Jill Roe, Miles Franklin: A Short Biography

HarperCollins Australia (Fourth Estate), 417 pp., ISBN: 9781460755792, p/bk, AUS$32.99


The first edition of the late Jill Roe’s award-winning work Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography was published in 2008. A decade later, a new edition has been produced: Miles Franklin: A Short Biography (2018).

The new edition is, as it claims, shorter. Much shorter, at 417 pages, down from 709.

The idea of a shortened version of Roe’s epic volume that documents Franklin, her family, friends and the age in which she lived and wrote, felt, at first, a little unsettling, even sacrilegious. Surely, the text that I have been holding aloft as an example to students, alongside Grace KarskensThe Colony: A History of Early Sydney (2009), with exhortations of “this is what you can do, this is what committed and rigorous archival research can achieve” could not be subjected to an editor’s pen.

Editor Neil Thomas (in collaboration with Roe’s partner Beverley Kingston) has however ensured the integrity of Roe’s work with an approach to abridgement that focuses on removing full sentences and entire paragraphs that offered additional information to the central narrative, rather than merely chipping away at each line of text and deleting adjectives or any other word that presented itself as potentially superfluous. Looking at the two editions side-by-side and comparing the first chapter of each line-by-line reveals that all the material removed is contextual rather than critical. The cuts reduce the first chapter from 21 pages to 10 and have a flow-on effect that results in only 27 endnotes instead of 67. The incisions are neat and clean. It could have been so easy to distort Franklin’s story or re-imagine Roe’s interpretation but thoughtful work has resulted in a biography that unfolds naturally and seamlessly.

This shortened biography (perhaps better described as a tightened biography) adds an energy and a sense of urgency to Franklin’s story. The purpose of the text is clear and unrelenting: this is Franklin’s life of success, fear, failure, international work and a devoted circle of companions. Miles Franklin is still here, complicated, contradictory, determined, sometimes difficult to understand, very much ahead of her time and always talented. Jill Roe is also still here, authoritative, compassionate, meticulous and a Franklin scholar without equal.

The text on the cover of this new edition describes Franklin as a feminist, activist and literary legend. It also features a classic image of Franklin: beautiful, long-haired and very young in a snugly fitting black suit with the sharp lines of matching hat, gloves and umbrella. This is a striking contrast to the original cover which features Franklin in her mid-30s, still beautiful, but in soft muted tones that merge into the dust jacket’s beige background. Using Franklin’s famous silhouette is clever biographical and literary shorthand; this is Miles Franklin who wrote Australia’s first ‘New Woman’ novel, an important genre focused on intelligent, educated, emancipated and independent women. This is also the Franklin who marched at union rallies, served as a cook in a military hospital, lobbied for better housing, railed against ideas of war, stood up against censorship and who produced a body of work that has forever changed the Australian literary landscape. The cover design serves as a statement that this is a book slightly less concerned about background information and very much concerned about her. As a woman who often overlooked her own birthday and who easily lied about her age, Franklin might also appreciate the new design.

Though fewer images have been reproduced in this edition, it is great to see pictures integrated within the text, anchored to description, rather than sequestered on sheets of glossy paper. Another change is the inclusion of an extra appendix, one that lists all the winners of the Miles Franklin Literary Award since the first Award was presented to Patrick White for Voss in 1957 (p. 339) and of the Stella Prize since being awarded to Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds in 2013 (p. 342). For some, these prizes are symbols of Franklin’s impact on the national imagination while annual discussions, and occasional controversies, of these prestigious accolades ensure perennial discussions around Australian literature and the Australian woman who gave her life to establishing and promoting a distinctly Australian voice: written works we could proudly assert as our own. A guide to sources and the endnotes have been retained in 2018 but, regrettably this version does not have an index.

Jill Roe’s Miles Franklin: A Short Biography is a thoughtfully abridged and accessible edition of a classic Australian biography. While it’s not a replacement for the original, which will still be essential reading for anyone studying Franklin and the history of Australian literature, this shorter, tighter version should find a larger audience among readers who want to understand Franklin’s extraordinary life and work.

In the original iteration, and in this new edition, Roe noted that: “A final acknowledgement is due to Miles herself. She has been good company and taught me much” (p. 669; p. 415). Miles Franklin is, as is her greatest biographer, still very good company indeed. The lessons are still there too, in her own words as well as in her actions. Franklin may not have achieved the brilliant career that she dreamed of and that she worked so hard for, but she is indeed a literary legend, and this successful abridgement of her biography provides an engaging introduction to her legacy.

Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, April 2018

You can read an excerpt of the book on the HarperCollins website here.


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