Miles Franklin and her 'Brindabella' childhood.
A feature of Stella's published writings is that the Tumut and Goodradigbee valleys feature so strongly. Even though she left the district at the age of ten, in her impressionable mind what she recalled was to last for the rest of her life. Stella's memories of her childhood were to give her books their distinctive Australian character with stories of the mateship amongst herdsmen, flockmasters and horsemen who pioneered pastoralism by felling the trees for post and rail fences, built the first rough slab homes and overlanded their livestock. In one of her books, entitled All That Swagger, Stella borrowed from her memory of her grandfather, Joseph Franklin, to create the main character, Danny Delacy. This book first appeared in 1936 in The Bulletin as a serial under the pen-name of "Brent of Bin Bin" and it presents Stella's grandfather with some accuracy. Joseph Franklin was born in 1815, the year of Waterloo, at Doonas, near Limerick in northern Ireland. At the age of 22 Joseph married Mary Hogan at Limerick, and his occupation is listed as "farmer and house servant". Following the birth of a daughter, Joseph and Maria, as the name she preferred, turned their backs on the poverty of Ireland and arrived at Sydney Town in 1839 after a six-month voyage. From a fellow passenger, Joseph found employment as a farm labourer on the newly settled Yass Plains at "Walgrove" station. Here, he registered the birth of his three sons. The youngest, John, was to become Stella's father.
Within two years, Joseph rose to the position of overseer and Maria became the homestead housekeeper. By 1848 Joseph had acquired a small herd of cattle and decided to find land of his own by following the Goodradigbee River upstream to the district now known as Brindabella. To receive a run licence to graze cattle Joseph had to take up residence at Brindabella. Closer to civilization, he left Maria and her young family of four children in a small slab hut adjacent to the Goodradigbee River about 15 kilometres west of "Uriarra" station. The usual hazards of pioneering confronted them. Cattle strayed or were speared and eaten by Aborigines. Tribal fights were common and during one of Joseph's absences, Maria's hut burnt down from a kitchen fire while she and the children were out looking for a lost cow. The McDonald family of "Uriarra" rescued them and took them in. John McDonald then helped Joseph muster his cattle for branding before Joseph walked them to sell in Goulburn. On his way back to "Uriarra", Joseph was thrown from his horse and dislocated his hip when he fell on a bull-ant nest and he suffered the tortures of their taste for red meat. By chance, he was discovered by William Grovenor who had founded the town of Gunning. Grovenor brought in the surgeon from Goulburn and looked after Joseph for nine months at his own expense, but for the rest of his life Joseph limped badly. All this is recorded with some elaboration in All That Swagger. Because family fortunes were at low ebb, Joseph then set out for the Victorian gold-fields in 1852, the year that floods washed away the first settlements at Gundagai, Tumut and even part of Yass. Crossing a flooded river south of Gundagai, Joseph lost his saddle and swag and almost died of hunger as a consequence. He reached the Beechworth diggings and despite loss of gold stolen by his mate and then being bailed up by a bushranger at Yackandandah he returned home with 200 [pounds sterling] with which he bought land on Jeir Creek, named "Oakvale". With a reputation gained over the next decade from cattle and the breeding of Indian Army remounts, Joseph and his sons purchased the lease of Brindabella station in 1864 and the adjoining runs of Bin Bin East and Bin Bin West. These properties, totaling 200,000 acres, were to provide the springboard to Stella's fiction.
Now let me turn to Stella. In many ways, Stella was closer to her maternal forebears, the Lampe and Bridle families. Much of her fiction is a record of this heritage, including recognition that she could claim convict descent from who came to Australia with the First Fleet charged with grand larceny. Time and time again, Stella showed in her novels that the reformed lag and his children were as good as anyone else. This sense of egalitarianism is a common theme. A second theme is courage in the face of adversity. Stella's mother, Susannah Lampe, demonstrated this with a tough upbringing because of family tragedy on their farm at Talbingo. When Susannah was fifteen, her very tall father, Oltmann Lampe, was thrown from his horse and his spinal cord badly damaged. As a cripple, his next tragedy was to lose his sight. The brunt of family responsibility fell as the eldest child upon Susannah who had to move her heavy father around, serve as laundress and charwoman, farm-hand and vegetable gardener to assist her mother, butcher the sheep, pigs and cattle for meat, milk the cows and tend the fowls and turkeys. Their home was an earthen-floored shack, but it was a centre of hospitality. Stella was to write high praise about her grandmother, (nee Bridle), Susannah's mother and the Talbingo house, in her book Childhood at Brindabella, published posthumously in 1963:
"She was not quite five feet tall and composed of energy, determination, generosity, common sense, honesty and courage. She believed God to be a fixed identity as defined by the Church from the Bible. She never owed a penny or turned a tramp from her door without replenishing his tucker-bags or giving him care if he were ill. She mothered the "godwits" by patching their clothes, giving them boots and admonishment. She was ceaselessly industrious, had a head for business and was known as a "good manager". Her haysheds and other storehouses were always well-stocked for winter with the yield from her orchards, potato and pumpkin paddocks, her fowlhouses, her dairy and vegetable garden
She grew and cured her own bacon as well as her own beef. Her streams were full of native trout and Murray cod. Order, plenty, decency, industry and hospitality were in the home I loved." (pp. 24-25)
In November 1878, at the age of 28, Susannah left Talbingo to marry 30-year-old John Franklin. They settled on the Bin Bin run in the Brindabella valley, in a slab hut by the banks of the Goodradigbee River not far from the Brindabella homestead occupied by John's second brother, Thomas. The music of this river features over and over again in Stella's writing which also recalls the beauty of a garden established by her mother, with its daffodils, sweet Williams, honeysuckles, roses, a lilac and a golden laburnum. In Childhood at Brindabella, Stella wrote about the house which John built for Susannah:
"The home where men first went to work up to their marriage would be a two-roomed hut comprising kitchen-living room and bedroom-storeroom. Callers camped in their own nap on the verandah in summer or beside the kitchen fire in winter. There was attached to this room another, a little smaller in depth and width, which was the fireplace. It would be constructed of stones and plaster, sometimes of bark or slabs with a lining of stones and mud. Beams across it carried the hams and sides of bacon or spiced beef and bullocks' tongues preserved by slow smoking and protected from the weather by a hooped sheet of bark. Lower beams would support the kettles and camp-ovens and three-legged pots for cooking. The roof would be of stringybark on ridge poles with a good steep pitch and held on by riders, snug and weatherproof if the trees from which the bark was stripped were carefully selected. The sheets of bark were often much larger than those of galvanized iron which succeeded them. Under this was a loft for flour, rice, sugar and other commodities brought by bullock team once or twice every year.
In the tall-timbered country these homes were of slabs split and adzed from the imperial mountain-ash or stringy-bark trees and set in wall- and ground-plates that would remain sound for generations. Such homesteads increased like bulbs, in clusters. Often the bride would come to live in the hut to await a grander house, or would never expect any other.
In more pretentious cases the man would not bring his bride until the new house was up. This was the case with my father ... On her marriage my mother came to a new house roofed with shingles of mountain-ash--as durable as English oak--capably split and sawn in uniform length, left to weather and put up with such craftsmanship that a leak was unknown. Its end room of my earliest memory was on our small unexpanded house. It was dedicated to guests, and knew mostly old gentlemen with grey beards in tweed suits, who cleared their throats with a note of authority; but occasionally there were beautiful young women in tight riding-habits, sometimes bowler hats, sometimes billycocks, with white or black veils to protect fair skins from sun or flies." (pp. 2-4)
Susannah rode side-saddle the 110 kilometres to Bin Bin from Talbingo on her favourite horse, a fine blood horse named Lord Byron. She brought with her, by bullock wagon, not only her house linen and cedar glory box but her sewing machine and a rosewood piano. The piano was handled so reverently "down wriggling creek beds" instead of the rutted tracks that there was not a scratch to its surface. The piano was also a status symbol, with Susannah possessing a repertoire of "pieces". Stella was to write fondly decades later about her parents (Childhood p. 10):
"My mother was the wonder of her region. She was beautiful and accomplished, clever as a hostess and in all departments of home-making. My father's pride in her was a poem and a triumph combined, and sustained him to the end of his days. There was open expression of surprise as to how he could have carried off such a prize, but he too must have been irresistible with his slim straight height, his equestrian fame, his blue eyes, dark hair and sharp classical profile, his exuberant and witty though unbarbed humour, his boundless generosity."
Within months Susannah was pregnant with Stella. Two months before the due date, Susannah returned to Talbingo homestead for the birth, probably accompanied by John. Stella has described the feat of crossing the Fiery Range at the height of winter--an experience that must have nearly killed her (Childhood p. 19):
"She went by impossible tracks negotiable only by a mountain-bred horse, at such angles that those unaccustomed could not retain a seat. For miles the horse plunged to the girths in snow. She rode her own horse, Lord Byron, who had borne her to her new home as a bride. His shoes had not been removed and snow collected in hard balls in the arches of his hoofs. Mother never forgot that punishing journey. There would have been fewer jolts had Lord Byron shed all his stilts at once, but he went off one at a time, and no surety from which point the next jerk would come, which increased the strain. She rode too on a hard new side-saddle in an elegant habit, tight-fitting and boned."
She was so exhausted at the end of the first grueling day of over thirty miles that she had to rest for three days at the home of a selector. The motherly wife won Mother's unfading love, though I do not know that they ever met again. Mrs. H. had the usual pioneer brood herself. She put Mother into her own bed as the warmest place for her bruised body, and placed her youngest, a child at arms, at Mother's feet to keep them warm."
Researchers have since identified the kind woman as Mrs. Dan Herlihy.
Apparently the use of a young child as a hot water bottle was not uncommon. At Talbingo, Susannah was attended by her mother, her sisters and by her grandmother who travelled by phaeton from Tumut. Her new daughter was named as the star of her parents' hopes. In spring, Susannah returned to Bin Bin with Stella carried by Susannah's brother William on the pommel of his horse. Stella has written (Childhood pp. 19-20):
"When I was three months old Mother rode home by a different route over the daisied plains by the sparkling rivulets where some of our longest creek-rivers began. My second uncle, a capable and humourous young man, carried me before him on the purple pillow. He says that I yowled when I grew hungry and the dairy, as he expressed it, had ridden too far ahead. Thus--straight from the bed in which I was born to the back of a horse with no perambulator intervening.
There was no gangway for prams in our bailiwick. My parents' home was a mile or more from the main homestead of my father's second brother, and his more advanced family. Between was a little level track that took no heed of a creek or a fence or a swamp where the wild ducks used to "sing their long-drawn note of revelry rejoicing at the spring." And why would people of any age be pottering along on foot when there were horses of various accomplishments for all.
But sometimes on Sunday afternoons the two families met half way on foot as a little company for the two young mothers and a change for the men from constantly catching and saddling horses. On such occasions I rode on my father's shoulder. No head was so much poked out of doors unhatted. Sunstroke was considered more likely than snakebite and when my father took off his hat to get it out of my way I desperately spread my fat paws on his crown to save him from death."
One of Stella's earliest childhood concerns was the quality of her breathing. Again. Let me read from Childhood at Brindabella (pp. 15-17) because it contains an excellent character study:
"Breathing was an epic discovery. I was sitting before a glowing fire early one morning putting on my stockings. Mother was busy elsewhere. A slight chill would account for my being allowed the slackness of dressing at that late hour beside the fire. There were no muggy appearances in dressing gowns in my mother's day and family. One bathed, dressed and combed completely before inflicting one's presence on one's fellows.
My nasal tubes were stopped and caused the phenomenon of snuffling. My nose wouldn't work! We were carefully overlooked so that we did not breathe through our mouths, nor wear those cavities open during sleep or at times when they should be closed--firmly closed too. Looseness in living was not then generally esteemed and a slack mouth was discouraged as an inauspicious augury.
Mother did not quite understand the core of my distress. "Blow your nose! Like this!"
This brought no relief. An obstruction remained. I was overtaking by a devastating fear. Was I going to die like the cats and dogs that were shot and poisoned? The thought of death remains dismaying to this day. The cackles of the nursemaid and my mother's exhortations failed to comfort because they were not explanatory.
Fortunately, Uncle Hil arrived. He had lately married my father's sister Aunt Ignez. He was of English parentage with the endearing manner of those who long ago were non Angli sed angeli. Though not lacking in intelligence and exuding common sense, he was a man of simple thoughts who retained a beautiful wonder about Nature in the form of all her living creatures. He loved flowers and was at one with the animals. The working bullocks followed his instructions contentedly. He was the dear delight of small children and had a repertory of tricks, such as seizing our noses and making them reappear in the form of his thumb between his own fingers until we'd shriek in thrilled delight and apprehensively feel our faces. He would play hide-and-seek and other games with us while others yarned about station affairs or argued politics by the fire or on the verandah. Blue-eyed and deliberate of movement, he was at peace with all men, even Aunt Ignez, who was a worrier and sometimes cantankerous. He contemplated the mysteries of life rather than grizzling to reform living or rebelling against it.
When he arrived this day he put aside his business to unravel the cause of my discomfort and alarm. I must have been in my third year because of my size in relation to the little block I sat on, a present from Uncle Hil. He took up the case seriously, on my level, physically and mentally. He sat to his hunkers beside me, a bushman's habit he retained on the most unexpected occasions. I snorted and puffed to show the cause of my worry. I was distressed by a noise like a toy bellows. Uncle Hil demonstrated so that I could hear him inhale and expire. From this I early became conscious that men breathe more audibly than women. Sit in a room in silence with men and women, and you can always hear the men breathing."
Stella possessed an ability to illustrate the foibles of human character she remembered from childhood. Little Stella loved to hide under the table where she sometimes witnessed surreptitious conduct. From here, Charlie, one of the rouseabouts, and Mary the domestic helper were seen holding hands on the stool beside the wall. Stella was able to repeat the innocent conversation and recalls, "What held me was that Charlie's dark face, not usually given to merriment, was aglow and pleading, and that Mary, a thumping extrovert Susan Nipper, always being chiacked by the men and able to hold her own, was standing somnolently without motion or sound" (Childhood p. 39). A dashing cousin of her mother loved to visit for dinner, always "talking at the top of his ego, which was lively and assertive" (Childhood p. 40). Mr. And Mrs. M'Swat, two of the characters in My Brilliant Career, appear to be caricatures of her father's eldest brother, George, and his wife who lived at "Oakvale". Her aunt never forgave her for the portrayal of Mrs. M'Swat as a "great, fat, ignorant, pleasant-looking woman, shockingly dirty and untidy", although Stella always claimed the M'Swats to be figments of her imagination. Stella recalled a visit by Grandpa Joseph Franklin (Childhood pp. 53-7):
"Spring was near. Grandpa arrived to divert my attention. The horse muster was imminent and Grandpa still liked to be in it, if only thereby. His two elder sons said he was getting childish but his ageless wisdom was increasing and my father had great reverence for him. He was respected by all the youths and outsiders as "the old Gentleman". He had a resounding voice and an Irish brogue. It was claimed that he could be heard for miles out on the runs as he reproved the dogs or exhorted the ignorant colonials.
A theory was prevalent that root vegetables could not be transplanted with success. This has long been discredited by the parcels of beets, onions, etc. to be purchased at seed stores. Grandpa's wisdom or knowledge was ahead of local practice. The children clamoured for an edict against Grandpa for taking young parsnips and carrots out by the roots, which had been forbidden to them.
"Well," said Father mildly, "no one must interfere with Grandpa's gardening. Grandpa knew everything before any of us was born. You must do what you are told, but Grandpa can do what he likes. Is that clearly understood?"
... He was a dear old man who asked little from life and got less. He took whatever was given him without complaints and never asked concessions for his lameness and age."
Poor Aunt Agnes ("Aggie" or "Ignez") came in for less complimentary description towards the end of Stella's life (Childhood p. 32):
"Aunt Ignez was not rated as the beauty of her family nor considered remarkably clever by Mother and Aunt A., but those two young women were without exaggeration transcendent in resourcefulness and skill so that it was hard on competitors. Aunt Ignez suffered from violent and prolonged flatulence and was often irascible. Probably she was the victim of what today is coddled and relieved as a duodenal ulcer. She could have contracted one when living on the hard restricted diet of the earliest days at Bobilla with her brothers when it was wild and inaccessible. A mountain peak there is named in her honour.
"How is Ignez these days?" inquired Mother. "She'd be alright if it wasn't for the wind. I don't know what to do for it. Gosh! That unfortunate woman has enough wind to start the bagpipes."
This led to acquaintance with the three maladies of old ladies, who had to imbibe concoctions to break the wind, or cut the phlegm, or bring up the bile."
Stella put another early recollection of her life into the opening page of My Brilliant Career (p. 1). Let me read this:
"I was barely three. I can remember the majestic gum-trees surrounding us, the sun glinting on their straight white trunks, and falling on the gurgling fern-banked stream, which disappeared beneath a steep scrubby hill on our left. It was an hour past noon on a long clear summer day. We were on a distant part of the run, where my father had come to deposit salt. He had left home early in the dewy morning, carrying me in front of him on a little brown pillow which my mother had made for the purpose. We had put lumps of rock-salt in the troughs on the other side of the creek. The stringybark roof of the salt-shed which protected the troughs from rain peeped our picturesquely from the musk and peppercorn shrubs by which it was densely surrounded, and was visible from where we lunched."
One of the first concerns of her parents, proved to be Stella's prolonged baldness. Stella writes (Childhood, pp. 12-13):
"I was born as bald as an ostrich egg. Not a hair. My scalp was exceptionally healthy, no cradle cap, no flaw of any sort, and it has remained healthy through many years of hard and careless usage. The face and features given to the full moon were mine exactly. Months passed without sign of a hair. My head was scanned minutely and caressed with a brush as soft as silk, without response. My parents discussed the necessity for a wig when I should be older.
"Such a misfortune for a child, especially a girl!"
Happily Mr Shelley arrived. Little more remains of him than the Person from Porlock. The depth of my mother's anxiety and the hope he brought were embalmed in constant repetition of the story. Mr. Shelley dismissed the probability of continuing baldness.
"The child has a perfect scalp and such an unusually beautiful skin that a complexion of unmatched perfection is promised. My sister was like that as a baby. She stayed bald until she was twelve months old. Then there was some soft down. Her hair soon followed to such an extent that when she was seventeen my sister could sit on a chair and covered herself to the floor in her tresses."
Blessed Mr. Shelley of treasured memory, who had a hairy sister!
At the end of the first year I followed Miss Shelley's example. Seventeen was the goal. I never attained to quite Miss Shelley's length but at seventeen I triumphantly sat on a footstool covered to the floor with womanly glory. It was never more than forty-three inches in length, but was extraordinary in other ways. t was among the finest I have known, a detraction which has made me envy women with coarser hair. At the beginning mine would curl softly at the ends but the weight soon held it straight. There were clouds of it. Washed in a strong hot solution of washing soda--the only shampoo ever used on it--to take out some of the natural oil, and plaited to put a wave in it, it made a mat that was spectacular and unmanageable. It was a marvel that it all could be rooted on one head, and it kept a clean line, never encroaching on the forehead or straying down the neck. It shone as if dressed with brilliantine, light brown which darkened to coppery tints after twenty. It could be controlled only by severe plaiting and its resilience made it as difficult to keep a ribbon on the end as it is to hold a silken shoe-lace from slipping. It was a nuisance and a physical handicap. Strange as it may seem today, when hair is closely cut, not alone for comfort but for beautification, long hair was considered a glory. No matter if it had to be piled in ungainly stacks, it attracted like a banner. Other girls could be glaringly handsome but Godiva Locks could cause an eclipse like a peacock unfurling his tail."
The first photograph taken in 1900 when Stella was 21 is one of only two profile portraits ever taken because she was distressed to discover that she had a snub nose. She convinced herself that her nose made her irredeemably ugly. She could never stop pinching and squeezing it afterwards.
It affected her writing and she created heroines who flaunted their plainness. In her first novel My Brilliant Career, Stella's heroine, Sybylla Penelope Melvyn, exclaims, "What right had I to be small? Why wasn't I possessed of a big aquiline noise and a tall commanding figure?" Without question, the 152 centimetre Sybylla is a projection of Stella not merely in stature but as many of Stella's thoughts and emotions. To conclude, I will give you an extract from My Brilliant Career (pp. 33-34)
"As a tiny child I was filled with dreams of the great things I was to do when grown up. My ambition was as boundless as the mighty bush in which I have always lived. As I grew it dawned upon me that I was a girl--the makings of a woman! Only a girl!--merely this and nothing more. It came home to me as a great blow that it was only men who could take the world by its ears and conquer their fate, while women, metaphorically speaking, were forced to sit with tied hands and patiently suffer as the waves of fate tossed them hither and thither, battering and bruising without mercy. Familiarity made me used to this yoke; I recovered from the disappointment of being a girl, and was reconciled to that part of my fate. In fact, I found that being a girl was quite pleasant until a hideous truth dawned upon me--I was ugly! That truth embittered my whole existence. It gives me days and nights of agony. It is a sensitive sore that will never heal, a grim hobgoblin that nought can scare away. In conjunction with this brand of hell I developed a reputation for cleverness. Worse and worse! Girls! Girls! Those of you who have hearts, and therefore a wish for happiness, homes and husbands by and by, never develop a reputation for being clever. It will put you out of the matrimonial running as effectively as though it had been circulated that you had leprosy."
Now let me return to the last photograph mentioned at the beginning. Did any one guess the name of Stella's unsuccessful suitor. His first name was Andrew and he was a keen horseman. His name was A.B. Paterson or "Banjo".
Barnard, Marjorie (1967) Miles Franklin. Twayne Publishers Inc., New York.
Brent of Bin Bin (1923) Up the country. Blackwood & Son, Edinburgh.
Coleman, Verna (1981) Miles Franklin in America: her unknown (brilliant) career. Angus & Robertson, Sydney
Franklin, Miles (1901) My brilliant career. Angus & Robertson, Sydney.
Franklin, Miles (1909) Some everyday folk and Dawn. Blackwood, Edinburgh. Reprinted 1986, Virago Press, London.
Franklin, Miles (1931) Old Blastus of Bandicoot. Palmer, London.
Franklin, Miles (1936) All that swagger. Angus & Robertson, Sydney.
Franklin, Miles (1963) Childhood at Brindabella: my first ten years. Angus & Robertson, Sydney.
Roderick, Colin (1982) Miles Franklin: her brilliant career. Rigby Publishers, Adelaide.
Roe, Jill (1993) My congenials: Miles Franklin & friends in letters. The State Library of New South Wales in association with Angus & Robertson, Sydney. Volume 1: 1879-1938.
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|Publication:||M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2006|
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