Gender, Genre, and Sybylla’s Performative Identity in Miles Franklin’s ‘My Brilliant Career’

Sybylla Melvyn, narrator of Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career (1901), has troubled readers from the start. William Blackwood, editor, felt impelled to 'tone down' her narrative, and 'religious, political and sex-problem passages' made Henry Lawson 'blush'. The 'trouble' with Sybylla is that she refuses to endorse any stable and unified model of identity, most crucially, with regard to her gender; Lawson's 'sex-problem'. This gender trouble manifests itself in the question of the genre of Sybylla's narrative - My Brilliant Career is a challenging mixture of realism and romance. These are two modes of writing which were firmly 'gendered' in literary debate at the time of the novel's composition, hence Lawson's distinction between the 'painfully real' and the 'girlishly emotional parts of the book' (xxv). Yet it is just such gendering of genre which is problematised in My Brilliant Career, and despite Lawson's bravado in the preface ('I hadn't read three pages when I saw ... that the story had been written by a girl', xxv), the narrative bamboozled him. In his first letter to Franklin, he asked: 'Will you write and tell me who and what you really are? man or woman?' (vi). Sybylla herself can never settle comfortably or decisively into 'male' realism or 'female' romance. Through a complex weaving of realist and romance structures, her narrative offers a model of identity based not on a single gender/genre, but on a process of performing gendered genre roles in a manner that never quite matches the ruling prescription. Sybylla's model of identity anticipates Judith Butler's discussion in Gender Trouble, where 'the subject of "women" is nowhere presumed' (Butler, Gender Trouble 6). Butler offers a model of identity in which gender roles are 'always already' a performance; performance not of a role personally selected to express a core 'woman' or 'man', but of an imperative (though not insubvertible) process, the repetition of which creates the illusion of core identity. Deliberate emphasis is thrown onto process in Franklin's novel, by an absence of an ultimately dominant mode (and in accordance with this absence, by the plot's lack of closure). Within My Brilliant Career, sometimes realism is dominant, sometimes the romance mode, but neither mode is consistent for long, and even while 'dominant', each mode's 'other' irrupts into the narrative. In the process, then, Sybylla delivers a self-conscious performance of her displacement in either gendered mode, preferring to roleplay. It is this process of disrupted 'genre-ing' which accords with Butler's model of performance.

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Published 1 October 1997 in Volume 18 No. 2. Subjects: Australian literary criticism, Characterisation, Feminism, Gender - Literary portrayal, Gender roles, Narrative structure, Narrative techniques, Realism, Romantic literature, Miles Franklin.

Cite as: Henderson, Ian. ‘Gender, Genre, and Sybylla’s Performative Identity in Miles Franklin’s ‘My Brilliant Career’.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, 1997.