Australian never ceased passionate writing

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Janet Lee

For an artist to fall among reformers is more fatal than for a merchant to fall among bandits.

When Australian writer and feminist Stella Miles Franklin “fell” in 1906, she landed in Chicago in the arms of the National Women’s Trade Union League and “threw herself full tilt into the exciting and pioneering work of social reform.” The writing that had won her early fame slid into the background—but not nearly as far as some have asserted, according to Janet Lee.

“Although the decade in Chicago has been characterized as unproductive for Franklin since she published very little, she wrote incessantly and left behind a considerable amount of writing that was intimately connected to her passionate friendships and her commitment to working women in Chicago,” Lee said in describing her current book project, Fallen Among Reformers: Miles Franklin in Chicago, 1906-1915.

Lee is a Research Fellow, a professor of Women’s Studies at OSU, and the author of Comrades and Partners: The Shared Lives of Grace Hutchins and Anna Rochester (2000), and War Girls: The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (2005).

Born in 1879 in the Brindabella Valley of New South Wales, Franklin was just 22 when her novel My Brilliant Career was published to instant acclaim. The book, written when she was 16, was a semi-autobiographical story about coming of age in the Australian bush, and reflected Franklin’s passionate interest in feminism as well as her budding socialism and support for land reform.

“However, despite early literary fame, Franklin quickly became disappointed by rejections associated with sequels to My Brilliant Career,” said Lee. “She was also confused about men and marriage in the context of her growing feminism and ambivalent about a suitor whom she knew would destine her to a life of domestic toil at the edge of the bush. Franklin’s choices about marriage, work, and relationships, which plagued her throughout her life, mirrored the challenges faced by educated women negotiating the constraints of femininity at this time.”

Armed with an introduction to Jane Adams of Hull House, the 26-yeard-old Franklin landed in Chicago in 1906. She soon became national secretary for the National Women’s Trade Union League and eventually editor of its journal, Life and Labor.

“Through her activities with some of the most famous labor leaders of the day, and in contact with working women themselves, Franklin worked to improve the terrible conditions of women’s lives.” Her own life also proved difficult as she faced health and financial problems, unaccustomed cold weather, absence of family, and coping with romantic relationships that threatened loss of autonomy and undermining of her creative life.

Despite these private troubles recorded year after year in her pocket diaries, said Lee, Franklin enjoyed social engagements with a host of colleagues and friends, reformers and writers alike.

“As amply demonstrated in her journals, she wanted desperately to succeed as a writer and to experience fame and acceptance. The poignancy of this conflict, however, was that literary success eluded her during these years in Chicago and it was not until she left the United States in 1915, and then returned to Australia in 1933, that she regained her fame.”

The novels that followed included Bring the Monkey, All That Swagger, My Career Goes Bung, and the Brent of Bin Bin series that spanned 1928 through 1956.

“Still, the muse for this great ambition during the Chicago years, and for the many unpublished short stories and plays left behind, was her passion for the causes of the day and her involvement in social reform,” said Lee. “Franklin lived the politics of gender, social class, and pacifism with a zeal that gave these unpublished writings insight and vitality. This passion in Franklin’s life and work during her time in Chicago is the focus of Fallen Among Reformers.”