Australian readers look for in a colonial narrative is the way in which Indigenous people are both represented and included in the narrative. In Up the Country Indigenous people do make an entrance into the story occasionally, but generally only for the purpose of rendering assistance to the white settlers. There is reference to Indigenous people as the traditional owners as Mazere’s son-in-law had been set up by his father on “land that had belonged traditionally to a tribe of Aborigines.” Relations between the white settlers and the remaining Aboriginals are depicted as friendly and peaceable, with at least some settlers having learnt the use of smoke signals in order to communicate with the Indigenous people and request their assistance. At one point, Philip Sr claims..
“What does a decent, honest man want to carry an arsenal around with him for? The blacks are not dangerous and bushranging no longer exists in these parts.”
I did wonder about this, as more and more frequently the truth of the frontier wars are becoming more widely known, so I did a little bit of digging. One report written in the 1920s said that all the early settlers of the high country consistently agreed that relations with the Indigenous tribes had been peaceable. Given it was written in the 1920s, my first response was hmmm, but I then discovered a report written in 2007 about the history of the Cooma-Manora Shire. It suggests that while there were disputes between the early settlers and the Indigenous tribes over access to sacred sites and the use of livestock, generally the tribes did attempt to maintain friendly relations with the invaders. Ultimately they were forced to accept the occupation of their traditional land, however, as in other areas across the country, they were significantly impacted by the introduction of disease and the disruption to their way of life.
Up the Country was an interesting and enjoyable read, even with the tragic ending, and it displays Franklin’s incisive wit and astute observation about people, their relationships, and life in the high country. I am looking forward to reading more of her work.