A legacy of £8,922 is still giving after 60 years

A one-off endowment has grown to become Australia’s richest and proudest literary award.
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Image: Miles Franklin via The Miles Franklin Award. 

The Miles Franklin Award is pretty much a household name these days, as are many of the writers to have won it, including Tim Winton, Peter Carey, Thea Astley and Frank Moorhouse. But less is known of the Award’s founder, author Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, or Miles Franklin as she was known.

A pioneer in Australian literature, Franklin first made literary waves with her debut novel, My Brilliant Career published in 1901. A preface to the novel was written by Henry Lawson, who called it, ‘The first great Australian novel.’

Franklin would go on to live an extraordinary life, travelling and championing various causes, including the Women’s Suffrage Movement. She was a fierce advocate of women writers and was co-Editor for the National Women’s Trade Union League in Chicago.

Born in Talbingo (NSW) in 1879 and raised in the Australian outback on Brindabella Station, for a woman of her generation she was both intrepid and independent. She worked as a cook in England before volunteering at the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, serving food to the wounded in Macedonia (during the Serbian campaigns of 1917–18.) She tackled housing conditions in London, and organised a women’s international housing convention in 1924.

Celebrating 60 years of Australian writers

Franklin was a champion for various feminist and progressive causes but above all she was a great champion of Australian writing and for Australian writers. In her will, she made a significant bequest: the establishment of an annual literary award known as The Miles Franklin Award.

Richard Neville, a NSW Mitchell librarian and a Miles Franklin judge said: ‘She hoped the award would give Australian writers time and space to work, to develop their craft, and to write Australian stories. It is what she wanted, but never had the opportunity to achieve because of her struggles to make a living as a writer.’

What started off as a tidy sum of £8,922 ($17,844 – factoring in inflation, the equivalent of $300,328 today) left in Franklin’s will has grown exponentially, funding a $60,000 Award that is presented annually. The 2017 Shortlist has just been announced.

Past award winners such as Elisabeth Jolley, Tim Winton and Thea Astley have all had major influences in the Australian literary scene. Neville reflected: ‘The Award has always been well received by the Australian literary community and readers, and its significance noted.’

Perpetual, the Trustee of the funds left in Miles Franklin’s will, also manages the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Perpetual’s National Manager of Philanthropy, Caitriona Fay reflected: ‘Sixty years after the award was established, the Australian literary community continues to thrive as a result of the trailblazing philanthropic endeavour of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin.’

As a major sponsor since 2011, the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund has provided each shortlisted author with a $5,000 prize.

‘It’s always a joy to open the cover on a new reading experience and these five novelists have developed enticing and beautiful stories. In this 60th year especially, Miles Franklin would be pleased,’ said Adam Suckling, the Copyright Agency’s CEO.

Neville said: ‘These days the prize reflects a more diverse literature, that is not framed by such a self-conscious sense of being Australian – while the novels are rooted in Australian life, the concerns they reflect are probably more reflective of international issues and concerns.’

The 2017 Finalists:

An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire (Pac Macmillan Australia)
The Last Days Of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn (University of Queensland Press)
Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill (Black Inc)
Waiting by Philip Salom (Puncher & Wattmann)
Extinctions by Josephine Wilson (UWA Publishing)

Josephine Wilson is one of the authors shortlisted for the 2017 Award. Her novel focuses on the life of a retired professor and engineer, Fredrick Lothian. 

‘To be read by people who have no preconceptions about me, or the world in which I live, and to have those people find something in my book is uplifting,’ said Wilson.

The Miles Franklin 2017 winner will be announced on 7 September.