My Brilliant Career, the book Miles Franklin published in 1901 when she was twenty-one, cast a shadow over her entire life. It sold well and made her famous for a time, but it did not lead to the publication of more works. The glittering literary career foretold by the critics did not eventuate, at least in Franklin’s opinion. ‘The thing that puzzles me,’ she wrote to Mary Fullerton on New Year’s Day, 1929, ‘is how are we to know whether we are a dud or not at the beginning; I mean how long should a poor creature smitten with the egotism that he can write, keep on in face of rebuffs’.
In December 1982, publisher Richard Walsh commissioned a ‘life and times of Miles Franklin’ from historian Jill Roe. The book ‘has been a long time coming’, says Roe, ‘due to other commitments and responsibilities, and because of the extent of previously unexamined source material.’ That source material – letters, articles, unpublished manuscripts, journals – exists in quantities that can be inferred from Roe’s comment near the end of the book, where she is describing Franklin’s final illness: that ‘from 1 January 1909 to 1 January 1954, there is some kind of record of what Miles Franklin was doing on virtually every day of her life.’
This book opens in Papeete one evening in 1935. Two American film-makers are in Tahiti to take location shots for Mutiny on the Bounty, and director Frank Lloyd laments his failure to find Captain Bligh’s log books. A small white-haired person of indeterminate appearance at the next table leans over: ‘I know where they are,’ she says. Of course she did. The logbooks were in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, and the speaker was Ida Leeson, Mitchell Librarian from 1932 to 1946. The Mitchell Library, located in the Public (now State) Library of New South Wales, is based on the priceless collection of Australiana and south-west Pacific materials donated in 1907 by the reclusive bibliophile David Scott Mitchell. Leeson, its second chief custodian, not only knew the vast collection backwards but added significantly to it. She also used it herself, a key to effective librarianship.
‘The settlement of returned soldiers on cultivable land,’ wrote Ernest Scott in Volume XI of the Official History of Australia in the War 1914–1918 (1936), ‘is one of the most ancient policies of governments after wars.’ Soldier settlement in Australia after World War I is a major instance of a practice dating back as far as Assyria in the thirteenth-century BC. In early twentieth-century Australia, the need to raise an army entirely from volunteers, and the insatiable demands of modern war, made soldier settlement as much an inducement of recruitment as a means of calming things down afterwards, its traditional function.