my brilliant career

by miles franklin

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my brilliant career summary

my brilliant career is a 1901 coming-of-age novel about sybilla melvyn, an aspiring writer growing up in the australian outback in the 1890s.

  • when sybilla is nine, her father sells his land and moves the family from bruggabong to possum gully, where he establishes a dairy farm and descends into alcoholism.
  • sybilla labors on the farm until she is invited to live with her grandmother at caddagat, where she has access to books, music, art, and society.
  • as a teenager, sybilla accepts a proposal from her neighbor harry beecham, but she later tells him she does not wish to marry.

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last updated november 3, 2023.

my brilliant career charts the coming of age of sybylla melvyn, a teenage girl growing up in the australian outback in the 1890s. when the story begins, sybylla’s family is wealthy; her father, richard “dick” melvyn, is a cattle station owner, and her mother, who considers sybylla a tomboy, is of aristocratic descent.

when sybylla is nine, dick sells his land and moves the family from their estate in bruggabong to possum gully, where he eventually establishes a dairy farm. dick squanders the money he made by selling his land and descends into alcoholism. sybylla and her mother, meanwhile, must toil on the farm. unhappy with her monotonous, workaday life, sybylla longs for artistic and intellectual stimulation. when she is fifteen, a severe drought brings ruin to the farm, and the family is scammed by a dishonest moneylender. their possessions are sold, but the family’s neighbors buy them and return them to the melvyns.

when sybylla is thirteen, she writes and attempts to publish a novel. the manuscript is rejected, but the editor encourages sybylla to keep writing, and so she does. sybylla later receives an invitation from her grandmother to go and stay with her in caddagat. there, sybylla is granted access to books, music, and art, and she thrives. she is troubled, however, by the idea that she is too plain to ever be loved. her aunt helen steps in to help sybylla improve her appearance and therefore her marriage prospects.

two young men, everard grey and frank hawden, soon wish to marry sybylla, but she turns them both down. her “only real sweetheart” is harold “harry” beecham, a wealthy young neighbor who initially mistakes her for a servant. when harry proposes, sybylla—now sixteen—accepts but tells herself it will only be for a short while; when he gives her an engagement ring, she tells him they will remain engaged for a three-month probation period to see how things go. when sybylla is seventeen, harry suddenly loses his money and property. sybylla promises she will marry him when she is twenty-one, whatever his financial status, and harry sets out to make back his fortune.

sybylla’s mother soon writes with bad news: dick is even further in debt, and sybylla must go to work as a governess for the m’swat family in barney’s gap. reluctantly, sybylla agrees. life with the m’swats turns out to be even worse than she feared; the members of the family are content to live in squalor and ignorance. once again, sybylla is forced to lead a life of hard work and crushing boredom. eventually, she falls both physically and mentally ill and is sent home to ’possum gully, and m’swat forgives her father’s debt. sybylla quickly recovers amid her family, but she finds that her father’s alcoholism has only worsened and that her younger sister gertie has become her grandmother’s new favorite.

meanwhile, harry beecham has made his fortune and is returning to his family’s estate, five-bob downs, to reclaim both it and sybylla. but sybylla tells him she does not wish to marry him, and, disappointed, he leaves to travel the world. sybylla closes her narration by reflecting that she is proud to be a peasant and an australian, in spite of the nation’s flaws.

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