Miles Franklin: A Short Biography by Jill Roe

Miles Franklin Short BioTitle: Miles Franklin: A Short Biography

Author: Jill Roe

Genre: Non-fiction, biography

Publisher: HarperCollins, 4th Estate

Published: 23rd April 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 432

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: Author, union organiser, WW1 volunteer, agitator, nationalist, Miles Franklin dedicated her life to many causes, none more passionately than Australian literature. Propelled to fame aged only twenty-one in the wake of her bestselling novel, My Brilliant Career, she never achieved the same literary success, but her life was rich and productive. She rose to the position of secretary of the National Women’s Trade Union League of America; served in a medical unit in the Balkans; was a first wave feminist in the US, Britain and Australia; published sixteen novels as well as numerous non-fiction books and articles; and maintained friendships and correspondences with a who’s who of poets, novelists, publishers, activists and artists.

If her extraordinary achievements in life were not enough, her endowment of the Miles Franklin Literary Award on her death ensured she would never be forgotten. In 2013, the Stella Prize for Australian Women’s Writing, named in honour of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin was awarded for the first time, enhancing her reputation further.

This abridged edition of Jill Rowe’s award-winning biography introduces a new generation of readers to the indominable Miles Franklin – a pioneer of Australian Literature whose legacy founded our most prestigious literary prize.

Prizes won since the original was published in 2008:

Queensland Premier’s Literary Award – 2009

South Australian Prize for Non-Fiction – 2010

Australian Historical Association Magarey Medal for Biography – 2010

Jill Rowe passed away in 2014 and is honoured with the Jill Rowe Prize.

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AWW-2018-badge-roseBorn in 1879, twenty-two years before the states and territories federated as the Commonwealth of Australia, and twenty-three years before suffrage became a reality for many Australian women in 1902, Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin would grow up to become one of Australia’s best-known and one of the most celebrated Australian women writers. She lived a remarkable life across Australia, Britain, Europe and the US, was always busy, and always involved in unions and activism. She was brave, and headstrong, and Jill Roe’s biography captured her willingness to follow her dreams and stand up for what she believed in. Her life was fascinating and diverse, from writing to involvement in war, and in unions and first wave feminism in three countries, working to bring women the vote.

Growing up near Tumut, with a large family, Miles, unlike her sisters, never married and never had children. Instead, she embarked on a career and in activities that were unexpected of women at that time, but that she found herself drawn to, and put her energies into these efforts. A prolific writer whose most famous book remains My Brilliant Career, she wrote another series under a nom de plume that she wouldn’t give anything away about and was able to keep up the charade for many years, up until her death.

Reading this biography, I learnt many things about Miles Franklin that I had not known beyond her impact on the literary world in Australia. She ensured that Australian literature would always be recognised through the Miles Franklin Literary Award, and championed an Australian literary culture, that, perhaps without her passion for it, we may not have around to enjoy so thoroughly today. It was a rich and fascinating life, and one that is far more than just one of Australia’s most celebrated novelists. What she achieved and worked towards in her lifetime was amazing and even in this abridged edition, the essence of her life and Jill Roe’s words still exist wholly and the reader can still enjoy it and gain an understanding of Miles Franklin as a whole person and not just a novelist.

The Book of Colours by Robyn Cadwallader

book of colpursTitle:  The Book of Colours

Author: Robyn Cadwallader

Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Publisher: HarperCollins/4th Estate

Published: 1st May 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 368

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: From Robyn Cadwallader, author of the internationally acclaimed novel The Anchoress, comes a deeply profound and moving novel of the importance of creativity and the power of connection, told through the story of the commissioning of a gorgeously decorated medieval manuscript, a Book of Hours.

London, 1321: In a small shop in Paternoster Row, three people are drawn together around the creation of a magnificent book, an illuminated manuscript of prayers, a book of hours. Even though the commission seems to answer the aspirations of each one of them, their own desires and ambitions threaten its completion. As each struggles to see the book come into being, it will change everything they have understood about their place in the world. In many ways, this is a story about power – it is also a novel about the place of women in the roiling and turbulent world of the early fourteenth century; what power they have, how they wield it, and just how temporary and conditional it is.

Rich, deep, sensuous and full of life, Book of Colours is also, most movingly, a profoundly beautiful story about creativity and connection, and our instinctive need to understand our world and communicate with others through the pages of a book.

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AWW-2018-badge-roseIn the fourteenth century, bookmaking was an art, a combination of trades, where a scribe or scrivener, would write the manuscript, a limner would illuminate the text, and finally, the book binder, who would bring the parchment pages together within leather bindings.  In 1321, Will Asshe is an apprentice to a small shop that creates illuminated religious texts for wealthy clients, under John, and his wife Gemma, who have their own secrets about who really decorates the manuscripts of the books of hours that Wat Scrivener delivers to them, ordered by noblemen for their families and prayer purposes. Will is an apprentice to John, and he watches Gemma as she paints and writes a book calledThe Art of Illuminationto pass down her son – each chapter begins with a section from the book Gemma is working on. As each person works on their own section in preparation for the book binder, they realise that they each have to find a way to work together and not let their own ideas of power or what the book should be take-over – it is a commission for Lady Mathilda, whose story is woven throughout the book, with her sections in 1322, when she has the book, and is sharing it with her daughters – interspersed with the intriguing and complex process that had delivered the book to her and the risks that those who created it took, with a backdrop of famine, and war that divided loyalties and affected businesses and the dealings they had with Lady Mathilda.

As the mysteries thicken and loyalties are questioned. those working on the book will find themselves questioning what they are doing and why, and what will happen if their secrets are revealed.

The Middle Ages are a period where religion was a strong, often defining force in people’s lives, and where the classes were often more defined, as were expectations of what men and women could do. As in this book, it is the male limners given the credit, though Gemma certainly had an important role to play – it is possible she represents the female limners who were never accepted into the guilds for the profession but nonetheless undertook limner work on valued manuscripts such as a book of hours.

What I enjoyed about this book was the way the book of hours being created for Lady Mathilda reflected the personalities of Will, Wat and Gemma, and John – whose contributions to the book and hushed secrets about its creation and why things happened as they did have to be kept for as long as possible from Southflete, the head of the guild, and the worry of what would happen if he found out. The plot and the characters flowed together effectively and the power that they each exercised – not just over the book and their duties, but over each other, and family.

I also enjoyed the prominence of the role of women – Lady Mathilda as a noblewoman, and Gemma as a wife, mother and limner, who had been taught to paint and read by her father as a child. The power these women have is temporary and can be taken away in an instant, but when they have power, they hold onto it and yield it to garner the best outcomes for themselves, their duties and their families. At the same time, they use the power within the confines of their time and place, and to their advantage, whilst maintaining the subordinate position expected of them by those around them.

Throughout the book, the characters are linked by the creativity they exhibit – through words, through painting and through using the pictures to tell a story if they can’t read, and the marginalia that decorated the book alongside the larger, religious images, and the communication of ideas through an image that to all but those in the know, might not understand the meaning behind it.

Overall, it is a book of creativity and mystery, set against a backdrop of uncertainty for all, and where a manuscript such as the one created in this book had immense value and hid the secrets of its creators and those who ordered it.

An interesting book for those who enjoy stories about power and history, and where the relationships weave in and out of the story, but don’t define every aspect of it.

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