Toward Worlding Settler Texts: Tracking the Uses of Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career through the Curriculum



Using Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career as its focus, this paper explores the institutional possibilities and constraints of ‘worlding’ settler texts in secondary school and university environments. We argue that the teaching of texts, and those who teach texts in schools and universities, play a key role in negotiating national and international textual boundaries. This paper expands on the practices of reading, to incorporate an analysis of documents that frame the intended, espoused, and enacted curriculum. Examining the publication and teaching history of My Brilliant Career in Australia and overseas and the use of literature as a tool of nationalism and globalisation, this paper argues that the teaching of literature in institutions acts as material evidence of our efforts to negotiate the demands of the national and the global. Literature teaching thus powerfully contributes to the ways in which we understand the work that is undertaken, the boundaries crossed and compromises brokered when we study settler texts in globalised contexts.

Curriculum constructs as they exist in schools and universities are inevitably invested in responding to notions of nation and priorities regarding the ways in which citizens exist and function within and beyond geographical borders. In this context, investigations into the teaching of national literatures and the ways in which texts are selected and studied offer insights into how the often competing demands of the local and global are negotiated (Guillory). In this paper, we investigate the teaching of Australian literary texts in twenty-first century Australian secondary schools and universities. We argue that there is fruitful work to be done in exploring the ways in which Australian settler texts are taught in university and secondary school contexts. The teaching of literature in institutions acts as material evidence of efforts to negotiate the demands of the national and the global and thus powerfully contributes to the ways in which we understand the work that is undertaken, the boundaries crossed and compromises brokered when we study settler texts in globalised contexts.

We assert that the teaching of texts, and those who teach texts in schools and universities, play a key role in negotiating national and international textual boundaries. In this way, both texts and teachers are central players in enacting what Louis Althusser describes as the ideological state apparatus (143-148). We also acknowledge that to different degrees, the accountability culture of institutions (Dale and Bushnell 247-252) and the political ways in which literature is mobilised in the twenty-first century in institutional contexts, makes the project of worlding, or rethinking the place of national literatures, challenging in contemporary times. While, as John Guillory writes, ‘it is only by understanding the social function and institutional protocols of the school that we will understand how works are perceived, reproduced, and disseminated over successive generations and centuries’ (viii), the choices that are made in these institutional settings are often not determined by individual teachers, who are themselves working within school and university systems negotiating curriculum frameworks and imperatives.

We use ‘worlding’ and ‘worlded’ in this paper in the same way that critics such as Bruce Robbins do when considering American Literature and its ability or failure to acknowledge global reverberations and post-national fictions, where ‘the novel manages not just to describe other places, but to describe the causal connections between those other places and ours’ (Robbins 1102). This includes those instances where the ‘structure of the world of nations . . . work[s] its way into the novel’s structure’ (Robbins 1103). We also draw on Vilashini Cooppan’s conceptualisation of reading literature in a ‘worldly way’ which she defines as

[s]eeing literature as a system operating on the principles of movement and exchange [which] means comparing and connecting one text, time and place with another, and hearing the echoes of one, or indeed many, in the voice of another. (‘Ghosts’ 11)

Robert Dixon and Brigid Rooney’s edited volume, Scenes of Reading, specifically considers the worlding of Australian literature and its ‘connection to the world literary system’ (ix), the prospective transnational connections when texts are reconsidered or transformed and translated in new national and international contexts, as well as the tensions around provincialising forces. Implicit in our argument, and the contentions of Robbins, Cooppan, and Dixon and Rooney, is that there is significant value in worlding national literatures. Mindful of Pascale Casanova’s analysis of the hierarchical field of national literatures (‘Literature’ 82), the limitations of conceiving literatures in terms of national context, and the imperative to see literature as a world, this inquiry explores the ways in which, through the example of Miles Franklin’s iconic novel My Brilliant Career (1901), national literatures can be worlded in literary studies at school and university in the twenty-first century. This is not to say that we are suggesting the practices of worlding settler texts are uncomplicated: worlding is not simply the result of curriculum documents acknowledging globally cognisant approaches to reading; rather, as we will discuss, the practice of worlding literature requires re-negotiation of concepts of nation and national culture that are often constrained in secondary school contexts, particularly through high-stakes assessments.

With this in mind, in this paper we bring university and school contexts together by exploring the ways in which Miles Franklin’s novel can be worlded in a climate where the text itself is being used as a marker of nationalism. My Brilliant Career is read, and circulates, like so many other texts, within a variety of worlds, or fields. We have chosen this text for a number of pragmatic and emblematic reasons. My Brilliant Career has a particular status in Australia. At the turn of the century the text was extremely popular but then went out of print. The novel was revived in the 1960s and enjoyed a significant increase in popularity in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a recovered feminist text. This popularity is also reflected in the novel’s inclusion on Australian School English syllabi of the 1980s and 1990s, appearing on the New South Wales English syllabus from 1986 to 1990 and on the South Australian English syllabus from 1991 to 2001 (ALIAS). The text’s popularity is also evidenced by the film adaptation of the story released in 1979 which formed part of the Australian film renaissance or new wave revival of the 1970s and 1980s (Sheckels 105). The novel remained in print until the early twenty-first century and is now in circulation in hardcopy and digital form. The recent reprint of the novel in the Australian Text Classics series positions it within the market and field in particular ways, as does its recent selection for the Australian Victorian (VCE) curriculum. We argue that an analysis of the way My Brilliant Career is framed in secondary school and university curricula, and mediated by curriculum documents, text lists, overviews, and assessment advice, illuminates the compromises and negotiations involved in the study of national settler texts in a globalised context.

Uses of Literature as a Tool of Nationalism and Globalisation

In order to understand the extent to which Australian texts might be or have been worlded in contemporary secondary and tertiary curricula and practice, it is useful, first, to reprise the ways in which literature has been used to serve national interests, and the role of the teaching of literature in the creation of national citizens, as well as to revisit some of the tensions between national and world literatures.

The use of literature in the production of particular types of national subjects has been thoroughly scrutinised. Significant work has been undertaken by critics who have examined the use of the novel in the production of classed subjects (Armstrong, Watt), raced subjects (Said, McClintock), and national subjects in developing and colonial contexts (Bhabha). Extensive critical work has also been produced on the use of English literature in Imperial education – for instance in India after Macaulay’s infamous minute on Indian education (Hall; Zastoupil and Moir). The selection and enforcement of national literatures has a history in settler colonies which is largely about the inculcation of the settler national ideology onto invaded and settling peoples, willing and unwilling (Mirmohamadi and Martin; Freedgood; Van Toorn). The conscious decision to mandate national literature as part of a national or local curriculum has a somewhat shorter history, particularly in former settler colonies, although it might be seen as carrying some of the same anxieties and uncertainties about national identity and national value.

The focus on the teaching of national literatures in the twentieth-century is particularly intense in societies with colonial pasts and multicultural presents. It is frequently accompanied or superseded by debates around the teaching of national history, politics, and subjects such as civics.1 The concern may also be gradated according to the security of national understanding – that is, the extent to which national subjects identify themselves as thus. In a discussion of the globalisation of higher education and the endurance of ‘methodological nationalism’ Riyad Shahjahan and Adrianna Kezar point out that the idea that nations are becoming more fluid and integrated with other nations is relative (both in terms of how bounded they were to begin with and how open they are now): ‘[T]he degree of nation-state porosity is really dependent on our initial understanding of the nation-state (whether or not it is self-contained to begin with, and/or our reference to the nation-state history)’. They go on to argue: ‘we would suggest that the idea of nation-boundedness itself is historically relative and politically constructed’ (20-21).

Shahjahan and Kezar’s discussion focuses primarily on the American example, and this perhaps underplays or misrepresents the situation in nations like Canada and Australia. In these Commonwealth settler nations there tends to be not national hegemony but a fragile national identity still in formation, threatened or fractured by a perceived increased porousness. In the early 1990s critics such as Gregory Jay began to call for the end of courses on national literatures (or perhaps just American Literature) at University level, calling for ‘a literary and cultural criticism that neither colonises nor excludes the Other’ (264). This worked better, and was understandable, for countries like America with strong and longstanding traditions of coherent American literature courses. For other settler nations and former colonies, this call came at a time when courses dedicated to the local national literatures had barely gained a foothold.

In many settler nations, including Australia and Canada, the dissemination of national literature remains controversial. In the case of such nations, national literature can be simultaneously associated with the possibilities of progressive nation formation – multiculturalism, experimentation, intercultural identity – and with the forces of conservative jingoism, exclusion, racism, and xenophobia. In the instance of the Australian national curriculum this has enabled the continuation of the call for Australian inclusion in the curriculum in history and literary subjects across the transition from a left-leaning to a right-leaning government in 2013 and back again, even though understandings of ‘nation’ and ‘Australian’ may differ quite substantially in each context.

My Brilliant Career: Worlding Australian Colonial Fiction

It is important to acknowledge, as Cooppan argues, that understanding literature in a worldly way does not necessarily require a comparative approach to reading pedagogy, but can be gleaned through an analysis of the individual work in the context of its production. Considered in this way, My Brilliant Career can be understood, from the moment of its production, to be strategically worlded. It is important to explain this point in some detail. On the one hand, and indisputably, My Brilliant Career is an iconic Australian novel. It covers some of the required territory of national fictions in Australia – a central, individualistic character who is at home in the rural landscape, and detailed depictions of that environment and its challenges. It was published with a preface from another famous Australian author, Henry Lawson, who testified to the authenticity of its bush scenes, lending his own cultural capital to the novel. As Paul Giles has pointed out, Lawson’s positioning of the text in his introduction, in relation to the bush and to Federation, along with the impact of the (much later) Miles Franklin Award, and its potentially retroactive insistence on a particular understanding of ‘Australian life in all its phases’ may have cemented the novel’s parochial reputation, despite Franklin’s more complex international career and writings (Giles 333–334). Despite this apparent reinforcement of the local and provincial, My Brilliant Career can also be understood as a worldly, or global text.

Initially the novel was launched into the global market – via Lawson, then London-based literary agent J. B. Pinker. My Brilliant Career was published by Blackwoods in Edinburgh (although perhaps parochially edited (Webby 350) and positioned (Giles 334)). As Elizabeth Webby’s analysis makes clear, though, global publication does not necessarily translate into global saturation or even dissemination – the 400 copies sold in the British edition were outnumbered by the 2,564 copies of the colonial edition sold in Australia (Webby ix), although Sandra Gilbert, in her introduction to the NY Penguin Classics edition refers to the British sales as ‘brisk’ (Gilbert ii). On the other hand British publication did result in British reviewing, which placed the novel within an international – if essentially imperially-oriented – field. At least ten reviews appeared in the British (‘metropolitan and regional’) press by August 1901 (Roe 67). The Academy reviewer – identified by Gilbert as Havelock Ellis – compared the work unfavourably to Russian diarist Marie Bashkirtseff (Gilbert ii), and another reviewer compared her to Charlotte Brontë (Roe 67). Henry Lawson, in his initial recommendation to Robertson, also made this comparison to Brontë as well as to Schreiner (Webby vi). The somewhat later Australian reviews also invoked Bashkirtseff (Roe 70), perhaps because by September the British reviews had arrived by the mail steamers, and their comparisons were copied.2

There are various ways to map the national circulation, readership and impact of the novel. The surviving fan mail is mostly Australian, with some New Zealand and British examples, but that may not reliably reflect readership profile (Roe 73). Unlike slightly earlier Australian fiction the novel does not appear to have gone immediately into an American edition, presumably because of the introduction of the International Copyright Act in the late nineteenth century (Carter 349).3 There was no Australian edition after the first edition (Blackwoods British and Colonial editions 1901) until ten years after Franklin’s 1954 death, with the 1965 edition, because of Franklin’s veto. Angus and Robertson (A&R) seems to have kept the novel in print from then until 2001. In the early 1980s there were a number of international Anglophone editions – U. K. (Virago, 1980), U. S. (St. Martin’s Press, NY 1980), Canada (Virago, Toronto 1981), and Cape Town – the ‘South African educational edition’ (David Philp, 1982). The wave of feminism Susan Sheridan describes as prompting these editions and the film also gave rise to global translations – including Japanese in 1981 (Sanrio, Tokyo 1981). Susan Sheridan has traced the novel’s ‘career’ in Australian literary critical attention, which reflects to a large extent its take-up as a research or teaching text at tertiary level. The novel continues to attract the kinds of literary attention Sheridan praises (Devlin-Glass, Henderson, Lawrence, Lamond). Nevertheless, the book’s relatively patchy accessibility in Australia made it sometimes difficult to set reliably for tertiary, and certainly for secondary teaching purposes, after the centenary editions receded until the mid-2000s, reflecting its disappearance from school syllabi after the 1980s and 1990s. The book was more or less out of print in Australia, at least for teaching purposes, between 2001 and 2004, although even the 2004 HarperCollins Harper Perennial edition (2004) was not easily obtainable, and it does not always appear on bibliographies.4 Ironically the novel became available electronically in 2005 – on Project Gutenberg, that great decontextualised literary free market – due to copyright law.5 The technology somewhat outstripped teaching capacity at this point in that most students were not socialised to read books on computers, and eReaders were not yet available with Kindle launching in 2007, and the iPad in 2010. As far as we have been able to establish, no-one taught from this or other electronic versions in schools between 2001 and 2010.

The reason for Miles Franklin’s veto after first publication was probably because many of Franklin's Australian readers read the novel as simply autobiographical, and therefore identified the characters with people in Franklin's life, and as a result the novel had been reduced from having global resonance to being an entirely local account. The novel’s plot concerns a young woman, Sybylla Melvyn, and her experiences mostly in outback and high country south-eastern Australia in the late nineteenth-century and the 1890s drought. In the early section of the novel Sybylla stays with her wealthy grandmother on her pastoral property and receives an offer of marriage from a wealthy and handsome neighbouring property owner, but declines it. The family remove her to assist on their much poorer farm and, when she pines and clashes with her mother, she is sent away to teach an uncongenial family to whom her father owes money. She endures this for as long as she can, but eventually collapses. The novel ends with her back in the poor family home, still enduring. This ending, without romantic denouement, is a break with the traditional romance plot of nineteenth-century novels in the British tradition, as Webby also notes (xi). In the book Sybylla is a writer, and the film adaptation of the novel ends with a scene in which she sends off her novel for publication. However, the conclusion to the book is not as conclusive or quite so triumphant.

By 2007, My Brilliant Career was close to out of print in its national space and national literature,6 and yet went into print in the market of the capital storehouse, North America, in Broadview Press (2007), and Penguin Classics. Broadview, based in Canada, describes itself as an ‘independent international publishing house’ (Broadview Press). It marketed the book as just one of ‘the ever-changing canon of literature in English . . . bringing together texts long regarded as classics with valuable lesser-known works’. This edition of the text is framed within a series of national boundaries which contest and affirm its origins as national literature. It opens with a 1904 American map of Australia and New Zealand, a view from outside, but this is followed by a more intimate view, a map of the high country of New South Wales. The additional apparatus, including Bruce K. Martin’s introduction, situates the novel pointedly within its national context with a chronology of the book’s production and publication, and contemporary Australian writing and press discussion. The introduction stresses the physical location of the author and text, but it also offers an international perspective in its brief discussion of Franklin’s London agent, reviews, and comparisons with Brontë and Schreiner (Martin 13). The volume specifically places Franklin in a settler colonist context, in relation to the American annexation of the Philippines and the Canadian Klondike gold rush (Martin 19).

Sandra M. Gilbert’s introduction for the American Penguin Classic edition makes a similar series of manoeuvres. Gilbert conflates author and protagonist in a manner familiar from her early critical work such as The Madwoman in the Attic. Her introduction ostensibly places the text in a transnational field of women’s literature. However, biographical reading of this sort tends to collapse back to the local, even while the exoticism of the Australian context keeps erupting. Gilbert refers to ‘hill stations’, a term that is not Australian but from Indian settler colonialism. She suggests that Franklin ‘must have had a childhood comparable [to] . . . Catherine Earnshaw[’s]’ (‘Introduction’ iv), and then elaborates an extensive comparison between Jane Eyre and My Brilliant Career. This is not a worlding of Franklin, in which My Brilliant Career is moved into an international context; from ‘literary destitution’ to the metropolitan centre, in Casanova’s terms (World Republic, 223). It seems closer to a ‘reveal[ing of] the other as the self’, in Cooppan’s figuration (Worlds Within, 22), erasing difference, whether the difference is defined as national, local, or generic, in the interests of the narrative of a liberal unified female subject.

The novel was reintroduced into the Australian market by Melbourne publisher Text in its Classics series in 2012. This series uses the cultural capital of the classic in expected ways. Franklin contributes to the legitimacy of the list and its classic status, as well as partaking of it. My Brilliant Career’s additional marketing as part of a ‘Classic Women Set’ resituated it within an overlapping field but also adds classic capital to this rather odd grouping.7

Unlike both preceding American editions which (inter)nationalise the fiction with an external translation of Australian context, the Text edition is introduced by the self-consciously local Jennifer Byrne. Byrne is best known to Australian readers as the host of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Television show The Book Club. This is a relentlessly non-academic fan show which nevertheless circulates and deals in a rich field of literary cultural capital. Byrne (like Gilbert but in a less academic way) aligns Sybylla with Franklin and insistently locates My Brilliant Career within a Feminist history. Byrne’s national standing, and the local references within her introduction, re-place the text within a national context. Yet her own place in the field of The Book Club – a television show which deals extensively in new books backed by acknowledged international literary classics (Madame Bovary, Middlemarch, Metamorphosis) – underpins the classic labelling by Text, and the worlding of this work for a contemporary audience.

My Brilliant Career in Secondary Schools: Local Challenges of Worlding Texts

While an analysis of the production of My Brilliant Career suggests the deliberate, productive worlding of this text, an analysis of the ways this novel has been put to use in the secondary school context reveals the challenges of worlding settler Australian literature in the context of secondary school education. We will explore the particular complexities faced by those setting Franklin’s novel in post-compulsory, high-stakes contexts (beyond 16 years of age) shortly, however we will consider first the ways the Suggested Texts for the English K-10 8 document produced by the Board of Studies in New South Wales illustrates some of the challenges with regard to the enterprise of worlding settler Australian literature in a secondary school context. It should be noted that this 314 page document, produced in 2012, seeks to provide advice about text selection to Australian teachers who in the years K-10 have – within particular curriculum guidelines – agency over the texts they select. Although this document is now five years old, and the curriculum has been updated in this time, this document remains in circulation as a useful guideline for those charged with the responsibility of selecting texts for study. It is worth noting that this document reflects the shifts in thinking about valuable texts for study across the years of schooling, in terms of genre, that has increasingly characterised subject English since the late 1990s. The text types suggested for all year levels covered by the document, so across all the compulsory years of schooling, are fiction, picture books and graphic novels, poetry, film, non-fiction, drama and media, multimedia and digital texts (Board of Studies 2).

One of the ways the New South Wales document distinguishes between texts, whether they be fiction, poetry, picture books or graphic novels, is to label them as either Australian literature or a ‘literary text from other countries and times’. While most texts receive multiple labels, young adult fiction writer Nadia Wheatley’s novel The House that was Eureka is tagged ‘Australian literature; Intercultural experiences; Cultural, social and gender perspectives; [and] Popular and youth cultures’ (Board of Studies 27). By effectively separating Australian and world literatures, contemporary local texts are focussed, geographically and conceptually, on the concerns of the nation.

The ways in which these texts are identified indicates a paradigm which separates Australian literature from world literature throughout the document, a disaggregation that reflects a similar separation evident in Australian Curriculum: English (AC:E) (ACARA), which was developed in 2008, implemented to varying degrees across the nation from 2010, and thus informs the New South Wales document. Analysis of the AC:E shows that the relationship between world literature and the Australian literature within it is at best ambiguous. The section outlining the importance of developing an appreciation for literature implies syntactically that Australian literature is part of the field of world literature, and supports Dixon and Rooney’s slightly odd argument that ‘[e]ven the Australian Curriculum: English, which began its development in 2007-08 as the National Curriculum: English, recommends that Australian literature should be studied in relation to world literature’ (xv) (emphasis added). Their ‘even’ implies that the AC:E is expected to be the most conservative and parochial example. However:

The range of literary texts for study from Foundation to Year 10 comprises classic and contemporary world literature. It emphasises Australian literature, including the oral narrative traditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, as well as the contemporary literature of these two cultural groups. It also includes texts from and about Asia.9

In other places such as in the description of the Literature strand of the Curriculum, national and world literatures are separated – ‘[t]exts recognised as having enduring artistic and cultural value are drawn from world and Australian literature’ 10 – and the description of the scope of texts to be studied at each year level that is repeated verbatim throughout the document indicates different national and international purposes for engaging with literature, and no imperative to consider Australian literature in the context of world literature:

The range of literary texts for Foundation to Year 10 comprises Australian literature, including the oral narrative traditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, as well as the contemporary literature of these two cultural groups, and classic and contemporary world literature, including texts from and about Asia. 11

It is interesting, then, to return to the New South Wales Board of Study’s Suggested Texts document, and note that Franklin’s My Brilliant Career is not included in the list of fiction appropriate for study, but rather is mentioned separately, at the start of the section on fiction as part of ‘classic literature’. Teachers in New South Wales are advised that ‘[t]here are specific historical and social circumstances that make any particular generation value a text as a classic', and that ‘schools will want to, and are encouraged to, continue choosing classic texts for study in all years’ (Board of Studies 3). Aligning with the republication of Franklin’s novel by Text also in 2012 (noted previously as part of the classic series, and reminding us of the impact of publishing on the reception of texts) My Brilliant Career is suggested as a classic text that could be studied by students in Year 7-10 (presumably depending on context), that can be considered alongside other classic texts relevant to the lives of Australian students, such as Alcott’s Little Women (1869), Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861), and Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). While Text Publishing’s classic series is, in accordance with the charter of the publisher, entirely Australian, the list presented in the Board of Studies publication places Franklin’s novel and three other Australian works of fiction (Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life; George Johnston’s My Brother Jack; Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow) alongside eighteen other British and North American ‘classics’. Thus, in the lists that follow, although the categorisation of Franklin’s novel as ‘classic’ can on the one hand be seen as a move to elevate this work beyond a national context and avoid the binary between national and international texts previously discussed; this organisation can also be understood as limiting Franklin’s novel to a colonial, rather than worldly reading. While teachers will of course teach the text in accordance with the curriculum and bring their own reading practices to bear if they selected Franklin’s novel for the year 7–10 classroom, the orientation of this list towards canonical and archetypal North American and British texts suggests that the four Australian texts are similarly presented as nineteenth- and twentieth-century markers of classic Australian nationalism.

Although the Board of Studies document we have been discussing lists Franklin’s novel for study in the compulsory years of secondary education, this document almost anticipates that it is unlikely to have a large take-up. Writers of the Board of Studies document note that ‘the brevity of some classic short stories makes them particularly accessible to students’ and that the ‘long short story or short novella, as practiced by John Steinbeck, could also be considered’ (6). The message here seems to be that while it is assumed that students will still continue to gain benefit from exposure to classics, there are some challenges regarding student engagement and capacity when selecting these texts for study. At nearly 400 pages, Franklin’s My Brilliant Career is therefore positioned precariously as an alternative for teachers of Years 7-10.

Indeed, examination of the records made available through the ALIAS database, the resource which curates the text lists available for all of the English subjects available in New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania on offer in the post-compulsory years in the period 1945 to 2005, shows that My Brilliant Career has not had longevity on the curriculum.12 Ironically, while winning the Miles Franklin Literary Award has, for generations, acted as an entry ticket into a place on the VCE Year 12 English list and other high stakes, post-compulsory secondary courses around the country, the ALIAS database, in conjunction with more recent lists of texts set for study for the final year of schooling, shows that My Brilliant Career, Franklin’s most famous and perhaps most relevant text for young adults has, until recently, been strangely absent from the senior years curriculum. My Brilliant Career was first set for study in New South Wales in 1986, following feminist interest and the release of the film version of the novel in 1979, and stayed on the list for that state’s general English course until 1990.13 In South Australia, Franklin’s famous novel was set first in 1991, and stayed on the syllabus for English Studies for a decade. This was the most sustained period My Brilliant Career was set for study in the twentieth century in Australia. In Victoria, the novel was set once in 1982 for the specialised English Literature subject; in Tasmania the novel was also set only once, in 1984, and also for an English Literature course. There is no record in the ALIAS database of My Brilliant Career ever being set in Western Australia, although Jane Eyre, by comparison, was set 44 times across Victoria, New South Wales, Western Australia, Tasmania, and South Australia over the course of the period surveyed.

In 2014, My Brilliant Career returned, after more than thirty years, to the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) Literature course, and has remained on the list for three years. Cost and reliable accessibility are key determiners for setting a text for study in the senior years of English in Victoria. Teaching resources, and teacher experience of studying the text are also pragmatic determiners in institutional text selection practices.14 Consequently, the inconsistent representation of Australian literature at universities over time has contributed to the marginalisation of Australian literature in the secondary curriculum in some places. Thus, the relatively cheap Text reproduction of My Brilliant Career and the paratextual resources provided by Byrne’s personal introduction, The Book Club television segment, and the secondary specific support provided on the Copyright Agency’s ‘Reading Australia’ website provided the necessary material conditions for the selection of this novel for study in the VCE literature subject in the twenty-first century. In the section which follows, we will explore the listing of this text for examination, and consider the extent to which those who teach and study Franklin’s novel may have the opportunity to consider this novel in a world context.

The VCE subject ‘Literature’ is a specialist study undertaken by approximately 6,000 students each year. While not expressly conveyed by the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA), Literature is commonly understood to be the elite literary offering by those teaching this subject, and this is confirmed by the additional tertiary entry (ATAR: Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) bonus points allocated to those who undertake it. The VCAA are shy about differentiating between English subjects, however, one boys’ select entry High School in Victoria provides the following advice: ‘When selecting their English options for year 11, students are encouraged to consider the following: English is the subject for those who struggle a little with English or feel more comfortable with familiarity, while Literature is recommended for strong English students who enjoy reading and analysing a range of texts in depth with a specific focus on how authors create meaning through close analysis’ (Melbourne High School English Faculty). One can surmise that My Brilliant Career and equivalent texts have, in the past, got lost between the two courses – too difficult for English, but historically perceived as not challenging enough for the more sophisticated offering that the Literature course is seen to be.

Arguably, it is this sense of cultural elitism embodied in ‘Literature’ that has contributed to the fact that My Brilliant Career has only been set for study in Victoria once before. Subject Literature – which was called ‘English Literature’ until the 1990s – has a tradition of setting canonical North American, British, and European texts. This perception has resulted in some texts (particularly Australian texts) being positioned as less rigorous than others, a classification that is intended to reflect intellectual merit as a way of justifying, for example, the undebated inclusion of a British text such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and the exclusion, until now, of an Australian novel like Franklin’s.

It is fair to say, however, that the inclusion of My Brilliant Career has not necessarily changed this view. When searching for traces of My Brilliant Career on past VCE text lists, we were informed that it was generally understood to be a year 11 Literature text, meaning that it had not been officially sanctioned, but had been set locally by schools for their (less high stakes) year 11 courses. It seems that at least in some places, My Brilliant Career has been determined as unsuitable even for year 11 students. Indeed, when investigating the history of this text in curriculum we could only locate evidence of My Brilliant Career’s redundancy. A newsletter produced by a prestigious private school in Melbourne, in 2005, tellingly listed Australian texts My Brilliant Career, the sequel, My Career goes Bung, and the classic Australian play Summer of the 17th Doll as obsolete for Year 11 students commencing the 2006 school year.

The Text publication of Franklin’s novel has made it possible to set the text in schools. It is, however, the VCE Literature curriculum documents, texts list and other official advice that will in part determine the extent to which this settler text will and can be worlded by teachers and students enacting the subject VCE Literature. So, in order to explore this further, we will briefly outline the details of the design and conceptualisation of this subject.

As noted, Literature is the specialist literary studies subject, undertaken by approximately one tenth as many students each year as those that complete mainstream English. The latter can be understood as a fusion of literary studies and cultural and media studies. The rationale for Literature presents it as a subject that seeks to make connections between texts and readers and to develop discerning and critical reading practices. The key aims of the subject, moving from the receptive to the productive mode, are to:

  • Develop an enjoyment of literature through reading widely, imaginatively, critically and independently;

  • Gain an understanding of the variety of human experience;

  • Develop a critical awareness of cultures past and present, as they are represented in literature;

  • Read closely and engage in detailed critical analysis of the key literary features;

  • Develop interpretive skills by hypothesising about and drawing inferences from texts;

  • Extend their understanding of the different ways literary texts are constructed;

  • Reflect on their interpretations and evaluate othersʼ interpretations;

  • Develop the capacity to write confident analytical and creative responses to texts. (VCAA, ‘Study Design’ 7)

The curriculum makes no specific reference to place, or the interplay between national and global boundaries. However, the assessment outcomes are concerned amongst other things, with ‘adaptations and transformations’, ‘views and values in texts’, and ‘considering alternative viewpoints’ (VCAA ‘Literature’ 22) about texts, and could be leveraged to consider the ways in which texts have been and are worlded through reading practices, although this will be determined by the resources and perspectives teachers bring to their practices of close reading, which remains the dominant approach to the study of literature in secondary schools. The broad and evolving way in which literature is understood in this subject is ostensibly reinforced by the vast offerings on the text list: about 70 works are offered from a variety of text categories and places. Teachers are required to choose six from this list and to ensure that their selection includes a range of genres and forms. While on one level the curriculum and accompanying text list attest to an advanced understanding of literature, on another level, the caveats placed on the text list and the relationship between the list and the final exam effectively privilege traditional notions of the canon, and limit the extent to which texts might be reconsidered in new and expansive ways.

In 2014, the first year Franklin’s novel makes a resurgence, the list is divided into two sections – list A and list B. While the texts on both lists can be used to complete internally assessed coursework, it is only the texts on list B, where My Brilliant Career is located, that will be included in the exam. This two-list structure, and the high stakes and challenging nature of the exam means that some texts in this subject are conferred greater cultural capital than others. There is the perception, by teachers and students that list B texts are more substantive, more reliable, and generally more ‘tested’ (in all senses of the word). Accordingly, list B in 2014 includes key novels from the British canon, and shows an orientation towards the past.

Table 1: Texts on List B 2014

Author Title
Austen, Jane Persuasion
Brontë, Charlotte Jane Eyre
Fowles, John The French Lieutenant’s Woman
Franklin, Miles My Brilliant Career
McCarthy, Cormac All the Pretty Horses
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia Love in the Time of Cholera
Ondaatje, Michael The Cat’s Table
White, Patrick The Aunt’s Story
Woolf, Virginia Mrs Dalloway

While list B evokes and re-establishes the canon of both British and Australian texts (with five key canonical British texts and uncontroversial Australian authors), the internally tested list A texts, which will not be put to the rigours of examination, are more contemporary and worldly, and offer expansion on the traditional genres set for literature, and even a challenge to understandings of what a literary education might include.

Table 2: Texts on List A 2014

Author Title
Crane, Stephen The Red Badge of Courage
Desai, Kiran The Inheritance of Loss
Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Dunmore, Helen The Betrayal
Flanagan, Richard Wanting
James, Henry The Turn of the Screw
Leigh, Julia The Hunter
Parrett, Favel Past the Shallows
Temple, Peter The Broken Shore
Winterson, Jeanette Oranges are Not the Only Fruit

This differentiation between lists A and B articulates with Richard Teese’s analysis of textual cultural capital in the mainstream English subject. Teese’s study noted that while a vast range of texts is on offer in mainstream English, schools with greater cultural capital, those he calls ‘fortified’ sites, choose texts that locate their curriculum in the past. In contrast, schools where students are more vulnerable and less academically successful, those Teese calls ‘exposed’ sites, select more contemporary and often Australian texts (Teese 52). This dynamic is reproduced to some extent in VCE Literature where the status of the study as serious and fortified is achieved through the presentation of canonical texts on list B, the exam list, while the ‘risky’ texts, the ones that challenge traditional definitions of literature and extend students’ reading geographically are located on the less accountable list A, therefore ensuring that the status of the subject as culturally elite is not put in jeopardy.

Indeed, the text list for 2014 exposes tensions between a national, and a more traditional, Imperial, rendering of subject literature. One the one hand, the guidelines for text selection suggest a self-consciously national agenda. The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) mandates that one third of the texts set for this subject (approximately 23 of the 70) must be Australian, and of the six texts/authors that teachers are required to select for their students over the course of the year, two of these must also be Australian (VCAA 2014). Yet, while this might seem like a patriotic attempt at nationalisation, this is somewhat diffused when one realises that the definition of an Australian text is anything that is ‘by’ (meaning by someone who was born or once lived in Australia) or ‘about’ Australians (clearly the caveats of the Miles Franklin Award do not apply to the VCAA text selection panel). Further, this national requirement is not explained in the study documentation or explicitly taken up in any of the areas of study, and therefore sits as a kind of external regulation and attempt to change the rules of the game, to use Bourdieu’s terms, and ensure some national content in a subject that has traditionally been British or North American-centric.

Yet, while the mandating of Australian texts can be seen to challenge the orthodoxy inherited by this twenty-first century version of secondary literary studies, an analysis of the text list reminds us of the silent curriculum in place. It is perhaps not unsurprising that in an elite subject that was once called English literature, 18 of the 24 Australian texts listed for 2014 are represented on list A. The nation, while ostensibly present, is deliberately marginalised in a high stakes environment, and the implied rationale here seems to echo A. G. Stephen’s 1903 review of Franklin's text, which acknowledges its separate Australianness but distinguishes this from quality literature (Sheridan 331). Moreover, without particular curriculum direction regarding the reading of the national texts that have been mandated, students may not have the opportunity to consider Australian literature in the context of a world literature, or, by extension, their own identities as receivers and producers of Australian texts.

This analysis of the hierarchical text list structures at play in VCE literature serves to inform an understanding of the selection of My Brilliant Career for this subject. As the oldest Australian text on the list, one of the few on list B, and placed alongside Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and Austen’s Persuasion on the examination list, My Brilliant Career represents the colonial, settler canon; an alternative women’s text to the nineteenth-century favourites.

Interestingly, the division of the VCE text list into two separate sections has been removed in the recently released 2017 text list. This means that all texts on the list can be taught and examined. This significant change was made to coincide with the implementation of the revised VCE Literature study design that will be completed in 2017. The criteria for text selection in 2017 maintains the following criteria from the previous years’ text list (which included the distinction between texts for teaching and texts for examination). The texts must:

  • have literary merit

  • be an excellent example of form and genre

  • sustain intensive study, raising interesting issues and providing challenging ideas

  • reflect current community standards and expectations in the context of senior secondary study of texts. (VCAA, 'VCE Literature Text List 2017')

However, the 2017 list has removed the criteria from previous years which insisted that texts be appropriate for both male and female students and appropriate to students’ age and level of development. For the text list as a whole, the criteria that requires the list to include a balance of new and established works has been amended and now reads:

  • include a balance of new and established works, including a Shakespearean text.

The criteria requiring a reflection of engagement with Asia has been expanded:

  • Reflect engagement with global perspectives.

In the 2017 text list, as in the previous iterations of the list, one-third of texts need to be Australian and My Brilliant Career remains on the list.

The change from two text lists to one was made because the structure of the exam changed – it shifted from students having to complete two close analyses of unseen passages to one close analysis and one response that presents a literary perspective. As this is a new Study Design, it is unclear how Franklin’s text will be approached, but the new ‘literary perspective’ task assessed in the exam would appear to open up the possibility of reading a text like Franklin’s in a worldly way, within a literary system that transcends cultural specificity (Damrosch 4). Ultimately, however, the breadth of reading potentially on offer here will be determined by teachers, and their agility and flexibility with re-reading texts for new times, and more significantly, by the kinds of interpretations that, over time, will become valued by examiners. Worldly reading, if it is to come about in the secondary sector, will need to be supported by teacher and assessor professional learning, and the appropriation of concepts such as Cooppan’s for secondary literary studies contexts.

Teaching My Brilliant Career: Worlded Settler Fiction in the University

In contrast to the secondary curriculum, My Brilliant Career has been taught in the university context consistently since at least the early 1990s, and there is anecdotal evidence that it was taught in the early 1980s. Using only single iterations of subjects listed in the Austlit database, updated from current university handbooks, it appears there were 14 subjects offered in Australia with My Brilliant Career listed on the curriculum between 2010 and 2014. Of these, six were on offer in 2013 or 2014. There were 11 subjects incorporating My Brilliant Career in 2015 and 2016, most of these reiterations of 2014 subject frameworks, if not approaches. Some, such as Australian National University’s ‘Strange Home: Rethinking Australian Literature’ (2015-2017) indicate specific worlding agendas. The more recent spate of curriculum reform and rationalisation indicates a collapsing and condensing of subjects with a necessary attrition of number and variety of texts taught across most areas, and this includes the variety of Australian literary texts. There is an apparent move toward cross-disciplinary and cross-genre subjects – possibly an enforced worlding of the text, alongside critical movements which favour such resituation anyway. This volatile environment adds further complexity to sector comparisons.

Using first the wider span of years and therefore range of subjects, My Brilliant Career appears in roughly three broad categories of subject: the general or survey subjects on Australian Literature (e.g. ‘Introduction to Australian Literature’; ‘Australian Literature and History’; ‘Australian Literature before 1950’). The second category is nineteenth- and twentieth-century subjects (e.g. ‘Major Australian Writing’, ‘Australian Literature: Tradition and revisions’) – in some form – as exemplary colonial/settler-colonial/nineteenth-century text, although these subjects may also interrogate such classifications. My Brilliant Career also appears in more specialised subjects looking specifically at settler colonial literature – for example ‘Writing Colonial Culture in Australia’. Thirdly, it still appears in subjects concentrating on women’s writing or gender (for example ‘Re-writing Women’ at Newcastle University, ‘Women’s Writing’ at Western Sydney University), in which context it is (sometimes) detached from the field of national literature and recontextualised in the field of women’s literature or literature and gender – presumably in a more complex way than Gilbert’s introduction offers.15 Although settler-colonial culture could potentially include settler fiction from a variety of nations, we did not locate a subject across the primary period surveyed or our wider (but partial) survey which so placed it. However, responses to a small ongoing questionnaire sent to colleagues elicited subject descriptions dating back to the 1980s in which gender transcended nation (time, place) as an imaginary/organising principle. All of these tertiary subjects, from the material surveyed, offered the possibility, and some clearly demonstrated the practice, of worlded reading.

Secondary education is bound by a high stakes testing environment which has consequences for the way in which disciplines can be reconceived. At the university level there is more potential for reworlding texts within new configurations and understandings and there are different constraints. The questioning of the value of the humanities in some ways has made a worlding of Australian texts more imperative, but has threatened the environments in which that is to be achieved and the manner and nature of that worlding. There is some danger that ‘world literature’ subjects produced by pragmatic rationalisation in the current economic climate may result in what Cooppan refers to as ‘world literature as a fictive universality’ rather than ‘a vision of many worlds, individually distinct and variously connected’ (‘Ghosts’ 23).

In this essay we have explored the institutional possibilities and constraints of worlding setter texts in secondary and university environments using My Brilliant Career as an exemplary text. Our preliminary work in the area of curriculum and assessment reveals established structural limitations, particularly at secondary level, which challenge these assumptions. In the face of the curriculum this idealised, expansive notion of the discipline clashes with the pragmatic and material functions of literature within a hierarchical system of education.

Often the conversation around the worlding of texts is focused on the practices of reading fiction. In this paper we have expanded the practices of reading to incorporate the analysis of documents that frame the intended, espoused, and enacted curriculum, as well as the practice of writing. Arguably the ideal concept of worlding the text changes the rules of the game; however, the challenges to this new way of reading and writing about national literatures is revealed by the analysis of the structures and documents of the curriculum that draw attention to the complexities of mobilising such an ideal in post-colonial societies such as Australia.

In her visit to Australia in 2014, Vilashini Cooppan asked ‘What does Australian literature teach us about being in the world and being for the world?’ (‘Corpus’ 17). The analysis we have provided in this essay shows that, in the secondary school context, the worldly potential of a text such as Franklin’s My Brilliant Career has increased with a new Study Design, but may remain circumscribed by the tenuous and much contested role of Australian literature within the English and Literature curricula.


  1. See, for example: Susan W. Hardwick, Rebecca Marcus and Marissa Isaak’s ‘Education and National Identity in a Comparative Context’; John Ainley and Tim Friedman’s ‘The Role of Civic Participation in National and School Curricula.’

  2. See, for example, the Clarence and Richmond Examiner, Tuesday 26 Nov. 1901, p. 2.

  3. The international Copyright Act cut back on the publication of cheap paperback editions of Australian works by the turn of the century, as David Carter points out. The first US edition listed in the Library of Congress is 1965; A&R, [Sydney] Angus and Robertson; San Francisco, Tri-Ocean Books [1965, i.e. 1966].

  4. Information from an informal tertiary teacher survey conducted by Martin in 2014 confirms the difficulty in reliably obtaining My Brilliant Career as a teaching text across this period. University bookshops also confirmed that the text was out of print (although that advice may have been erroneous).

  5. Although Australian books came under the new Australia-US Free Trade Agreement at the beginning of 2005, the timing of the epublication of the novel on Project Gutenberg is in accordance with the current and previous agreement in which copyright lapsed 50 years after the author’s death. Under the new act this remained the case for books by authors who died prior to January 1955. Franklin died 19 September, 1954. See National Library of Australia, ‘How Long Does Copyright Last?’.

  6. The HarperCollins edition should have been available in a 2006/2007 reprint, but we are working partly from experience of repeatedly trying to set the text across this period for one of the largest Victorian university Australian literature courses, and having to source the US edition or delete the text. As noted, anecdotal evidence from other tertiary teachers supports this, but it is difficult to match actual access against ‘books in print’ listings.

  7. The other texts in this series included Helen Garner’s Cosmo Cosmolino, Kate Grenville’s Dark Places, Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watchtower, and Madeleine St. John’s The Women in Black. Even if you placed all or most of these writers as part of a women’s canon in Australia – and Harrower and certainly St. John have to be rather wrenched into place to fit – these specific books, apart from My Brilliant Career, are not texts generally regarded as canonical.

  8. K-10 means kindergarten (approximately 5 years) to year 10 (approximately 16 years of age and the fourth and final compulsory year of secondary schooling).

  9. Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), Australian Curriculum.

  10. Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), Australian Curriculum.

  11. Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), Australian Curriculum.

  12. ALIAS is the product of Tim Dolin and John Yiannakis, with technical assistance from Joko Wong. It is based on all available syllabi, reading lists, examination papers and subject manuals and/or handbooks from 1945 to 2005 for Western Australia, New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria. The website is currently housed as part of the Australian Common Reader site. See:

  13. For further discussion, see Sheridan 333.

  14. See also McLean Davies, Larissa. ‘What’s the Story? Australian Literature in the Secondary English Curriculum.’ National Conference for Teachers of English and Literacy. 2008. Conference Paper.

  15. This data on university courses using My Brilliant Career was sourced via the Austlit database:

Published 19 September 2017 in Volume 32, No. 2. Subjects: Australian literature - Study & teaching, Transnationalism, Miles Franklin.

Cite as: McLean Davies, Larissa and Susan K. Martin. ‘Toward Worlding Settler Texts: Tracking the Uses of Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career through the Curriculum.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 32, no. 2, 2017.