Photograph 51 and My Brilliant Career The Basics

This Resource is for Year 12 English students studying Unit 4 AOS:1 Reading & Comparing Texts in the Victorian VCE Curriculum for 2023.  While Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler was compared in 2022 to The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, the play has a new comparative text in 2023, the novel My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin.


Anna Ziegler’s play ‘Photograph 51’ and Miles Franklin’s novel ‘My Brilliant Career’ explore concepts with very different women protagonists.  Both protagonists have their own individual personalities, dispositions, ages and external contexts.  As such it is important to understand the cultural and social surroundings of each character as well as how they are affected by other people and their settings.  In ‘My Brilliant Career’ the characters are all seen in relation to Sybylla Melvyn because it is her ‘yarn’ and so the story unfolds based on her whims and experiences.  Within ‘Photograph 51’, Rosalind Franklin is stripped of participation in the narrative and seems completely unaware of her significance or importance to her society or its later historical record of her achievements.

The Historical and Cultural Context of Both Texts is Important in Comparing Them

‘Photograph 51’ is based on the modern viewpoint of Anna Ziegler and her interest in feminist and historical ideas that reconceptualise key events in history.  The play’s historical context is based around the results of post WWII and movements in the 1950’s scientific world.  ‘Photograph 51’ is a single act play with its action occurring between 1951 and 1953 at a time in Britain when there was a pervasive attitude that a woman’s place was better served in the home than having a career, along with an entrenched gender bias which had tragic consequences for Rosalind Franklin.

‘My Brilliant Career’ was written by Stella Maria Miles Franklin an Australian writer who wrote her novel in 1899 and it was not published until 1901 the year of the Australian Federation.  The novel’s historical context of Australia’s Federation plays a huge role in the narrative that describes a masculine society with aspects of Australian rural life that that held women in a constricting place.  While Ziegler’s play is feminist in its nature, Franklin’s novel is proto-feminist because it comes before the first feminist movements began.  Franklin’s novel was written 7 years before women had the right to vote and they still lacked social and economic prospects.  Franklin has Sybylla reflect that “… it was only men who could take the world by its ears and conquer their fate …” (p.61). 

Both Texts Explore Ideas About

  1. Power in its various forms, including patriarchal power within society of financial, political and legal power; physical and intellectual power.
  2. Identity and its connections with physical appearance, self-perception and the expectations of others.
  3. Women’s roles/gender are shown in differing representations of the feminine in various types of characters but because both Sybylla and Rosalind were independent and intelligent, neither one conformed to social expectations about gender and destiny.
  4. Storytelling and the power of narrative is demonstrated in the power of taking control of one’s own story.  In My Brilliant Career it is Sybylla’s own voice that exposes gender inequality in 19th century Australia and her simple ‘yarn’ becomes other Australian women’s stories of restrictive conformation to society’s standards.  However, Rosalind in Photograph 51 who is isolated and vilified, is unable to take control of her narrative.
  5. Truth and Lies is shown in Zeigler’s play suggests that it does matter who found the answer to DNA with Wilkin’s tacit approval of Crick and Watson’s use of Rosalind’s research data is shown in his comment that it doesn’t matter who found the answer.  Sybylla narrates her own story that seeks her own personal truth as to how she wants to live her life, knowing that because she is a girl, and ugly at that, her ambitions are continually thwarted.
  6. Ambition for Sybylla is boundless and no matter how hard she tries to fit in to her socially acceptable female role she always longs for the “mystical better things” (p.65) in her wish to achieve something.  Rosalind’s ambition is equally intense and her determination and desire to do her scientific work with her personal challenge to be “always right” (p.46), drove her to become a scientist who paid meticulous attention to detail.
  7. Respect for Rosalind is being treated with a level of importance by her male colleagues for the significant work she did for discovery of DNA and being worthy of respect.  Unfortunately only Gosling and Caspar truly respect Rosalind but she is disrespected throughout the narrative by the other hypocritical male scientists.  With Sybylla’s story a coming of age narrative, respect for and of others is part of her development as she is coming to terms with her true values.  Aunt Helen is the only person Sybylla respects; in contrast she loses respect for her father when he drinks and destroys the family’s financial security.
  8. Expectations fall into 3 categories for Sybylla – first, societal expectations of Australia in the 1890’s, second her personal desires balanced against what is expected of her in terms of propriety and correct moral and social behaviour and third a feminist concern of hope for women in a world made for men.  While Rosalind looks back reflects on her desires to live with decisions she has made otherwise she dies in “regret” (p.83) but Sybylla looks forward with expectation, tempered with uncertainty, still seeking independence in an unknown future.

Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler

Structure & Style

As a single act play, it includes six characters each of whom presents their perspective on events unfolding between 1951 and 1953 at King’s College, London.  There is a juxtaposition of the past and present which interrupts the linear structure of the narrative.  The action of Ziegler’s play mainly focuses upon Dr Rosalind Franklin, a real-life scientist who is arguably the person who discovered the molecular structure of DNA.  Her research was crucial to the three men who would ultimately be awarded the coveted Nobel Prize in 1962.  Ziegler’s characters are therefore all real people; however, she freely admits to altering the time structure of events, re-arranging facts and creating interactions between characters that allow her to creatively explore the main themes of the play.

‘Photograph 51’ is structured as a circular narrative, not quite from the start but as Franklin and Wilkins return to Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale at the play’s conclusion, our minds are taken back to their discussion of the play that first occurs.  This doubling effect, or repetition, brings to mind one of the key symbols of the play, the double helix.  Ziegler, as she wants her audience to view events from different perspectives, also ‘relies on characters stepping forward occasionally as a sort of Greek chorus to fill in the background details’.  This is often found in the voice of Caspar who questions the behaviour of Wilkins, Watson and Crick about what really happened.  There are no traditional scene changes but the play looks to alterations in lighting and character groupings to suggest structural shifts.  The action of the play is fluid moving with characters all having equal speaking parts like an ensemble piece. 

Ziegler’s stage directions also indicate to the audience when she is instructing one of her characters to break the fourth wall (talk directly to the audience).  An example is Rosalind’s line: ‘(To the audience.)  I have two tumours.’  With the spotlight on her as she says these words, only the audience is meant to hear.

Feminist Literature & Challenging the Historical Invisibility of Women

The idea of challenging the historical invisibility of women is implicit in the play where the work of an extraordinary woman Rosalind Franklin is made visible.  Ziegler’s play highlights the ways in which stories told by men have worked to minimise or downplay the roles played by women.  According to Watson Rosalind “misunderstood the terms of her contract” (p.13) when in fact crucial details are “changed” after her arrival.  As readers we hope that had Rosalind Franklin lived long enough the Nobel Prize Committee would have surely awarded her a Nobel prize for her conceptual understanding of the structure of the DNA molecule.  However, Ziegler’s play recognises Franklin’s contribution even if the sexist attitudes ingrained in science at the time did not.

When asked about Rosalind Franklin as a feminist, Ziegler argued that was not her intention but audiences may interpret the character differently: ‘But more importantly, I agree that Rosalind wouldn’t want to be considered a feminist icon and I didn’t set out to make her into one.  All I can say is that, if the play has contributed to that sense of her, I hope it’s not because it paints her as a victim, but because it shows that she persevered in the name of the work and the work alone at a time when she had to ignore that it was difficult for her to do so.’

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

My Brilliant Career: Text Classics  by Miles Franklin at Abbey's Bookshop,

Structure & Style

The novel ‘My Brilliant Career’ has a conventional linear structure with Sybylla’s voice telling her own personal growth story during 19th century rural Australia.  Using a male pseudonym Franklin wrote her story of a young woman who was held back socially by a strict patriarchal society.  The novel includes an Introduction by Jennifer Byrne (vii-xiv) followed by a Preface by Henry Lawson and a further Introduction by Sybylla (pp.1-3) then the novel extends across 38 chapters.  Each voice is of Sybylla’s own perspective of the contrasts between the settings from Bruggabrong, Possum Gully, Caddagat, Five Bob Downs and Barney’s Gap. 

The diametrically opposed physical spaces of Caddagat and Barney’s Gap echo the oppositional forces in Sybylla herself (the feminine and the tomboy), and parallel opposing genres of romanticism and realism in the novel.  What is important to note is the Federation Drought of the 1890’s that caused enormous stock losses and many landowners became bankrupt.  The economic depression was a tumultuous time for the young states of Australia with banks failing and unemployment soaring. Sybylla’s novel provides a palpable insight into the terrible conditions of the time along with her descriptions of the harsh weather of “scorching furnace-breath winds [that] shrivelled every blade of grass, dust and the moan of starving stock filled the air” (p.33).

Proto-feminist Novel Challenges Gender Expectations in 19th Century Australia

At a time when it was considered that the only suitable ambition for young women was to marry and raise a family, Franklin has Sybylla set out of the norm and desire to have a career and wish to live an independent life.  In effect, Franklin gives her main protagonist a voice equal to her own abilities.  In Sybylla’s own Introduction (p.1-3) she describes her manuscript as a “real yarn” (p.1) addressing her readers as ‘My Dear Fellow Australians’ (p.1) grouping women and men together under one banner and wanting to be heard.

From a young age Sybylla has a desire to write and throughout her narrative she expresses her opinion of marriage, redefines class boundaries and her completely different views of what was expected of ladies of her time.  Describing herself as “unorthodox” (p.215) Sybylla is seen as different from the norm and at times does perform many “self-analysis” sessions on herself with one of her biggest regrets is that she is ugly.  Forced to acknowledge she is not like the beautiful girls who choose the acceptable pathway of marriage, Sybylla knows she is in a different “sphere” (p.61) intellectually, because her desire is to have a career.  Yet she is also egalitarian seeing herself as an “Australian peasant, cheerful, honest and brave” (p.391).

All Resources created by Online Tutoring using Zoom for Mainstream English Students in the Victorian Curriculum