Miles Franklin was born in rural New South Wales which provided material for her best known novel, My Brilliant Career 1901. The book told the story of a bouncy feminist growing to womanhood in the countryside. This heroine, Sybylla Melvyn, presumably reflected the experiences and values of Franklin herself, who wrote the novel while she was still a teenager. It was published with the support of another great Australian man of letters, Henry Lawson.
After its publication, Miles Franklin wrote for two important newspapers. Her second novel tracking Sybylla’s journey in Sydney, My Career Goes Bung, came much later.
In 1906, Franklin moved abroad and got involved in writing and political activism at the National Women's Trade Union League in Chicago. And novels! In WW1 pacifist Franklin volunteered for war work in Europe. From 1919-26 she was back to political activism in the UK, including organising a women's international housing conference. Feminists and pacifists could not have asked for a better role model.
Photo credit: State Library of NSW
But as the 1930s moved on, some leading writers and editors in Australia were increasingly turning to the extreme right. Her close friend P.R Inky Stephensen (1901-1965) was a Queensland writer, editor and publisher. He edited the university magazine at the University of Queensland, and then moved to Oxford to complete his studies as a Rhodes scholar. Inky Stephensen returned to Australia in 1932 and in conjunction with Norman Lindsay, established Endeavour Press which published novels for Australia’s best loved writers - Norman Lindsay, Banjo Paterson, Xavier Herbert and Miles Franklin.
Disillusioned with democracy from 1936 on, Stephensen looked instead to extreme nationalism. Like many arch-conservative Australian politicians, Stephensen showed huge admiration for Germany and, more surprisingly, for Japan. In Sydney he published a new literary magazine The Publicist, which had a strongly anti-British, anti-Semitic, anti-socialist stance. In mid 1937 The Publicist began printing the full text of speeches of Adolf Hitler!! As David Bird observed, the magazine endorsed every aspect of German Nazism that came under its scrutiny, in the belief that there was no conflict between Nazism and Australianism.
P.R Inky Stephensen
Photo credit: Tracker
My question now is: did Miles Franklin, for so long a defiant feminist, later swing to the hard right with Inky Stephensen and his other literary colleagues? Professor Jill Roe of Macquarie University’s history department wrote that Miles Franklin did not join Australia-First and that she did not write for pro-Nazi magazine, The Publicist. Franklin did not make an early trek to the right in the 1930s and did not advocate banning Jewish refugees from entering Australia in 1938-9.
The Resident Judge of Port Phillip, reviewing the Roe book, concluded that Miles herself was neither communist nor fascist, being more aligned with traditional post WWI British Liberalism. Franklin did express fears of Asian immigration and over-breeding, taking a position that was very much of her era but one that sounds racist today.
Miles Franklin died in 1954, leaving money to establish an annual literary award to be known as The Miles Franklin Award. She bequeathed her printed books collection, manuscript material and letters to the Mitchell Library in NSW. Fortunately those are her great legacies. These days not many people mention either Xavier Herbert's or Miles Franklin's close associations with Inky Stephensen and his ugly right wing politics before and during WW2.