Miles Franklin was born in 1879 at Talbingo in New South Wales. As she grew up, her family became progressively less well off, moving from a series of rural holdings to a house in the southern Sydney suburb of Carlton.
In 1899, Franklin's novel My Brilliant Career earned widespread acclaim. In the years that followed, she moved in literary and feminist circles before embarking for the United States (US) in April 1906. After travelling from the west coast, she reached Chicago towards the end of that year.
Franklin remained in Chicago until October 1915. She worked, among other jobs, for the National Women's Trade Union League of America and continued to write.
In October 1915, Franklin sailed for England where she worked in a variety of jobs. She joined the 'America' Unit (named for its US donors) of the Scottish Women's Hospital for Foreign Service in June 1917. The unit comprised almost entirely women and was run on a voluntary basis by female doctors.
On 3 July 1917, Franklin crossed from Southampton to France before making an overland journey via Paris, Turin, Rome and Taranto. From Italy, she boarded a troop transport bound for Salonika, one of only 3 women among 3000 men on board.
Hours after reaching Salonika, Franklin left for Ostrovo in Macedonia. She described the drive as 'the roughest journey I ever underwent' along roads, 'fit', said another observer 'only for bullock transportation.'
At Ostrovo, Franklin joined her unit, a 200-bed hospital supporting the Serbian Army. The unit functioned as a casualty clearing station and field hospital. She worked as a cook’s assistant and matron's orderly in charge of stores. She wrote:
I looked after the linen and all the clothing and bedding supplies and gave out the dressings
She also wrote of the hard physical work and the hours – one day free each month, half a day off a week and a few hours rest on most days. In her free time, Franklin joined the nurses swimming in Lake Ostrovo. She said, they might be seen there 'dancing a spirited reel on the shores in their bathing tights'.
On some of their half-days, the nurses went to Vodena. They mingled with Greeks, Turks and 'refugee gypsies'. When catching trains, the Serbian soldiers would rig blankets to protect the sisters from the chill winds.
Franklin also wrote of men from the dominions of Europe's empires and allied nations. She recalled armies 'that streamed back and forth … men and mules forever'. Of the Serbs who had survived the retreat across Albania and Montenegro:
exiled, remnant war-weary, dispirited men, wrecked by malaria and phthisis (tuberculosis) and cut off from their normal surroundings
Franklin recognised that her contact with the Serbs and her experience in Salonika did not confer a deeper understanding of the war or the region. She wondered whether the 'strategists and spies knew' of what was really happening there, but conceded:
We did not, and could not. So we dropped into the Balkan trance wherein we did our appointed work, took our pleasures and continued to fret.
Ostrovo was scenic but an unhealthy place. Franklin and other hospital staff were assailed by flies, fleas, mosquitoes, wasps and snakes. In the winter, she suffered from chilblains.
Franklin left at the end of her 6-month contract, on 3 February 1918. She returned to London, where she suffered repeated bouts of malaria, a legacy of her time in Macedonia.
Franklin remained in London for 8 years, apart from a visit to Ireland in 1919 and to the US and Australia in 1923 and 1924. From 1919 to 1926, she was employed as a secretary with the National Housing and Town Planning Council.
Throughout her years in London, after her return to Australia in 1927 and during another 2-year stint in England between 1930 and 1932, Franklin continued to write. She worked with prominent literary figures and remained in the public eye without ever matching the acclaim she received for My Brilliant Career.
Miles Franklin died in Sydney in September 1954.