Janet Lee, Fallen Among Reformers: Miles Franklin, Modernity, and the New Woman

Sydney University Press, June 2020, 168 pp. (plus works cited and index), ISBN: 9781743326886, p/bk, AUS$45.00

In a new full-length work on Miles Franklin (1879–1954), Janet Lee, Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University, explores the great Australian writer’s years in America between 1906 and 1915. Fallen Among Reformers: Miles Franklin, Modernity, and the New Woman, from Sydney University Press (a volume in their Sydney Studies in Australian Literature series) critically unpacks the key literary manuscripts produced by Franklin while she lived and worked in Chicago.

Approaching Franklin can be difficult a task. She is complex and contradictory. Most of her writing justifies the love that many of us have for her. Yet she had a habit of making cutting remarks that are truly shameful. She can, too, come across as depressed and sluggish. This, despite maintaining a vigorous workload—writing, editing, socialising, working and lobbying for a more vibrant Australian literature as well as being interested about, and engaged in, the world around her—almost until her death. Another issue writers that have to address in facing Franklin is Jill Roe’s extraordinary Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography (2008, revised in 2018). Indeed, it was quite an awkward reading experience for the first few pages of Lee’s work, a long text that was not in Roe’s voice. Of course, Roe is there throughout the story and Lee dedicates her efforts to Franklin’s great biographer (p.viii).

The title for Lee’s work comes from Franklin’s Cockatoos (1954) and a heroine who is ‘fallen among reformers’, unable to pursue her art and suffering from a heart ‘frozen’ by [a] secret tragedy” (p.1). Franklin was working with reformers in Chicago where she was the National Secretary of the National Women’s Trade Union League. In particular, Lee seeks to exploit Franklin’s status as a New Woman in the early-twentieth century and reveal in her writing a ‘specific narrative authority earned from living and working in this landscape and engaging with these particular cultural and political dimensions of modernity’ (p.3). In focusing on Franklin’s short stories, novels and plays, Lee addresses broad themes of ‘Work’, ‘Marriage’ and ‘Men’ and so tracks some of Franklin’s evolving frames of feminism, pacifism and socialism.

The Chicago years were productive and challenging for Franklin. As Lee observes, this period was referred to by Roe as Franklin’s ‘university’ (p.15) and she greatly enjoyed her work and the company of her peers. While overseas however she learnt that her sister Linda had died, and her parents had lost their home at Penrith (p.9). Moreover, she struggled to have her work published. This was not, however, a problem unique to Franklin’s years in the United States, and she faced similar difficulties in England and back home in Australia.

Lee’s approach to this task – the close reading of published and unpublished writings of Franklin – was a technical and time consuming one. A review of the Acknowledgements notes that Lee’s first article on topics covered within Fallen Among Reformers appeared in 2007. The effort has produced an excellent result. Students of Franklin, and of literature beyond her, will welcome this work on some of the important ideas that women writers were grappling with in the early 1900s.

Franklin was very much a woman of, and for, her time. She made essential contributions to an era of great change. It is, however, fascinating to speculate about what Franklin would do and say in our own time. The cover of Lee’s text uses one of my favourite photographs of Franklin: she looks confident and relaxed in a deckchair on a Chicago rooftop. Looking closely at this image it is easy to imagine her today. Offering selfies on social media. Presenting articles and lectures on the inherent value of literature. Pushing material out on a computer, instead of clattering away on rented typewriters (though she would eventually buy her own). Contributing quick one-liners to the fight against inequalities of many different kinds.

Lee’s book, with excellent notes and a useful index, is a welcome addition to the conversation on Franklin’s life and work. It shows that there is still much that we can learn about, as well as from, Stella Miles Franklin.

Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, September 2020  

For a preview of the book or to purchase online, visit the publisher’s website here.

In September and October 2020, the State Library of New South Wales is piloting a new tool to transcribe their rich holdings of manuscript materials using Miles Franklin’s pocket diaries. If you would like to help transcribe some of Franklin’s thoughts, go the the Library’s project page here: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/statelibrarynsw/miles-franklins-diaries-1952-54

Visit the State Library of NSW shop on Macquarie Street, or online here.

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