Emeritus Professor Jill Roe died recently (12/01.2017).
One of the highlights of her work was to produce a substantial biography of Stella Miles Franklin, the author of My Brilliant Career, who herself left a legacy that’s remembered every year in the Miles Franklin Award for Australian Writing and the more recently established Stella Prize for Women’s Writing.
In November 2008 I spoke to Jill on The Book Show marking the publication of Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography. It’s the story of a feisty and smart young woman who had early literary success and who made a career out of agitating for women’s and workers’ rights and in journalism. It’s also a story of amazing application to the task of writing, whether the work was published or not, and it’s a portrait of the times in which she lived.
Ramona Koval: Miles Franklin, her life and brilliant career is the subject of Jill Roe’s biography, which has taken her over 25 years to complete, and it is big. It’s full of detail about the most famous Australian writer of her time, at least in the early part of her career, the writer whose first big international hit novel was made into a big international hit movie starring Judy Davis, had an international career, but her middle years…well, it mostly involved women’s and workers’ rights and journalism, and she even nursed soldiers in WWI in northern Macedonia. Her founding of the Miles Franklin Literary Award was a surprise for all who knew her.
Jill Roe is Professor Emeritus at the Department of Modern History at Macquarie University, and she joins us now from Sydney. Welcome to The Book Show, Jill.
Jill Roe: Thank you.
Ramona Koval: I wanted to talk first really about the writing of this book and then we can talk a lot about Stella Miles Franklin. But at the very end in your acknowledgments you say, ‘A final acknowledgment is due to Miles herself. She has been good company and taught me much.’ What did she teach you?
Jill Roe: She taught me a lot about Australian culture and the position of women in it in the first part of the 20th century, and I think especially she taught me an international dimension, and she taught me also something about the city in which she and I both know, Sydney. So that’s a fair bit.
Ramona Koval: And ‘good company’, how so?
Jill Roe: Miles is good company because she’s smart and clever and with-it and she’s invariably witty, wittier than I am. In this book I make every effort to ensure that it’s her voice that comes through because she is quite inimitable.
Ramona Koval: Let’s talk about the papers that you used to write this fantastic biography. Tell us about the access to the papers.
Jill Roe: Ramona, she donated her personal papers to the State Library of NSW where they are held by the Mitchell Library. They were kept there for ten years or so whilst the library classified them and according to her will. They were therefore opened, to the astonishment of all I think, in the late 60s, early 70s. It’s really one of the most remarkable literary archives in the country because she had a huge correspondence, not so much from the early years but certainly when she came home for good in the 1930s there’s a massive accumulation, about 1,000 correspondences all up. Some of this is stuff you would do by the phone or email by now, but some of it is absolutely vital to an understanding of Australian literary culture, she was so engaged with it.
And then there is also in the papers her literary manuscripts, published and unpublished, which have been accumulated over the time. Quite recently the State Library has purchased more, most particularly and excitingly the Brent of Bin Bin file from the publisher in Edinburgh and also the Berkelouw collection which mistakenly was sold off in the 60s because it was thought superfluous and repetitive, but in fact these were additional manuscripts. So you can get some idea of the dimensions of her work from what I’m saying, but as I want to make really clear, it is one of the great archives of this country and many people have used them for particular purposes.
Ramona Koval: She kept a pocket diary, didn’t she, on a daily basis for many, many years, and literary notebooks and all kinds of things.
Jill Roe: Yes, she did, I should have mentioned them. The diaries begin in 1909, she’s been in America for two or three years by then, and they run right through to the year of her death. I believe that there was one for 1954, I’ve seen evidence that there was, but that has been lost, so the last of the pocket diaries is January 1954.
Ramona Koval: And they’re written in shorthand, aren’t they?
Jill Roe: Well, for a period they are. From 1926 to 1936 when she’s come back to live with her really aged and fragile and difficult parents, they were in shorthand. And that’s a great saga in itself, getting that shorthand deciphered. It’s only been done quite recently by a woman who spent a lot of time working on it. It’s not standard shorthand. But for that period the diaries are in shorthand. For the rest, they are in her own handwriting.
Ramona Koval: So what year did you sit down with these things for the first time?
Jill Roe: I wonder when that would have been? I should say that on and off one always consulted them. First of all, as listeners may know, I produced an edition of her correspondence which we called My Congenials because she had such a gift for this and friendship. And then we realised that she did a tremendous amount of journalism. So the next thing we did was poke around in published and unpublished sources all around the traps, and that came out in 2001. So at every point you needed to consult the pocket diaries. But I suppose really I didn’t actually start steadily writing the thing until 2002. So from then on the pocket diaries are my lodestar but also the literary notebooks which mostly date from her later years and return, there’s some fantastic things in there of a protracted nature, many of which are excerpted in Paul Brunton’s 2004 edition of her diaries.
Ramona Koval: You dedicate it to the memory of your grandmothers, Elizabeth Norman Heath and Anna Elizabeth Roe, Australian girls of the period, and I think that’s important because you see her very much as a girl of her period too. That is important for you to set the time as well, as an historian.
Jill Roe: That’s right, this is a historical biography. It’s a bit of a hybrid because of course Miles is a writer and I try to do both literary and historical matters. But she had a great affection for her maternal grandmother, and I was brought up for a while by my maternal grandmother myself, so there are personal as well as literary and historical bonds in that. So I wanted to acknowledge these women and to really get this bit about here is an exceptional, remarkable, wonderful, terrific, interesting Australian girl. How do you like that?
Ramona Koval: That’s very good! This book is so detailed. I realised this very early on when you tell us about when she cut her first teeth and when she stood up and when she talked and then when she had her whole set of teeth at about two-and-a-half. And I thought to myself when I read that, I thought I’m going to see a lot of detail in this book. But it turns out that she had a lot of trouble with her teeth later on, so when I thought to myself ‘this is too much information’, then I realised that actually I’m getting attached to her teeth. I want to know what happens to them.
Jill Roe: It’s a big story, her teeth, yes, I had to study the history of dentistry.
Ramona Koval: Tell us about that.
Jill Roe: From the pocket diaries you learn that she had endless trouble with her teeth in Chicago where of course there were all sorts of skilled people to help, and that she spent a certain amount of her not very big income on her teeth. And I had to try and work out what’s going on here. I think she had early implants or something, so I had to get out the history of dentistry to find out what would be possible at that time. Then I find that when she had that excellent photograph of herself, which is her passport photo and is the best photograph probably, the most cheerful photograph I should say, taken in 1923, it turns out that she deliberately had that taken because it was the day before all her teeth were taken out and she had false teeth. My generation is probably the first to keep their own teeth. In Australia and elsewhere, people used to have them yanked out at 20, and I have heard stories in the country of fathers actually providing a set of false teeth for their daughters as a dowry. So we’re in another world and teeth really do matter.
Ramona Koval: Yes, because there must be a temptation to go down a lot of rabbit holes when you’re writing a big biography like this.
Jill Roe: Miles offers many such temptations, yes. I hope I’ve managed to keep the focus though on the things that really matter to her life. I wanted to tell the whole story of her life, as you’ve indicated at the beginning, it’s not just the wild colonial girl, it’s a much bigger story than that.
Ramona Koval: Of course we know about her classic Aussie bush childhood because of My Brilliant Career, you may have seen the film, you may have read the book, and she was terribly successful very early. Tell us about the success of that book.
Jill Roe: Although the sources are not so good for her earlier years, there is a good preservation of her reviews of practically everything that was published…
Ramona Koval: We should say that it was rejected in Australia first.
Jill Roe: We should say that, yes. A bit too challenging really, not thought probably perfect home reading. But Angus & Robertson did regret that decision, to be fair…
Ramona Koval: I bet they did, because she was published in London to great acclaim.
Jill Roe: Extraordinary acclaim, but there was a fashion at that time…perhaps there always is…I mean, there are plenty of young girls now who early achieve success, but I do say as a result of going through this, don’t tell your daughters that they’re geniuses when they’re 18, it’s a terrible thing to have to live up to. And she had such acclaim and then, well, her whole life is shaped by that.
Ramona Koval: She had a lot of good connections, didn’t she, with writers of the time, Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson. Lawson, she said, was a kind of big brother to her.
Jill Roe: Oh dear, I think there was a bit more to it than that.
Ramona Koval: You mean from Lawson’s point of view?
Jill Roe: Oh sorry, did you say Lawson? I thought you said Paterson. Well, Lawson was certainly a big brother and really the making of her, though he did give away that she was just a girl in the preface to My Brilliant Career where she was busy trying to pretend that she was a male writer, like so many others. But yes, she really did feel very close to Lawson. Paterson came from a local area really, so there were links there…well, that’s quite a story. I’m inclined not to give the plot away on all Miles’ liaisons, Ramona.
Ramona Koval: We’ll talk about Miles’ liaisons because there seems to be a bit of a query as to how far they ever went. In fact somebody towards the end said they thought she was a virgin till the end.
Jill Roe: I think a lot of Australians were virgins up until that time, that sexual experience as we now take it for granted was not quite…was not necessarily part of people’s lives, and there’s a very serious question about sexuality and the expression of it as it tied into respectability right up until the 1960s. I do discuss this quite closely towards the end. One of my friends said her mother always said ‘if you don’t know it, you don’t miss it’. People won’t believe that, but there you go.
Ramona Koval: This is such a big book, there’s so many things to talk about. Let’s go back a little bit. Okay, she has enormous success, but in your opinion she’s quite cut out to be a journalist, isn’t she.
Jill Roe: I think she would have been a great journalist. She has a lively interest in her fellow human beings and the real world and she’s always into progressive politics. It was surprising how much topical and journalistic writing there really was.
Ramona Koval: And she goes underground, doesn’t she, as a young woman, she goes and gets jobs as a domestic.
Jill Roe: That’s a very interesting manuscript, never published.
Ramona Koval: Tell me about that.
Jill Roe: Well, it was a very topical issue at the time and for a year she disguised herself as a Maryanne and worked in houses in Sydney and in Melbourne where…and as a result she wrote up her experiences. The manuscript is in her papers, and it’s really very Miles, very lively and interesting. I don’t think it would ever have been a bestseller and it’s probably just as well it wasn’t published at the time because Australia was then a pretty small place and Miles was not that good at disguising where she’d been. So it wasn’t published, but it is a very interesting manuscript, and she was quite good at doing that kind of thing.
Ramona Koval: She goes to the USA in 1906 and you say she benefited from the vigorous international feminist network which saw Australian women as advanced. We often forget this. Tell us, is it because we were given the vote early?
Jill Roe: Oh yes, it was a big struggle internationally, and Australasian women were pretty nearly first off the post. They weren’t advanced in other respects due to social circumstances, but what everybody was trying to achieve had already been achieved in Australia, and it stood Miles in good stead. She was very proud of it and she sometimes found the agitations elsewhere boring and deja vu, but of course, as she liked to say, ‘We are all practicing Australians.’ So yes, the international feminist network was vital to her life overseas.
Ramona Koval: You say that Chicago became her university. What happened in Chicago?
Jill Roe: Chicago had a great cultural renaissance. It was a shock city but it also had a great cultural renaissance, the mid west culture of the very early 20th century, and Miles was there for all those remarkable writers and playwrights…suddenly my mind has gone blank as to what the names are but they were terribly well known…
Ramona Koval: Upton Sinclair and Willa Cather and Theodore Dreiser…
Jill Roe: That’s right, and they were all there, and she knew them. She’s working too hard for the Women’s Trade Union League and on her own endeavours probably to know them terribly well, but she was part of a very vital culture and also, though she only went to a one-teacher school near Goulbourn, I always say Chicago was her university.
Ramona Koval: She was assistant editor of Life and Labour. What happened in that magazine?
Jill Roe: Oh dear, that is a sorry story because the league was partly philanthropic, and a very great lady called Mrs Robins actually financed things, and there developed a conflict between Mrs Robins who held the purse strings and Miles and her fellow editor Alice Henry, also an Australian. They had different views about what it was supposed to be doing, and then the war came and it all, alas, fell apart.
Ramona Koval: But she did get some journalism published in the US, in The Chicago Sunday Tribune.
Jill Roe: Yes, that was a great find, wasn’t it, I’m glad you noticed that. Yes, she did, and I was surprised at how much journalism there really was across that period there and here, in The Sydney Morning Herald especially. But I think the journalists in Australia, they knew about Miles, they were interested to know what she was on about, so she had an ‘in’ there too.
Ramona Koval: She then goes to London and she’s influenced by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Tell me about that.
Jill Roe: Charlotte is one of those great…she’s actually a Chicago American feminist of enormous world authority. Apparently she could stick her big toe in her mouth in her 60s…
Ramona Koval: That’s very useful.
Jill Roe: I’m not going to try this. Quite a figure there, Charlotte.
Ramona Koval: A bit of yoga there, I think!
Jill Roe: I should definitely have mentioned her, Ramona, because she was a very big influence, a bit like Rose Scott had been here before she left Australia. So she was lucky, she knew all these remarkable people.
Ramona Koval: But in London she sees eventually Australian soldiers returning from Gallipoli and she has a resurgent sense of Australian identity. What happens to her then when she sees those young men?
Jill Roe: That brought it all back. I don’t think she ever lost her Australian identity but she was greatly moved by the young men in the streets, and she was actually pretty…she was an anti-war person her whole life and she was pretty shocked, both by the war and by what she took to be the dreadful complacency of the British, which maybe was not quite fair but certainly they never had anything in mind but to win, and so they sat back and waited to see this happen. World War I was a very important experience for her, as for other people, because that kind of hopefulness, that idealism. It could hardly be sustained after what happened in 1914, 1918, and she was quick to realise it. When, in 1928, she read George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, she really enjoyed it, she was a great Shavian, but she said she hoped she wasn’t falling back amongst the Victorian and pre-war drivellers.
Ramona Koval: We’ve forgotten the bit about her going off to north-western Macedonia. They called her Frankie Doodle.
Jill Roe: Because she was in a unit for the Scottish Women’s Hospital, supported by the Americans, by American feminist money, so that’s the ‘Doodle’, and ‘Frankie’ I suppose just is the name.
Ramona Koval: So our plucky heroine, how old is she now as she goes off to north-western Macedonia?
Jill Roe: You’re asking me an arithmetical question. I have to really think. She’s born in 1879…it’s a bit of a tricky age for Miles by this stage. She’s late 30s, early 40s, but she was not going to be a fighter but she was happy to support hospital work run by feminists in that remote place, where I have been, and I can tell you, from my point of view, it was quite remote.
Ramona Koval: And this is part of your research for the book?
Jill Roe: Yes indeed. And when I went there, I could see what a beautiful place it was and what an extraordinarily interesting one, and there is another whole narrative that she kept which was never published, and very well worthwhile reading for the account of a real mix of cultures up there in northern Greece, Macedonia at the time. I think it also increased her understanding of the world quite a lot.
Ramona Koval: We’ve mentioned this several times, the word ‘unpublished’ comes up an awful lot in these middle years. What happened? Why wasn’t she being published?
Jill Roe: I think there are two reasons for that, Ramona. One is that she tries to reinvent herself as a modernist writer. Only one of the novels that she wrote in Chicago The Net of Circumstance got published, but she published as Mr & Mrs Ogniblat L’Artsau and it was never seen or known about for 70s years. Actually I did eventually crack it and find a copy in the British Library, and there it was all the time sitting in her library which is part of her papers. And she wrote plays in those modes, those arch sort of modes as well as the new woman mode, and they really didn’t quite take off. But at the same time she was writing these more documentary things like the Macedonian manuscript Ne Mari Nishta, It Matters Nothing, and when she came back she went to Ireland and a very interesting account, sketches of her trip to Ireland which nearly did get published. But the world was a bit of a turbulent place at that time.
Ramona Koval: But she kept writing, didn’t she…
Jill Roe: She did.
Ramona Koval: …she constantly kept writing, and she wrote a lot for theatre. She wrote film scripts and theatre pieces which didn’t get published either.
Jill Roe: It’s amazing.
Ramona Koval: What drove her, because..?
Jill Roe: She said it was a disease.
Ramona Koval: It must have been, it must have been an obsession.
Jill Roe: Well, she kept hoping to crack it, I think. Those plays…again, it’s like the topical writings, there are a surprising number of them, and only in September this year in Sydney for History Week there was a reading by students of that very first play The Survivors, and we were all astounded, it was quite good!
Ramona Koval: She comes back to Australia in ’23 and then again in ’27, and then she starts writing as Brent of Bin Bin, and you mentioned Brent of Bin Bin before. I want to know, why Brent of Bin Bin? What was the reaction of the press and the literary world to Brent of Bin Bin? Brent was quite successful compared to how Miles Franklin had been in the middle years, and why did she decide not to tell anybody it was her?
Jill Roe: That certainly exercises the mind, doesn’t it. She’s become very self-protective and it gave her, like all pen names do, a kind of freedom. We forget how much usage there is made of pen names and pseudonyms by writers. But she is a real expert on it, and she had some extraordinary ones, I’ve mentioned one. But Brent of Bin Bin is her coming-home pseudonym. Here she is posing as an older pastoral figure from the high country. Bin Bin is easy to explain if that’s what you’re asking me.
Ramona Koval: No, I’m asking really why she didn’t say, ‘Hey, it’s me. I’m finally getting success, I’m getting well reviewed, it’s me!’
Jill Roe: Yes, I believe it’s because she had in her head a whole saga, ultimately six volumes, and she wasn’t going to come out until she got publishers to deal with it. She was quite a realistic person and interested in money, and she believed that the mystery would encourage sales and that it would encourage publishers to keep going, and that in the end, when they were all out she would come out. Well, unfortunately she died shortly before this happened. It was no secret by then of course, and people were very impatient with her, but she had this fantastic capacity to keep the secret. She died without revealing it herself.
Ramona Koval: Even though in the 1930s she feels ignored and rejected as well by the world?
Jill Roe: Yes, she’s not too happy, is she, it’s not really a triumphant homecoming, but then she’s not very well and her parents are really a great worry.
Ramona Koval: I saw she had a radio career as well, of sorts, but we couldn’t find any recordings of her.
Jill Roe: I’m glad you looked and can say that because the State Library looked, I looked, and it may be that somebody is going to pop up after this interview, which would be wonderful…
Ramona Koval: Wouldn’t it be good.
Jill Roe: …but it appears that because she died in 1954, it’s just too soon for any tape recordings to have survived privately. I’m hope I’m wrong, it would be wonderful. She apparently had a very good voice. But as for what the ABC did with it, well, I don’t know the answer to that.
Ramona Koval: But ASIO had a file on her, even if the ABC doesn’t have anything. ASIO followed her for a bit. What was in that?
Jill Roe: Miles associated…of course she was not herself a communist, in fact she believes that although communism might be a progressive idea for the time being, in the end writers would have to rebel against it because it was so authoritarian. But she associated with all sorts of progressive people and inevitably she got caught up in the Cold War. The ASIO file is not really interesting actually. In fact, like a lot of ASIO files you wonder about the effort expended on it. And had she known about it I’m sure she would have enjoyed it greatly.
Ramona Koval: As you say, she had great humour and very plucky and funny. We’ve mentioned before that she never married. A very close friend of hers thought she was a virgin to the end, even though there are lots of people offering her marriage or, according to her, proposing to her. She was possibly a bit of a flirt, but you say she’s a product of social purity feminism. What’s that?
Jill Roe: I just do want to say that she struggled greatly against loneliness and the lack of intimacy in her life in later years, and because of that background she was able to hold herself together in a really moving way, I think. It wasn’t easy. But the framework that she had was first wave feminism, if I can use that phrase, and the notion that progress would occur if men could be improved and made purer…we’re talking about a world before pills…I mean, there’s a bit of rubber goods about but it’s not respectable and she was really actually quite respectable.
So social purity feminism is about elevating men as well as advancing women, and it’s something that’s gone perhaps…perhaps it never goes…and when you read through her work and her writings…she’s tremendously flirtatious, as you say, and there are a couple of kinds of men that she really likes. She likes the strong, heavy, hearty ones, a bit like AB Paterson, but she also gets to be very keen on these young men who are brought up in feminist circles who are understanding of women’s dilemmas. So social purity is certainly a touchstone. It’s quite a big question actually and historical in nature.
Ramona Koval: What sort of Australia was she a champion of?
Jill Roe: Her notions of Australia…like I said, she thought of herself and asked us all to be ‘practicing Australians’, and her notion of Australia changed over time. She did understand by the end of her life that the British empire was in decline, though she preferred the British empire to the other ones on offer at the time. She had a whole dimension to her life as to the big question of population of Australia which was not resolved. I believe that as time went by, had she lived a bit longer she would have perfectly understood that the White Australia Policy was not the way to go, but many people like her did regard it as an economic and defence position at that time.
So the story of Miles Franklin and population and race is a complicated historical one. Not about the Aborigines, she had no problems about that, but the whole question of the population of Australia was one that was not resolved in her time. Hopefully we are doing much better and I’m sure, from late evidence, she would have approved because there is no evidence that she thought we should go in for selective breeding or anything ferocious like that.
Ramona Koval: The book we’ve been talking about is Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography, published by Fourth Estate, and its author Jill Roe has been our guest today. Jill Roe, thanks so much for being on The Book Show.
Jill Roe: Thank you very much.
- Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography
- Jill Roe
- Fourth Estate
- ISBN-13 9780 7322 7578 5