Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2252
McCullough’s skill lies in her ability to tell a good story. She has been faulted for not being a serious literary stylist. Admittedly, her characters are sometimes stereotyped, their perceptions about each other tend to be too detailed and too accurate and her plots swing along on coincidences. Still, readers believe in the story and care about the people. She has the knack of weaving the reader into her tales to the extent that incongruous events become believable.
McCullough’s work is decidedly old-fashioned. She places most of her stories in the past, she employs a straightforward narrative style, and her characters are embroiled in timeworn dilemmas of love versus duty, desire versus prohibition, and the importance of honor. Her women are strong, and the men are sympathetically drawn. Strength, however, does not buy happiness for her characters, although it may buy contentment.
Although The First Man in Rome is McCullough’s first foray into the genre of the historical novel, she has consistently employed the technique of distancing events from the reader by setting the story in a different era. This provides a buffer between the reader and the events of the work, allowing the author to focus on the characters without having to factor in current events. While this “once upon a time” technique is a standard practice in romance novels, she saves her work from becoming mundane by her attention to her themes of duty, honor, and simple perseverance. The love affairs in McCullough’s books are never easy. They involve, for example, an older woman and a young retarded man, or a young girl and an older priest. Events such as war, rigid social convention, droughts, and storms further complicate the characters’ lives.
A persistent character in all of McCullough’s work is the place where the novel is set. From Drogheda in The Thorn Birds, to the city of Rome in The First Man in Rome and its sequels, she constructs a picture of the setting so detailed that it takes on a life of its own and is a constant influence on the human characters. Even the futuristic United States depicted in A Creed for the Third Millennium, with its unending winter, is drawn convincingly and is the major motivating factor for the events of the story. Whether the book is set in a small tropical island in World War II or in ancient Rome, McCullough focuses not on the great, sweeping events of the time but upon the minute points of domestic life. The era is made real by descriptions of putting up corned beef for the winter, or sealing windows to keep out the unending cold, or the care of gardens in a Roman tenement building. Her imaginative and well-placed use of slang in dialogue adds an extra dimension to the characters.
Detail is an integral aspect of McCullough’s work. Subtlety is not. Her characters are as sympathetic as real people because she surrounds them with details and problems. Plot, on the other hand, takes a definite back seat in importance. In order to move the story along or give the characters reason to perform an action or make a decision, coincidence abounds. The characters may simply sense they need to do something and follow that hunch. A nurse can simply look at a mental patient and see that he is not really disturbed, that he is a strong person put into an unfeasible situation. McCullough’s language often lacks polish and is even stilted in the style of romance novels, especially when McCullough is writing about something outside her field of experience. While this may mar the tale for a reader sensitive to such features, the author sweeps on and concentrates on her areas of expertise: character and place.
The charge of plagiarism attached to The Ladies of Missalonghi may be a product of this lack of subtlety. McCullough asserts she set out to write a new twist on the Cinderella story. The plot of the Cinderella tale is standard romance fodder: An unhappy woman in a restrictive family situation is rescued by unlikely intervention and achieves life with Prince Charming. McCullough’s work is set in a small town at the end of the nineteenth century. McCullough’s primary focus is on the character and how she deals with her situation, not the situation itself.
McCullough brings a good deal of herself to her work. She grew up reading old-fashioned novels, she has said, up to forty a week, which plainly shows in her unadorned narrative style. She was surrounded in childhood by Irish Catholicism, with its emphasis on dutiful love, adherence to conventions, and inevitable punishment for deviance. These are all major themes in her work. Her family life in Australia, with a cold father, a horde of single uncles, and the lesser valuation of women in the society is represented most strongly in the semiautobiographical The Thorn Birds. Her family history also influences her characterization in other novels. Her medical training has provided her with fodder for many of her stories. She describes herself as a child as fat, ugly, and ambitious, as well as very smart. This view of herself may have contributed to her tendency to excel in the research of her novels and to work harder than anyone else.
The Thorn Birds
First published: 1977
Type of work: Novel
Three generations of the women in the Australian Outback survive hardship as the family rises to power.
The Thorn Birds is Colleen McCullough’s second novel, and her most widely read work to date. Its publication propelled her to immediate literary stardom and ensured her status as a widely read author. It is also a showcase for the themes and literary styles that recur in her later works.
Meggie Cleary is the central figure in The Thorn Birds. The only daughter in a family of six sons, she is “the perfect female character, passive yet enormously strong.” While she is still very young she and her family move to Drogheda, a massive plantation in the Outback owned by Meggie’s aunt, Mary Carson. Natural disasters occur at every turn and are almost entirely unrelieved by human warmth, especially for a mere girl like Meggie. She is befriended, however, by a handsome and ambitious priest, Father Ralph de Bricassart.
With this beginning the course of events at Drogheda are set. Meggie grows up encompassed by Drogheda, which her aunt wills to the church rather than to the family. She feels a duty to it and to the land that is more compelling than a desire for happiness for herself. Ralph feels a duty to his own ambitions to become cardinal which are, for him, more compelling than his relationship with Meggie. Within the confines of Catholicism they both accept that love must be subordinated to his career as priest and to her responsibility to contribute to the survival of Drogheda. Characteristically for McCullough, the women of the novel have the strength to hold the social fabric together, as is their duty as women, while the men use their strength for personal advancement, either on the plantation or in ascent to a cardinalship, as is conventional for them.
Meggie’s sporadic forays toward happiness invariably end in disaster. She marries a cane cutter who looks like Ralph only to find him cold. Her relationship with her daughter is never warm. A brief affair with Ralph gives her a son she loves but whom she eventually loses to the priesthood and an early death. Like the legendary thorn bird of the title, which spends its life seeking a thorn to impale itself on so it can sing one lovely song while dying, pleasure is bought at the price of devastating pain. The characters have the duty to realize and accept this. To feel sorry for oneself would be to avoid this obligation, to defy convention. Meggie’s daughter, Justine, eventually abandons Drogheda to be an actress, but even this unconventional act is validated by a man, slipping her back into the dutiful female role after all.
An Indecent Obsession
First published: 1981
Type of work: Novel
At the close of World War II, a nurse in charge of a ward for mildly disturbed soldiers must deal with a new arrival.
In An Indecent Obsession McCullough has constructed an enclosed world, a microcosm in which a controlled population of characters interact with no relief expected from outside influences. This isolation causes emotions to run high and causes reactions to events to be more intense than they might be otherwise.
Honour Langtry is in charge of the “troppo” ward, a hospital barrack for soldiers who need a rest. It is located in part of an almost evacuated hospital camp on a remote island. She has only five patients and expects the situation to be stable over the few weeks remaining before everyone goes home. Even more than the typical McCullough heroine, she is obsessed by duty. She feels responsible to do as much as possible for her patients, although she is hampered by having no special psychological training. Her solution has been to form them into a supportive family unit with herself as the matriarch.
At this point Michael, a new patient, arrives. Honour is immediately attracted to him, which upsets the balance in the ward as well as her own sense of her responsibilities. McCullough thus incorporates most of her standard themes—duty, family, forbidden love, and the influence of the environment upon people’s lives. Although the story has a human villain, Luce, an arrogant, twisted man who enjoys torturing the others, it is the island and the ward, in which the characters’ military responsibility compels them to remained trapped, that are the catalysts for the more catastrophic events of the book. McCullough describes the humidity, the mold, the insects, and their effects upon each character with a vividness which leaves little doubt as to their centrality to the story.
Honour and Michael attempt to place personal satisfaction above duty, with predictably dire results. Although they both subsequently devote themselves to selfless lives bounded purely by responsibility, their infraction marks them and they continue to pay for it. Only when Honour realizes that duty is “only another name for love” and surrenders to it without hoping for anything more, does she regain some measure of tranquillity.
This is one of McCullough’s shortest novels, and it trespasses further into the language of romance than her other works. McCullough has also allowed these characters more insight into one anothers’ thoughts and motivations than is perhaps believable. At the same time, the novel deals harshly with the characters, who are not allowed the slightest grain of personal happiness.
The First Man in Rome
First published: 1990
Type of work: Novel
Gaius Marius rises from relative obscurity to power in ancient Rome.
The First Man in Rome marked a stylistic departure for McCullough, as well as a new genre to explore. It is the first of a series of novels, something new for McCullough. Also new is that the primary characters are male. Finally, as a historical novel rather than a romance with a historical setting, it adheres to historical fact. Of necessity, a historical novelist knows the large events of a story before beginning to write. The historical novelist’s only literary freedom lies in details such as personality and domestic life. Such details are McCullough’s chief strength.
Gaius Marius is the primary character of The First Man in Rome. He is an aristocrat from the far provinces, a man of wealth but little social standing in a society that values ancestry highly. Through marriage to a daughter of the Caesar family and a brilliant military career, he obtains prestige and fame, becoming in time the first man in Rome. This is the accepted title for a man whose natural attributes allow him to outshine all others.
More than in any other work, except perhaps The Thorn Birds, McCullough uses setting as a major character in the novel. The aristocrats of her Rome devote themselves to their country. They are expected to be politicians and military generals, and they are reared with a sense of duty to value Rome above all. The women also are bounded by well-defined and rigid rules of duty to home and family. Their adherence to these rules allows the men to concentrate on politics and war.
The novel is dense with detail. Included in the book are several maps, a glossary, a pronunciation guide for Latin names and phrases, and a list of characters. In the narrative, the buildings, streets, clothes, and attitudes are depicted with minute accuracy. While this makes for slow reading, the narrative constructs a fully rounded, embracing picture of Rome that allows the reader to sense just how the state could so encompass the lives of its inhabitants. It also allows McCullough to reconstruct the ancient world for a modern reader.
As a result of the limits of historical accuracy, the characters in this book are not subjected to the same extremes of fortune that the characters in McCullough’s other novels are. Disasters do occur; battles are won or lost; a lucky thought promotes a person to fame and an unlucky chance causes death. The causes, however, are inherent in the individuals, or are likely chances. Working within a story that has already been lived allows McCullough to concentrate fully on her characters and reduces the number of coincidences moving the plot along.