Walter Clemons (review date 25 April 1977)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 650
SOURCE: "Bed of Thorns," in Newsweek, April 25, 1977, pp. 93, 96, 97.
[In the following review, Clemons provides a brief analysis of The Thorn Birds and commentary on the novel's popular appeal.]
It has, as they say, everything: three generations of suffering (from 1915 to 1969); an indomitable cast of dozens, who move from rags to riches (money doesn't bring happiness); scene shifts from a bleak New Zealand farm to a huge sheep ranch in the Australian outback to the inner chambers of the Vatican; sexual frustration and brief-lived bliss (the latter duly paid for in grief); plus fire, flood, drought, myxomatosis and World War II. Since The Thorn Birds has already sold to paperback for a record $1.9 million, a reviewer can only make a fool of himself by getting all hot and red in the face and protesting that it's junk. Better get out of its way and, as it rolls by, try to explain its appeal.
The Thorn Birds offers big, simplified emotions, startling coincidences and thumping hammer blows of fate. It is an old-fashioned family saga, featuring decades of tribulation on studded with dire forebodings that more often than not come true. One look at a newborn baby and a mother can predict her future: "I think she's always going to belong to herself." An imperious old woman throws a party on her 72nd birthday, announces she will die that night, does so—and because she is evil, her body decomposes faster than any in the watchers' experience.
The lives of the Cleary clan in this book may be tougher than yours or mine, but they are never afflicted with any humdrum waiting around for something awful to happen. The central character, Meggie, loves a breathtakingly handsome priest who is usually ringingly addressed by his full name—as in "You're the most beautiful man I've ever seen, Ralph de Bricassart." Meggie marries an unfeeling brute named Luke, who happens to look like Ralph, and gives birth to a daughter who grows up to become the toast of the London stage. Meggie also has a son by Father Ralph, who drops by to visit her on his way to becoming a cardinal, but her love-child is lost to her when he, in turn, decides to enter the priesthood. On hearing the news, "Meggie sat down. 'I think I've been struck by a retributory bolt of lighting.'"
They all talk like that. Colleen McCullough, a 39-year-old Australian, is described by her publisher as "exuberant but extraordinarily disciplined." Her little-noticed first novel, Tim, we're told, "went through ten drafts in three months before it satisfied her," but The Thorn Birds took longer. When she gets up a full head of steam, McCullough can write tirades the likes of which can seldom have been heard on land or sea. Try this tongue-twister, for instance—Meggie on the subject of men: "You're all the same great big hairy moths bashing yourselves to pieces after a silly flame behind a glass so clear your eyes don't see it … You're nothing but a romantic, dreaming fool, Ralph de Bricassart! You have no more idea what life is all about than the moth I called you! No wonder you became a priest! You couldn't live with the ordinariness of life if you were an ordinary man any more than ordinary man Luke does!"
McCullough's title refers to her characters' penchant for impaling themselves on self-induced miseries. "Like the old Celtic legend of the bird with the thorn in its breast, singing its heart out and dying," Meggie lays it on the line to Ralph. "Don't you see? We create our own thorns, and never stop to count the cost. All we can do is suffer the pain, and tell ourselves it was well worth it." Company loves misery, and the publishers are probably justified in their gamble that readers by the millions will press The Thorn Birds to their bosoms.
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Colleen McCullough 1937–
The following entry presents an overview of McCullough's career through 1996. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 27.
Colleen McCullough is best known as the author of The Thorn Birds (1977), a popular generational saga set in Australia that made publishing history as an international bestseller. Often regarded as an Australian version of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, The Thorn Birds established McCullough as a celebrated author of mainstream fiction. Though she earned a reputation as a romance writer with this novel and Tim (1974), McCullough has produced a diverse body of fiction in several genres, notably the psychological novel An Indecent Obsession (1981), the dystopic fantasy A Creed for the Third Millennium (1985), and an ambitious series of historical novels set in ancient Rome beginning with The First Man in Rome (1990).
A native Australian born in Wellington, New South Wales, McCullough spent most of her childhood in Sydney, where her family settled after a series of relocations in the Outback. As a child McCullough was an avid reader and took an early interest in literature and history; she also displayed an aptitude for science while in high school. Choosing science over the humanities for practical reasons, McCullough attended Holy Cross College and the University of Sydney intending to enter the medical profession, but an allergy to soap precluded a surgical career. Finding temporary employment as a teacher, librarian, bus driver, and journalist, McCullough eventually settled into work as a neurophysiology researcher in Sydney and London, and finally the Yale University School of Internal Medicine, where she remained from 1967 to 1976. While at Yale, McCullough wrote Tim and The Thorn Birds in the evening hours after work, both of which she sought to publish as a source of additional income. With the enormous success of The Thorn Birds, McCullough abandoned her scientific employment to devote her full attention to writing. She soon left the United States for the quiet isolation of Norfolk Island, an idyllic locale in the remote South Pacific. There she met Ric Robinson, a former house painter; they married in 1984. McCullough's sudden literary fame also prompted the production of a film version of Tim in 1981 and the popular miniseries adaptation of The Thorn Birds which aired in 1983. Since McCullough's resettlement to Norfolk Island, she has produced additional best-selling novels, including An Indecent Obsession, A Creed for the Third Millennium, The Ladies of Missalonghi (1987), and the first four volumes of her "Masters of Rome" series—The First Man in Rome, The Grass Crown (1991), Fortune's Favorites (1993), and Caesar's Women (1996).
McCullough's first novel, Tim, describes the romance and marriage of a wealthy, middle-aged woman and a much younger, mentally retarded man endowed with striking classical beauty. Their uncommon attachment blossoms as the woman teaches the man to read and function independently in the world. Through the realistic depiction of their tender relationship, McCullough conveys the profound power of love to bring meaning into solitary lives and to defy social expectations. McCullough also addresses the subject of mental retardation with unusual compassion and understanding. The Thorn Birds is a family saga that spans the Australian continent and three generations of Cleary descendants between 1915 and 1969. The central character is Meggie Cleary, whose frustrating lifelong love for a handsome Roman Catholic priest, Ralph de Bricassart, dominates the plot and underscores the theme of female suffering in the novel. Meggie's futile longing for Ralph is suggested by the title, which refers to a legendary bird that impales itself on a thorn and sings stoically as it dies. Meggie subsequently enters into an unhappy marriage to another man with whom she has a daughter, Justine. During a brief adulterous affair, Ralph fathers an illegitimate son with Meggie but remains devoted to his religious calling and resists commitment to her in favor of a promising career in the church hierarchy. The son, Dane, eventually enters the priesthood under the tutelage of Ralph, unaware that his teacher is also his father. The novel culminates with Dane's tragic drowning in Greece shortly after his ordination. In An Indecent Obsession McCullough combines themes from both Tim and The Thorn Birds to portray tension caused by the conflicting obligations of love and duty. The story involves a nurse, Sister Honour Langtry, who cares for a small group of men with physical and psychological ailments in a South Pacific hospital near the end of World War II. While focusing primarily on the psychological motivations of the characters, McCullough introduces elements of mystery with a suspicious suicide and increasingly complicated relationships among the men and Honour. A Creed for the Third Millennium is a novel of ideas that addresses contemporary social, political, and environmental issues. Set in the United States in the year 2032, McCullough describes a dystopic future world plagued by an impending ice age, frequent suicide, family size limitations, and the vast bureaucratization of society. The central character is Dr. Joshua Christian, a messianic figure selected by the Department of the Environment to inspire the American people with his message of hope. After leading a triumphant march on Washington, DC, Dr. Christian suffers an emotional breakdown and kills himself. McCullough returned to romance with The Ladies of Missalonghi, a modern variation of the Cinderella story involving a poor woman who convinces a mysterious stranger to marry her by feigning a terminal illness. As in earlier novels, McCullough describes love as a transformative force, though adds a more pronounced moral and ethical dimension. With The First Man in Rome McCullough initiated an expansive series of epic historical novels set in ancient Rome during the first century B.C. The First Man in Rome, along with The Grass Crown, Fortune's Favorites, and Caesar's Women, are the first four installments of McCullough's projected six-volume "Masters of Rome" series and recount in prodigious detail the political and personal intrigue behind the decline of the Roman Republic and the ascendancy of Julius Caesar. Each of these massive volumes includes a large cast of characters and complex plots supported by meticulous historical research.
While The Thorn Birds remains McCullough's greatest popular achievement, critical assessment of the novel is uneven. Though most critics dismiss the work as piquant escapist literature at best, others examine the significance of underlying attitudes about sexuality and gender roles in the novel, especially patriarchal assumptions and the role of female suffering in terms of either feminist or anti-feminist perspectives. Quietly received upon publication and overshadowed by The Thorn Birds, Tim is regarded as a competent early literary effort. As with this novel, McCullough's fiction is typically faulted for its uninspired characterizations and contrived action. Subsequent experimentation with genres other than romance failed to duplicate the success of The Thorn Birds. Both An Indecent Obsession and A Creed for the Third Millennium produced modest sales and mixed reviews. The Ladies of Missalonghi is considered among her least effective novels and even opened McCullough to controversial charges of plagiarism. According to her detractors, the story is stolen from Lucy Maud Montgomery's The Blue Castle, an allegation that McCullough has denied. Since turning to historical fiction with the "Masters of Rome" series, McCullough has won favorable critical attention at the expense of a mass readership. Criticized by some reviewers for the overbearing detail and abundance of difficult Latin names in these novels, many praise the engrossing narrative and the impressive accuracy of McCullough's Roman history. A novelist with wide-ranging interests and remarkable storytelling ability, McCullough is highly regarded as a leading author of popular contemporary fiction.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 2 May 1977)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 909
SOURCE: "The Song Is Familiar," in The New York Times, May 2, 1977, p. 31.
[In the following review, Lehmann-Haupt approves of The Thorn Birds as a good example of predictable escapist fiction.]
Going over the notes I kept while reading The Thorn Birds—and there were many pages of them because an awful lot happens in Colleen McCullough's novel about 54 years in the life of an Australian sheep-farming family—I found that one entry I wanted to check read "Dane drowns—P. 485." This was curious, because when I actually turned to the cited page it turned out that Dane had not actually drowned until page 487. And when I consulted several other important events in the three-generation history of the Clearys—mostly these events are deaths, because the Clearys do a great deal of dying—I found the same pattern repeated. The page number 'cited' for the event would almost always precede the actual page on which the event occurred.
Now this apparent carelessness of mine doesn't mean that I was totally indifferent to what happens in The Thorn Birds. In fact I often cared considerably, Father Dane O'Neill's drowning in the sea off Crete, for example, is really quite upsetting, because Dane is young and attractive and has just fulfilled his ambition to be ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. What's more, he is the love-child of the novel's heroine and hero, Meggie Cleary O'Neill and Cardinal Ralph Raoul de Bricassart, both appealing, vividly drawn characters whose frustrated love for each other supplies almost as much energy to The Thorn Birds as does Scarlett O'Hara's and Rhett Butler's romance to Gone With the Wind.
Furthermore, Dane's drowning is thematically significant, for it comments ironically on a central frustration of Miss McCullough's passionate women. This is that if their men are truly dedicated to an ideal such as service to the Lord, and they are perfect in their dedication, then they can no longer serve life, and by extension their women. Shortly before he dies, Father Dane asks God to "Plunge Thy spear into my breast, burying it there so deeply I am never able to withdraw it! Make me suffer…. For Thee I forsake all others, even my mother and my sister and the Cardinal."
In praying thus, Dane recalls the novel's Epigraph, which tells the legend of the bird that sings only after it has impaled itself upon the longest, sharpest spine of the thorn tree. A little while after his prayer, he goes swimming, feels a sharp pain in his chest and drowns. It is a nice point. And yet I could see it coming from several closely printed pages away. All Miss McCullough had to tell us was that Dane was alone and headed for the seashore, and I stopped to scribble in my notes, "Dane drowns—P. 485."
Is this predictability a defect of The Thorn Birds? After all, predictability is inevitable in good old-fashioned story-telling, and The Thorn Birds, all 280,000 words of it, is nothing if not good old-fashioned story-telling. It certainly isn't the originality of the prose we savor when the author can write of women who "work their fingers to the bone," parlor rugs that are "beaten within an inch of their lives," and one of Dane O'Neill's ancestors who was "flogged … to jellied pulp," to mention but a handful of phrases so clichéd that we began to think that Miss McCullough is up to something.
Nor is it the dialogue we relish, if Miss McCullough's heroine can deliver a set speech that goes as follows: "Just a man. You're all the same, great big hairy moths bashing your selves to pieces after a silly flame behind a glass so clear your eyes don't see it. And if you do manage to blunder your way inside the glass to fly into the flame, you fall down burned and dead. While all the time out there in the cool night there's food, and love, and baby moths to get. But do you see it, do you want it? No! It's back after the flame again, beating yourselves senseless until you burn yourselves dead!"
But we want predictability in our popular escape literature—and The Thorn Birds is nothing if not popular escape literature, to judge from the advance publicity it has been receiving, and the record price of almost $2 million it has received for its paperback rights. Well, yes, but there is predictability and predictability. There is the sort of predictability where you know what is going to happen, yet relish the anticipation of it so much that you purposely deny that you know what is going to happen. And there is the sort where you know what is going to happen, and it has happened so many times before that you pay only half your attention to it.
The Thorn Birds, I'm afraid, has happened before. Its theme and its form are familiar. Even its locale, the Outback of Australia's New South Wales, although topically novel is generically familiar. (And incidentally, Miss McCullough, while Australian born and the author of a previous novel, Tim, still retains that tiresome English habit of separating her lengthy nature descriptions from the substance of her plot.) That is why we always know what is going to happen in The Thorn Birds before it happens. And that is why I couldn't be bothered to wait for it to happen before noting it down.
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Tim (novel) 1974
The Thorn Birds (novel) 1977
An Indecent Obsession (novel) 1981
A Creed for the Third Millennium (novel) 1985
The Ladies of Missalonghi (novel) 1987
The First Man in Rome (novel) 1990
The Grass Crown (novel) 1991
Fortune's Favorites (novel) 1993
Caesar's Women (novel) 1996
Steven Kroll (review date 22 July 1977)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1014
SOURCE: A review of The Thorn Birds, in Commonweal, July 22, 1977, pp. 473-5.
[In the following review, Kroll commends McCullough's "touching" romantic world view and prose, but criticizes the excessive scope of The Thorn Birds and its monotonous passages.]
By now almost everyone will have heard of The Thorn Birds. How Colleen McCullough wrote it at the rate of fifteen thousand words a night, once did thirty thousand in a sitting, finally produced a manuscript of a thousand pages weighing ten pounds. How the decision-makers at Harper & Row—the trade chief, the marketing director, the subsidiary rights director—took the manuscript home for the weekend and realized they had to go all out. How the Literary Guild snapped it up as their June selection and, in an incredible auction among paperback publishers, Avon Books paid a record-setting $1.9 million for the paperback reprint rights.
All of this is enough to send any aspiring writer straight to the typewriter. It's particularly interesting because the author is unknown—she's published one earlier novel, Tim, that didn't sell—and because both she and her book are Australian. Up until now, selling fiction about Australia in America has been like trying to sell chocolate cake for breakfast. There have been the Patrick Whites, the Thomas Keneallys, the Sumner Locke Elliotts, but even when they've been appreciated critically, the books have not begun to sell big. Now, with The Thorn Birds approaching major best-sellerdom, the worm has turned.
But what of this fat family saga, this tale of tribulation on a huge sheep station in the Australian outback between 1915 and 1969, this giant novel called The Thorn Birds? Does it really merit all this attention and money? Does it really measure up? The answer, unfortunately, is no.
Which is not to say that the book is a total failure. It has a romantic view of the world that is often quite touching. The prose has a fullness about it, and a density of detail, that sometimes overwhelms. There is the title metaphor of the thorn birds, of the bird that, from its first breath, searches for a thorn tree, impales itself upon the sharpest spine, and dying, "rises above its own agony to out-carol the lark and the nightingale. One superlative song, existence the price." Best of all there is the feeling for the land, and for the Australian landscape. When the Cleary family arrives from New Zealand, on their way to the sheep station Drogheda, this is what they see: "It was all brown and grey, even the trees! The winter wheat was already turned a fawnish silver by the glaring sun, miles upon miles of it rippling and bending in the wind, broken only by strands of thin, spindling, blue-leafed trees and dusty clumps of tired grey bushes…."
But even the descriptions of the land tend to go on too long too often, and to break down into lists. And at Drogheda the endless Wet and Dry periods (one drought lasts almost ten years) become monotonous in the extreme.
Going on too long too often, becoming monotonous and slack, not creating dramatic peaks or valleys, these are the book's principal failings. When Frank, the eldest son, confronts the father who is not his, when Paddy, that father, dies in a fire on Drogheda, when Father Ralph de Bricassart breaks his vows and finally makes love to Meggie, the only Cleary daughter among many sons, there are only slight ripples in the surface of the narrative. And then there is all the information given, then repeated, then repeated again. Whatever the words may say, the tension is missing from them and from the action.
Perhaps it has something to do with Ms. McCullough's inability to recognize what might have been sharpened and what left out. Her overall structure is sound; it's the scenes within that suffer and produce the yawns. And then there is the question of the material. Tara, after all, has more built-in drama than a two-story yellow sandhouse surrounded by gardens, dust, and flies. And the Civil War and the burning of Atlanta are going, quite naturally, to be more sensational than years of drought and a fire spreading over acres of bare land.
But not necessarily. Not if the characters are strong enough. In Meggie Clearly and Father Ralph de Bricassart, Colleen McCullough had the chance to create characters of real substance and she did not. Only the shadows of what might been are there.
When Paddy's mean-spirited older sister, Mary Carson, invites him to Drogheda to be her head stockman and eventual heir, Meggie is ten years old, with fascinating gray eyes and red-gold hair. Handsome, young, Father Ralph—in exile for insulting his bishop—is the district priest, and he falls in love with her the moment he sees her. All through Meggie's childhood their love continues to grow. When Mary Carson leaves her fortune and Drogheda to the Church to further Ralph's career and Paddy agrees to stay on as manager instead of owner and Ralph leaves the area to fuel his ambition, the love remains. When Meggie marries a stockman for his gall and moves to North Queensland to work as a household maid while her husband cuts sugar cane, Ralph must seek her out.
Of course the love is thwarted. Ralph will never abandon his ambition, never leave the Church—and will eventually become a cardinal. But at least there is a brief affair on Matlock Island, and Meggie comes away with the only part of Ralph she can ever hope to have: his child.
How extraordinary these two could have been. Ralph could have joined that group of distinguished fictional priests, from Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov through Father Urban in J. F. Powers' Morte D'Urban, but we learn virtually nothing about him beyond his endless frustration and his Norman and Irish ancestry. And Meggie's only real importance seems to lie in her ability to survive.
With all its scope and shifting scenery—from New Zealand and Australia to Rome and London—The Thorn Birds lacks any real dimension.
Kay Cassill (interview date March 1980)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1000
SOURCE: "Confessions of a Chain Smoker," in Writer's Digest, March, 1980, p. 35.
[In the following interview, McCullough comments on her writing, the creation of The Thorn Birds, and book critics.]
She chain smokes Carleton cigarettes as she works at the typewriter, and when Colleen McCullough takes a break from writing—for a smoke—she speaks candidly about the agonies and ecstasies of writing, publishing, fame, fortune, and some precious little critics. Some thoughts from the smoke-filled room:
"I wouldn't let anyone else type my work. For one thing I'm a better typist than anybody I know—much more accurate and meticulous than any professional. Like Truman Capote said, 'When I type it I know it's right.' But then you have to deal with copy editors! My grammar and spelling are English, but both are better than a copy editor's. Still, they insist on changing everything. That's why some of the sentences in Thorn Birds lost their cadence. I didn't spot the copy editor's changes in time. There's a comma missing in the little introductory paragraph in Thorn Birds. That comma is important. As for spelling, there were two words I insisted not be changed to the American spelling. Axe with an e and grey with an e instead of a. I still maintain grey with an e is greyer. The copy editor changed a word in the scene where Frank is chopping wood. It's in the summer and he's chopping the winter wood. She changed it to winter. I said, 'Come on, you don't chop winter wood in the winter!'"
"If I were in the middle of a manuscript and lost it in a fire I'd just start over. Of course I'd be sorry but you can't cry over spilt milk. I'd just have to start over, that's all."
"Unfortunately, fiction is out of fashion with the critics at the moment. But it's fiction, not nonfiction, that lasts. It's the novels you give to your daughters and sons to read and they give to their daughters and sons. I don't have any children, so my books had better live forever. You put so much of yourself into a novel, you want everyone to go on reading it long after you're gone. You want a reader to put down the last book you'll ever write because you've died and say: 'Oh, I wish there were another. Oh, Gawd, why did she have to die? I can't stand it.'"
"When I was writing Thorn Birds I resented bitterly having to go to work at the medical school. I resented leaving the book. I think had I not had to leave it it would have been far better. Going to a job when you're writing means you have to keep shifting gears. I can do it, but I don't like it. I'm not the kind of writer who stops in mid-sentence or mid-paragraph so I can start right on again. I break off at a logical stopping point—a natural pause in the story."
"I tried journalism long ago and didn't like it at all. But I get along famously with journalists. Especially male journalists. There's quite a large Colleen McCullough fan club among them around the globe. Still, they make errors all the time. They make me bigger than life. I'm either Amazonian or Junoesque. I gave a speech in which I said that every morning of my life I wake up feeling as though I weighed 300 pounds and was 8 1/2 months pregnant. I was talking about creative energies. Naturally, the press picked it up. People magazine reported, 'Millionaire author Colleen McCullough boasts that she is 8 1/2 months pregnant.' They wouldn't apologize either. I'm not pregnant. I'm not a single parent."
"I've been treated well by most critics, but there are always a few bitchy ones. The New York Times reviewer didn't like Thorn Birds, as I recall. I think he was the one who said it was nice I'd made all this money because maybe I could catch the man I couldn't catch without it. Generally, I find critics rather anemic. I get more angry over what they do to somebody else's book or film than what they say about my own. I know how much time and effort goes into a book. Then this twit comes along and, to make himself look clever—twisting a phrase, punning on this and that—he's willing to tear a book apart. Some critics are just precious little people."
"I learned a lot about the marketing of books during the tours. I talked to everyone, from the printer to the marketing director to the subsidiary rights editor. If I were to advise anyone with a book coming out I'd say, 'Be willing to do publicity and learn how to.' I have a tendency to call a spade a bloody shovel. Audiences like that. And I'm happy. That pleases them, too. The other advice is 'Get an agent and don't begrudge your agent his 10%. It's worth every penny.'"
"I think I'm a born teacher as well as writer. I've always been able to get across to people. You must care enough to make them understand. I watch their faces when I'm talking to them. If there's a blank look they haven't got what you're talking about. You have to go back and repeat it. This is true in writing books. Some writers lose sight of the fact that you can't say something once and forget it. You've got to repeat it. Otherwise it goes in one ear, out the other. You have to keep hammering points home."
"Usually my first drafts are the shortest and the tenth the longest. Every so often I find I haven't explained something adequately. Occasionally I'll cut out some purple prose. On the whole I think over the years I've grown out of the purple prose. Tim had more of it than Thorn Birds. I think that's one of the reasons I don't like Tim as well."
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Dougherty, Margot. Review of A Creed for the Third Millennium, by Colleen McCullough. People Weekly, 24 (July 15, 1985): 13.
Generally favorable review of A Creed for the Third Millennium.
Review of Caesar's Women, by Colleen McCullough. Publisher's Weekly, 242, No. 42 (October 16, 1995): 42.
Favorable review of Caesar's Women.
Review of The Grass Crown, by Colleen McCullough. Publisher's Weekly, 238, No. 36 (August 9, 1991): 43.
Favorable review of The Grass Crown.
Vespa, Mary. Review of The Ladies of Missalonghi, by Colleen McCullough. People Weekly, 27 (May 11, 1987): 18.
Generally favorable review of The Ladies of Missalonghi.
Kay Cassill (essay date March 1980)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3320
SOURCE: "The Thorned Words of Colleen McCullough," in Writer's Digest, March, 1980, pp. 32, 34, 36.
[In the following essay, Cassill offers insight into McCullough's views on writing and the editorial process behind the publication of The Thorn Birds.]
Even though Colleen McCullough has been writing since she was five, she didn't think about publishing her work until she was 32. "I always wrote to please myself," she says. "I was a little snobby about it—that way I could write entirely as I wished. To write for publication, I thought, was to prostitute myself."
She changed her mind at 32 when, working as a teacher at the Yale Medical School, she decided she'd wind up an old maid in a cold-water walk-up if she didn't change her ways. And changing her ways meant writing for publication—and eventually meant her bestseller, The Thorn Birds.
McCullough's scientific training as a neurophysiologist helped her approach commercial writing systematically: "I sat down with six girls who were working for me. They were very dissimilar types, and not especially avid readers. Yet, they were all mad about Eric Segal's Love Story. I though it was bloody awful and couldn't see what girls so basically intelligent could love about it. I asked them what they wanted most out of a book. First, they liked the idea that Love Story was about ordinary people. They didn't want to read about what was going on in Hollywood and all that codswallow, and they wanted something with touches of humor. Yet they enjoyed books that made them cry. That was criterion number one. If you didn't cry the book wasn't worth reading. I said to myself, 'Yeah, that's true, that makes a lot of sense.' The first book I ever read as a child is something called The Green Horse. I was five and loved it. It made me cry. Think of East Lynne, Ann of Green Gables, Little Women. When Beth dies, awhhhh! So, I said, 'That's it, mate. No matter what else you do in a book, don't forget the buckets of tears. If you do, readers won't remember it from one day to the next.' So, every book I ever write will have heaps of buckets of tears."
McCullough—41, 5′10″, big, smiling, in a flowing silk and linen designer dress that "only cost around a hundred dollars, though, and is a bloody nuisance, always pulling threads"—was born in a small country town in Australia's New South Wales. She grew up in Australia, and worked as a neurophysiologist there and in England before coming to the United States to work at the Yale school of internal medicine. She calls herself "a kitchen-sitter," and over a lunch of cold cuts she launches into five hours of straight-on, diluvial discourse, Irish humor, a wee speck of Australian chauvinism (despite her own disavowal of it), spontaneous throaty laughter, teasing and no-holds-barred expletives.
The effect is anodyne. She's as unencumbered by pretention as she is sure of herself, her many talents and the formula behind best-sellerdom.
Instead of tears, a sour February day has dumped buckets of slush on the Connecticut landscape as she talks. She admits she doesn't like either The Thorn Birds or her first novel, Tim, very much—despite their buckets of tears. Of the two, she likes Tim least. "It's an icky book." Still, if someone says she hasn't written great literature, just a bestseller, she laughs at them. "Only time tells. If it lasts, it's good literature. If it dies, it's just another book. Very often the books the critics like today are gone tomorrow."
The Thorn Birds hasn't yet died—and it's hardly just another book. Its original manuscript weighed ten pounds, and it has often been called the Australian Gone With the Wind. The book takes place mostly on an enormous sheep ranch in the outback from 1915 to 1969. It tells the woes of the Cleary family and especially those of Meggie Cleary, the heroine, who seems destined to heartbreak at every turn. Her brother she loves most leaves home and ends in prison. Her father and another brother die violent deaths. She loves a handsome priest, Ralph de Bricassart, who loves her but is married to the church. In desperation, Meggie eventually marries a man she doesn't love. She has a daughter, Justine, by him. But her constantly thwarted love for Father Ralph remains the reader's primary concern. Eventually she does manage to conceive the longed-for child—a son, Dane—by the priest. But he just reaches manhood, goes off to Rome to become a priest himself and tragically drowns. "My brother drowned off Crete exactly the way Dane did," McCullough explains. "That's how death with the young happens. You get a phone call and your whole world falls apart."
McCullough has been facing the public and the press almost continually since her second novel hit it big. "Avon Books bought The Thorn Birds for 1.9 million in February 1977. From the first of March, 1977 to the end of November, 1978, I've been back and forth all over the globe."
To the Tuna $50,000
She admits that such book tours are important to her phenomenal success, but they've left little time to manage other matters. So she has a business manager. And she's moved in with her friends, Maureen (Mo) and Eamonn Whyte and their two children. At first it was just a casual arrangement, a place to stay on weekends between speaking engagements. But they've hit it off so well she's now building a house for herself and the Whytes on 35 nearby acres. "I'm traveling so much I'd just have to find someone to stay in it anyway. This makes more sense."
McCullough's success can be attributed to tuna. "I'd been going the ethical route, sending the manuscript out unsolicited, unagented, waiting months for a printed rejection slip. The parcel would come back completely untouched. You could tell it hadn't even been unwrapped, let alone read. I decided I'd be an old lady before I published my first book. I knew I had to get an agent but couldn't since I hadn't published anything. I tried phoning to get one but it was no use. OK, I thought, I'll write one a letter. If I'm as good as I think I am—if I'm a writer—I should be able to persuade an agent to at least read my manuscript simply by writing one a persuasive letter.
"Still, I didn't know which one to send the letter to. Then, one day I was making a friend something special. She'd been on a diet for two years—eating nothing but tuna fish. It was her birthday and the manuscript had just come back for the third time. I decided to make her a cake. Out of tuna fish, of course. And I hate fish. I got a Jello mold in the shape of a fish. I stewed the tuna in white wine and some herbs and things. While it was stewing the smell of fish was all through the house. And the list of agents was on the table. I looked down and the name, Frieda Fishbein, popped up.
"I sat right down and wrote the world's most persuasive letter—five or six pages—and sent it off. Frieda wrote back saying, 'If the manuscript is half as entertaining as the letter, I'll read it.' I sent Tim to her and she loved it. But she wasn't very encouraging. 'After all, it's set in Australia and its hero is mentally retarded and its heroine is this frustrated old maid.' After one turndown, though, Harper & Row took it. It sold over 10,000 copies in hard cover, which was much better than 99 out of every 100 first novels sell. I made $50,000 from Tim. Then, of course, Harper & Row had the option on the next one, which was The Thorn Birds.
"I had The Thorn Birds written in my head before Tim," she says. "But I knew no one would publish such a long book as a first novel. So I wrote Tim."
Both books were written while she was still living in a rambling, ordinary apartment in New Haven. In the Whyte's unprepossessing dark brown split-level ranch in the Connecticut woods she has an L-shaped bed-sitting-work-room on the lower level. She may work 16 hours at a stretch, then sleep for a while, depending on how she feels. She keeps an internal schedule of her own now that she no longer must teach for a living. "I can work anywhere, I don't need anything special around me," she says. "Except perhaps my plants, 'Johann,' 'Sebastian' and 'clinging Ernie,' and a little supermarket music."
The 40-Book Work Week
She has numerous typewriters. The electrics for letter writing are named "Prince," "Rex" and "Spot." "Rover," an old manual, is kept just for novels. "He's getting old, so I don't use him for the menial stuff anymore," jokes McCullough. "When his keys stick and he gets balky, I threaten him with a brand new IBM electric and he straightens right up."
She doesn't write every day. "And I don't find writing agonizing. I don't believe the average writer who complains that every word comes out like a drop of blood. If it were that bad he wouldn't be doing it." She believes "if you're a novelist you'll never be a great short story writer because the two disciplines are so different." She attributes her ability to write a "page-turner" to a life of reading: "I used to read 40 books a week. Four-oh. I've slacked off lately, though." And to her penchant for sitting around the kitchen table and telling stories: "All the members of my family were highly articulate and great readers. I think there are two kinds of writers: those who write because they can't talk and those who write because they talk so much nobody listens to them. I belong to the second group. And it's super. At Yale when I started to talk they'd all groan, 'Oh, Gawd, there she goes again.'"
McCullough claims her medical background came in handy when she turned to writing novels. "Being a trained scientist, one is used to research. I usually know where I'll find my sources. And I do all my own research. I don't believe in employing staff to do it for me." One useful source is her memory, though she sometimes doesn't tap recent memories. For example, she has to get away from a place for about ten years before she is able to write about it. "Material I've used in the first two books was 20 years old or more," she says.
A careful observer, she claims ideas, characters, images and dialogue have a way of "imprinting themselves" on her brain. "I stash them away and don't even know I've remembered them until suddenly they just pop out when I'm writing. One of my English friends said that I was one of the few people she knew who could build a bridge between my subconscious and my conscious thoughts, just trot across and carry back all sorts of goodies.
"I don't consciously do it. I'm not the sort of person who thinks a lot about myself or why I do things. I have a feeling if you think too much about what you're going to do you're never going to do it. You're either a thinker or a doer. I'm a doer from way back. I just sit down at the typewriter and trot across that bridge."
The bridge was used extensively in creating characterizations—Tim, for example: "I've had patients like him for years. The British old maid? I worked with so many of them! Every ward in every hospital in the British Emm-pah is headed by an old maid like Mary Horton—don't laugh—who takes off all her clothes to go to the bathroom. The people Tim worked for were like people in the building trade who were my father's colleagues."
An early scene in this first novel—a brief love story set in the working-class of Sydney—describes a disgusting joke the workmen play on the unfortunate Tim. "But they're just the kind of people who'd do such a thing. In fact, that scene about the turd sandwich came straight out of real life. People ask, 'Oh, why did you put that in the book?' For one thing, it's a saccharine-sweet book. That's probably the only scene that jars. It was a true and shocking way to show Tim's mentality more effectively than any other. It's close to the beginning of the book because it wouldn't have had any impact later on. Once you have established the character and are comfortable with Tim, it wouldn't have worked. It had to come before he was involved with Mary, with this gentler kind of relationship."
She wasn't afraid the scene might turn readers off. "It didn't. But I think one has an instinct or one hasn't, knowing how a scene like that will affect readers. I rely on instinct and my editor is far too smart to gainsay it. Sometimes she tests me. She'll say, 'I don't like so-and-so.' By my reaction she'll know how important that scene is in my thinking about a book. If it's something I'm not going to change or even think twice about, she sees the reaction on my face immediately and she'll back-pedal. If it's something I've had doubts about myself, she'll see that, too, and then she'll push.
"I was so exhausted after writing The Thorn Birds. I thought when I finished the second full draft, 'I'm not going to do eight more drafts of this bloody, creepy book just to have my editor say no.' I sent it to her in all its horrors, to see if the publishers would be interested. If yes, then I'd go ahead with more drafts. It took her five months before she replied, during which time I wrote two more drafts anyway because I'd got over the exhaustion. When she finally broke her silence I talked with her. She had suggestions. A lot of what she said made sense. But it also meant I had to write a lot that I hadn't written before. She talked me into changing the last part of Thorn Birds. I didn't like Justine, wasn't interested in her in the least. She said she didn't think in the early draft the character of Justine worked, because Justine was very selfish and hard-boiled. She felt Justine wasn't strong enough to carry the last of the book as much as she had to and suggested I soften her up. I went home and thought about it. If I softened her she'd become a different person. What I wanted was someone who was a complete foil for her brother, Dane, and I wanted three generations of women who were entirely different from each other. The only kind of softening I could conceive was to give her a man. In a way, the man I invented, Reiner Moerling Hartheim, was, perhaps, the man I always wished I'd met but never did. He had to be a German because he had to be prepared to wait ten years for a woman. The Germans are the only nationality I know with that kind of romanticism and hard-headedness. They are tremendously romantic, very disciplined and patient. After I wrote it I met four different Germans whose life histories were almost like Hartheim's. When I was in Germany the Germans said, 'Who is it? Who is it?' It turned out it could have been Helmut Schmidt, the German chancellor. It could have been Willy Brandt. And a couple of others. I didn't know any of them at the time.
"I put Reiner in and wrote two drafts, then sent it to my editor. She loved it. But still I had contented Justine with a kiss. My editor said, 'Reiner is just great, but the last third of the book needs a damn good love scene.' That was hard to do. I find it very difficult to write love scenes anyway. It's one thing to write them red-hot, you know, but another to go back cold-bloodedly with two characters you're fed up with anyway and put them into bed and make it work.
"Love scenes are the most difficult part of writing. They drive me batty. Those in most books are so bad. You know, the Harold Robbins 'he stuck it in her' type. They're just untrue. Sex is a monotonous, repetitive, nonverbal activity. There is a problem translating that into words. The interesting thing about sex scenes are the moods. The emotion involved is very hard to duplicate in print. I put a love scene through about 60 drafts. It will take me weeks and weeks to write. It's mistake to make such scenes physically explicit. If you do, you encounter the reader's sexual preferences. They may not be your own or the character's own. It's wise to steer clear of that—which means you're going to dwell on the emotional content. Still, it has to be highly erotic or you'll lose your reader.
"I have written as many as 30 or more pages of a novel in a night. But, when I come to a love scene, I slow down. All this talk about my writing Tim in three months is codswallow. I did the first draft of Thorn Birds in 30 days. The first two drafts in under six weeks. But then I did eight more drafts! That's what journalists always fail to mention. They make it sound as if I whiz along and am perfectly satisfied with the first draft and just send it off to the publisher. That's just not the case.
"The first thing out of the typewriter is not perfect by any means. A book as long as Thorn Birds takes a lot of revising. It's not that everything that was in the first draft isn't still there. But it's rearranged, mostly expanded."
Mud- and Muck-Raking
McCullough has been criticized for the love affair in Thorn Birds between a Catholic priest and the heroine. "Actually, Ralph was supposed to be a minor character. Yet, when I was planning it in my head I was aware I didn't have a dominant male lead. The minute the priest walked into the book I said, 'Ah ha, this is it. This is the male character I've lacked!' But I had to keep him in the story and, logically, he didn't belong in it. The only way I could do it was to involve him emotionally with Meggie, the only woman available. It worked beautifully because again it made more interesting reading to have a love that couldn't be fulfilled. It keeps the reader going. Are they going to get together or aren't they? The reader has to want something to happen. If he doesn't want it badly enough, then you haven't caught him."
McCullough likes to tackle, big, spectacular, dramatic stories. If she were to choose another's work to have written, she thinks it might be T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land or William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. "It's great how they drag this poor old woman's body through the mud and muck all those miles just to bury her where she wanted to be buried. Maybe that's it. Women are tremendously attracted to the life-birth-death cycle in literature."
As if summing up her work—and her self—she adds: "I always write books with peculiar themes. I don't like writing about boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl." And she means it. "If an editor had seen Thorn Birds in manuscript and 'just loved it,' but suggested it would make a better book if I cut it to a nice 300-page love story, I'd have simply said, 'Get stuffed, mate.'"
Kirsten Grimstad (review date 25 October 1981)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 730
SOURCE: "A Microuniverse in a Mental Ward," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 25, 1981, pp. 12-3.
[In the following review, Grimstad provides a brief plot summary of An Indecent Obsession and comments that the novel lacks complexity.]
In her third novel, the author of the large-canvas epic The Thorn Birds trades in her telescope for a microscope, to peer into the self-contained microuniverse of the mental ward of an Australian military hospital, located on an unnamed Pacific island. World War II is just drawing to a close. Patients and staff await their imminent discharge—the rupture of their artificial world—with apprehension.
The ingredients in the Ward X mix include blind Matt, diagnosed as hysteric, obsessed with fear of facing his wife with his disability; Benedict, whose dark broodings hint of psychosis; Nuggett, a hypochondriac fussing over imagined ailments and yearning for his mum to take care of him; Neil, the officer in the group, whose belief that his error had cost the lives of men under his command precipitated the breakdown from which he is now on the rebound; and Luce, the bad boy of the lot, who gets his kicks out of setting people against each other. Luce is mad because his mother had to take in laundry when he was a boy. The snubs he endured because of this left their mark. Ever since that time, Luce has been out to even the score by sexually humiliating and exploiting victims of both sexes. Naturally, Luce is equipped with the physical endowments to achieve his ends. Where once they scorned him, now they desire him.
The patients of Ward X, all variously diminished or even infantalized by their disorders, share devotion to their dutiful and devoted Nurse Honour Langtry, a veteran of six years of service. Nurse Langtry is the center of their universe, keeping the men in line in her lovingly prim and starchy way. For them she is "beacon, hearth, madonna, rock, succor." For Matt she represents the bond with home; for Benedict, female goodness and purity; for Nugget she substitutes as a caretaker-mum; Neil desires her strength and hopes to have it by marrying her; for Luce she is the object of vindictive desire. In other words a good selection of the trite stereotypes of male-female relations is represented on Ward X.
The story begins in an unsettling calm, soon disrupted by the arrival of a new patient, Michael Wilson; in contrast to the others, he seems emotionally intact. Michael is physically attractive and has the demeanor of a kindly and helpful he-man, a protector of the weak. Suddenly Nurse Langtry's long-dormant passions are ignited, presumably by Michael's Eagle Scout ways. When Nurse Langtry, the archetypal female provider, ever so subtly shifts her role by experiencing her own vulnerability and longing, the others feel abandoned and the neat little world explodes with the force of primitive passion. Sexual jealousy and domination turn to murder and disfigurement.
Poor Nurse Langtry is forced to face that ultimate female choice between love and career, vulnerability and strength. That these seeming opposites might in fact be able to coexist is never considered. She wants to choose Michael ("Keeping your home, having your babies"), but Michael sees it differently: "You are a complete person. You don't need help. And not needing my help, I know you can get along without me." It's just like the cliche says: The woman with strength loses the man. The strong men (Michael and Neil) embrace their responsibility to the weak men (Matt and Benedict) while Nurse Langtry is left to embrace devotion to duty.
Life as it's presented here is devoid of genuine emotional center or grounding. Plot and characters serve as mere vehicles for a stunning profusion of empty platitudes about the conflict between love and duty, the responsibilities borne by those who are strong, woman's role as the nurturer of men, the dimensions of male loyalty and friendship, and so on. No real complexity threatens to complicate this once-over-lightly world. Even in the most dramatic moments, such as when Michael renounces the love of Langtry, the characters are posing, acting out an afternoon soap-opera fantasy of what life is supposed to be like.
I kept hoping for some literary wink of the eye, cluing me in that the deadly earnestness of this novel was really just parody. I never found that satisfaction.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 29 October 1981)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 848
SOURCE: "Books of the Times," in The New York Times, October 29, 1981, p. C24.
[In the following review, Lehmann-Haupt views An Indecent Obsession as an improvement over The Thorn Birds but asserts that the novel lacks depth.]
Michael is the unknown quantity. Michael seems well enough—altogether sane, in fact. But what is he doing here in Ward X, this isolated part of the hospital, set aside for "troppos," (for tropicals) or soldiers gone round the bend from jungle warfare? According to his medical papers, which Luce and Sister Langtry have read, Michael may be homosexual. What is known, and the reason that Michael is here in Ward X, is that he tried to kill a man in his unit who made some sort of pass at him. Tried to choke him to death and, according to a brief dip we take into Michael's point of view, rather enjoyed it.
So what will happen when Luce, a psychopathic seducer, gets around to pushing Michael beyond the limit of his control? Will Michael go berserk and kill Luce, or will it bring out the "shirt-lifting poofter" that Luce believes Michael to be? How will this affect the other Australian soldiers in Ward X? Will it perhaps cure Matt's hysterical blindness? What will it do to Sister Honour Langtry, Ward X's nurse, who appears to be in love with Michael? Will it reinforce her "indecent obsession," whatever that may be? We turn the pages.
I do not mean to make light of Colleen McCullough's already best-selling successor to her gigantically successful The Thorn Birds. Michael's little problem happens to be very deftly worked into this drama about a military mental ward on a tropical Indo-Pacific island at the end of World War II. Miss McCullough is a natural storyteller, more than merely clever at getting up a head of emotional steam.
Her characters—Michael Wilson, the mysterious new boy; blind Matt Sawyer, hypochondriacal Nugget Jones, satyric Luke Daggett, guilty Benedict Maynard and the ward leader, Neil Parkinson, who is in love with Sister Langtry—are so immediately present in these pages that one can see them played by those wonderful troupes of English actors who appeared in such military films as "Tunes of Glory" and "Bridge on the River Kwai." Some of their scenes, like the one in which Luce Daggett tries to talk Sister Langtry into sleeping with him—"Sweetie, I'm anything. Anything you like to name! Young, old, male, female—it's all meat to me." "Try me. I'm the best there is."—leaves one's pulse racing a little faster.
And because Miss McCullough paints in very vivid colors—"A great black thunderhead swimming in bruised light sat down on the tops of the coconut palms, stiffening and gilding them to the panoply of Balinese dancers. The air glittered and moved with a languid drifting of dust motes, so that it seemed a world sunk to the bottom of a sun-struck sea."—no reader can avoid visualizing her tropical island.
But if Miss McCullough expects to be taken seriously as a novelist—and, to judge from the improvement of this book over The Thorn Birds, there's no reason why she shouldn't be—she's going to have to write just a little less slickly. Her characters' psychological tics are plausible enough, but somehow her people remain two-dimensional. They remind one of those novelty barometers from which a frowning boy emerges when the forecast is rainy and a smiling girl when the outlook is fair. There's nothing else to them but a wooden frame.
Then, too, one has to wonder why, if the omniscient narrator can arbitrarily jump into any character's thoughts at any given moment, she withholds for so long what Michael remembers about the incident that put him in Ward X, or what actually happened to Luce Daggett down in the bathhouse? The answer, of course, is that if the narrator didn't pick the right moments to feed us this information, there wouldn't be any tension or surprise to the story. But since surprise and tension are the only criteria that guide what the narrator may do, we soon begin to feel manipulated by the story. It's almost as if our tears were being jerked.
Medical Soap Opera
Finally, though Miss McCullough tries to give her title a variety of meanings—indeed, every major character in the book could be said to be indecently obsessed to one degree or another—it is all too predictable that the obsession that will finally prevail is Sister Langtry's particular commitment. As the last paragraph of the novel puts it: "Nurse Langtry began to walk again, briskly and with out any fear, understanding herself at last. And understanding that duty, the most indecent of all obsessions, was only another name for love." Gee.
It's a line like this that makes one want to say that An Indecent Obsession is merely a gilded version of what I believe teen-age readers used to refer to as a nurse book. It isn't really. But far too often, its faults reduce it to medical soap opera.
John Sutherland (essay date 1981)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2554
SOURCE: "Women's Fiction I: The Thorn Birds," in Bestsellers: Popular Fiction of the 1970s, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981, pp. 74-81.
[In the following essay, Sutherland discusses the publishing history of The Thorn Birds and the novel's great popular appeal.]
In the New York Times Book Review's survey of the decade's top ten sellers there are only two works by women. One of the great realizations by the book trade in the 1970s, however, was that the woman reader accounted for much more than a fifth of the market for fiction. In fact, surveys—taken to heart by the book trade—revealed that women consumed around 60 per cent of all novels sold. It was a mark of this realization in 1979 when a work by Judith Krantz earned the highest ever advance sale for paperback rights to a novel ($3.2 m.). If the 1970s demonstrated anything to the publishing industry, it was that women's fiction was not restricted to genre products, but could have its 'blockbusters'. The following two chapters deal with the top-selling novel by a woman (The Thorn Birds), the top-selling woman novelist (Erica Jong), and the top-selling line of women's novel ('sweet and savages').
The Thorn Birds has sold more copies than any other novel of the past ten years, and rights have been sold all over the world for more money than publishers have ever paid for a book before.
The pokiest pig ever sold in the Australian sucker market.
(Max Harris, in The Australian)
The Thorn Birds was indisputably 'the number one international bestseller' of 1977–9; according to its publishers it was also 'the publishing legend of the decade.' In fact, well before publication The Thorn Birds was legendary. Of the seven who started, Bantam and Avon 'slugged it out like gladiators' for two days at the paperback auction, to acquire rights from Harper & Row. The final price Avon paid, $1.9 m., topped Bantam's $1.85 m. for Ragtime in 1975 and stood as a record until the $2.2 m. given for Puzo's Fools Die in 1978. British hard and paperback rights were acquired by Futura for $266,000; German rights brought in $220,000; and together with the sale of Australasian rights The Thorn Birds drew in some $650,000 in overseas (meaning, here, outside-America) earnings. McCullough's agent held onto the film rights until a little after publication, turning down a Rich Man, Poor Man style TV mini-series, parting finally with the novel to Warner Brothers in September 1977 for an undisclosed sum, but one which added considerably to the overnight millionairess's investment fund.
The Thorn Birds was a presold winner. Harper & Row put $100,000 into their launch campaign in April 1977 achieving what they claimed (probably correctly) was 'the biggest publicity promotion blitz of the year.' Among other things, 2,000 advance-reading copies were circulated through the American book trade. Three weeks before official publication day there were 225,000 hardback copies in print and some booksellers were already reporting it top of their list. Such was pre-publication excitement that it reached the #9 position in the official lists a week before anyone in America could legitimately buy the novel and it made the #1 spot on 6 June. By August, 365,500 copies had been printed. As a hardback it remained in the American charts for a year. As a paperback it was, by 1979, well on the way to becoming one of the very few 10 m. sellers of the decade.
As the Guardian observed, there was something of a 'publishing mystery' in this landslide success. Before The Thorn Birds McCullough was a virtually unknown writer—and an Australian at that—with only one obscure book to her credit. (Tim, 'a warm Australian romance,' chronicles the love between a middle aged spinster and a mentally retarded—but physically magnificent—young man.) Why, then, did Harper & Row, Avon and Futura go overboard, so early and so perceptively, for The Thorn Birds?
One reason was the new sense of global market which had developed in the American book trade following the abolition of the Traditional Market Agreement in 1976. This had opened the previously protected 'Empire' markets to America—and Australia, with its world's highest per capita book consumption—was now very much in the forefront of American publishers' minds. Significantly, on the publication of The Thorn Birds McCullough undertook three consecutive promotion tours—in the US, to the UK and to Australia.
For their part, Avon may have been induced to go over the odds by their proven ability to pick winners from the slush pile. They had done so with Rosemary Rogers and Kathleen Woodiwiss—probably the most valuable finds any paperback publisher made in the 1970s. And, by their 'open door policy,' Avon, a paperback house, discovered them first, they did not inherit them from a hardback house. Although McCullough was not entirely unknown, and Harper & Row could claim to have recognized her potential first, Avon had by the mid-1970s a millions-strong, brand-loyal women's readership who trusted the firm to come up with steamy romances. And The Thorn Birds with its three heroines was clearly a book which would appeal to the women's market.
One may surmise that Harper & Row were less attracted by any one feature of The Thorn Birds manuscript than by its nice mix of selling points, in terms of what was currently dominating the charts. Two of the very biggest novels of the mid-1970s were Centennial and Trinity. Uris's novel made over seventy appearances on the Publishers Weekly list and gave him his first top-spot since Exodus. Centennial was such a surefire thing that it remained a bestseller even after the hardback publisher hiked the price nearly three dollars to an unprecedented $12.50. Like Centennial ('An epic American experience that captures the soul of a country') and Roots (an even bigger seller) The Thorn Birds is a panoramic saga of national emergence, narrated in terms of a series of representative individual lives. Like Uris's Ireland, McCullough's Australia is interestingly foreign—yet has a shared language and, in large part, a shared cultural tradition with America. And just as Ireland had the historical advantage (for the novelist) of a more recent revolution than America's, so Australia had the advantage of a more recent pioneer era. Both Australia and Ireland had freed themselves from the status of colonial possession, and the bicentennial had made a mild xenophobia a good selling point. There is, incidentally, an understated but quite audible anti-English sentiment in The Thorn Birds, whose main protagonists are all Irish Catholic: 'It is not causeless, you know, the Irish hatred of the English,' one of them observes.
The Thorn Birds has elements of the Michener/Uris/Haley 'birth of a nation' theme as well as these authors' massive spread of narrative. But in other ways it is closer to the family saga or 'dynasty' style of epic. These were also doing excellent business in the period that American publishers were making their expensive decisions about The Thorn Birds. John Jakes's 'Kent Family Chronicles' (the American Bicentennial Series) had come from nowhere to sell over 10 m. in two years. And for the specifically female readership there were the English Diane Pearson's Csardas (1975, the saga of a Hungarian family from the glittering late nineteenth-century Austro-Hungarian Empire to 'today's totalitarian state') and Susan Howatch's Cashelmara (1974), both of which had done extremely well in America. Cashelmara is as it happened, particularly close to The Thorn Birds in organization and subject matter. Both works offer the saga of a representative Irish family; Howatch's covers the period 1859–90 and is segmented into six narratives, each given to a narrator with a different point of view. McCullough offers seven segments, covering the period 1915–69 and taking as its focus a different member of the Clearly family (or, in two cases, associates by intimate sexual relationship). Cashelmara, Csardas and Thorn Birds were all insistently promoted as the 'new' Gone With the Wind, a label which seems to have irritated McCullough intensely, as well it might since her own authorial professionalism is in stark contrast to Mitchell's small-town amateurism.
The title of McCullough's novel is explained by the italicized 'legend' which prefaces it. Thorn birds spend their lives searching for a thorn tree. Having found one, they impale themselves 'on the longest sharpest spine' and dying sing 'one superlative song, existence the price … For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain.'
This prefatory legend (which I assume McCullough has invented) recalls the life-giving mother pelican tearing its breast to feed its selfish young. McCullough's symbolism is—however—more directly genital; and the suggestion of feminine surrender to the victimizing phallus is transparent. Also recalled is the swan-song—conventionally figurative of the artist's tragic sacrifice of life for art.
The opening sections of the novel descend a long way from the poetic prelude. One of the strengths of The Thorn Birds for overseas readers (less so for Australians, judging by Max Harris's home-town hatchet job) is the gritty evocation of rural life in a pioneer era which extended up to the Second World War. McCullough is very convincing in her descriptions of the filthy business of shearing and tending Merinos in the semi-desert of back-country Australia, or the rigours of canecutting in semi-tropical North Queensland. The scene painting of Australian landscape and of the sheep station/country town settings are (with a few gushy lapses for sunsets and so on) well done. And some of the set-piece scenes come off brilliantly (the lightning-exploded gum tree which immolates the Cleary patriarch, Paddy, stands out as a descriptive tour de force).
But the virtue of The Thorn Birds is not that it has a single strength or selling quality; rather it has a specific strength for everybody, man, woman, young, old, emancipated, reactionary, American, English, Australian. Its wide-ranging appeal can be conveniently gathered under four main heads, or component parts, each appropriate to a different market sector.
(1) The Thorn Birds offers the sweeping panorama of an 'epic moment' in the formation of a nation (historically The Thorn Birds covers Australia's progress from minor colony, through dominion to national independence). The organization of the novel intimates that many small lives go to make up a family history and many small family achievements make up a national identity. This aspect of the novel depends on the assumption, legitimate enough in the early sections, that the Clearys are 'ordinary' immigrants. At the beginning of the narrative Paddy Cleary is an itinerant New Zealand sheep shearer who emigrates to the Australian outback to work as head stockman on a sheep station. In the subsequent drama of adaptation, McCullough evokes an anti-pastoral world where hardship is inseparable from the immigrant struggle with the continental spaces of an uncolonized country. The relationship between suffering and creativity, the thorn and the song, is clearest cut in this section of the novel.
(2) Grafted onto this stock is a novel of high life and gracious living, in the Gone With the Wind manner. By a most improbable chance, the indigent Clearys are the sole relatives, and eventually heirs (together with the Catholic Church, another odds-against likelihood) to the richest woman in Australia. Thus the vagrant family become masters of Drogheda's 250,000 acres. As the belle of Drogheda (sheep station and plantation interchange easily enough) Meg's life story is dominated by her fifty-years-long love affair with a grandee of the Catholic Church, Ralph de Bricassart ('a magnificent man'). De Bricassart's elevation in the novel is as precipitate as the Clearys'. He rises from priest, to bishop, archbishop and finally cardinal. (While just a bishop he fathers a son on the 26-year-old Meg.) Meg herself is revealed as a Perdita figure, the princess in peasant disguise. Through her mother's family we understand she has inherited aristocratic blood, 'titian' hair, natural breeding. This finer being is set off by her being the only Cleary girl (the numerous boys all take after the bog-trotting Paddy except, of course, the madcap Frank who is the by-blow of his mother's premarital fling with the brilliant Pakeha).
(3) 'At the heart of the tale,' as the blurb tells us, are the forbidden loves of Fiona and Meg, the first two generations of Cleary women. Both have husbands who are worthy 'working men' and 'cultured, sophisticated, very charming' lovers whom society prohibits their openly acknowledging: Fiona's 'Pakeha' because he is half Maori; Meg's de Bricassart because he is a priest. The 'thorn' in this central situation is the woman's self denial of sexual gratification, denial which is given a final poignancy when the consolatory children of these love affairs are taken prematurely from them (Frank into life imprisonment, Meg's Dane by drowning). This masochistic aspect of The Thorn Birds would seem designed to appeal to the mature, married woman reader.
(4) Subordinate to the above is a preoccupation with female emancipation, designed apparently to appeal to a younger group of women. The chronicle of the three generations from Fiona through Meg to Justine Cleary follows, in social terms, an advance from the slavery of frontier womanhood to the liberation of modern woman on near-equal terms in the man's world. Justine (a rather Jacqueline Susannish conception) is a freebooting modern young woman. Her grand-mother had half a dozen sons (girls didn't count); her mother two children; Jussy repudiates the whole breeding business with a breezy feminist scorn ('Not bloody likely! Spend my life wiping snotty noses and cacky bums?'). In her young womanhood Fee was a bondslave to the domestic economy. Meg has a less drudging time of it, though she is still indentured to the house and, in a larger sense, to Drogheda. Justine, by contrast, has a profession; she is an actress, and this removes her from home into the cosmopolitan world. In the last, climactic scene of the novel Justine is shown (at her mother's prompting) rejecting Drogheda's good earth and the bondage it represents. The thorn is now less sharp, and the modern, emancipated woman less likely to drive it into her bosom.
The Thorn Birds is a highly efficient, broad-appeal product. Few categories of reader can have been disappointed in their purchase. Nonetheless the novel does have weaknesses. The descriptions of Justine's jet-set life do not seem to me to come off. And the extended descriptions of the ecstatic physical consummation that produces Meg and de Bricassart's love-child is an embarrassing failure:
Did he carry her to the bed, or did they walk? He thought he must have carried her, but he could not be sure: only that she was on it, he was there upon it her skin under his hands, his skin under hers. Oh, God! My Meggie, my Meggie! How could they rear me from infancy to think you profanation? Time ceased to tick and began to flow, washed over him until it had no meaning, only a depth of dimension more real than time.
As it happens, McCullough is not entirely to blame for this scene. As she explained to the Guardian's reporter, she produced it only under duress:
My editor told me that the second half of the book needed a damn good love scene, and there is nothing I dislike writing more. Love-making is such a non-verbal thing, I hate that explicit 'he stuck it in her' kind of thing because it is boring. You can only say 'he stuck it in her' so many ways.
Paul Gray (review date 20 May 1985)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 585
SOURCE: "A Creed for the Third Millennium," in Time, May 20, 1985, p. 82.
[In the following review, Gray provides an unfavorable review of A Creed for the Third Millennium.]
Author Colleen McCullough's fourth novel began selling briskly weeks before its official publication. The easy explanation is that the vast audience that enjoyed The Thorn Birds (1977) will buy anything McCullough writes. But something else may be fueling this phenomenon. The appearance of perfection in any form is a rare and noteworthy event. News of its arrival is bound to spread, and perhaps, in this case, the world is already out: A Creed for the Third Millennium could well be the most perfectly awful novel ever published.
The year is 2032, and a new ice age is slowly freezing up the earth. Northern U.S. cities must be largely evacuated every winter and their residents relocated in the Sunbelt. Strict population control is in force, and only a few lucky couples can win the right, in a Government-run lottery, to have a second child. Their chilly, straitened lives have made people understandably glum; the Department of the Environment has been ordered by the President to find some way to cheer them up. Dr. Judith Carriol, a high-ranking official in the department, conducts a massive search and finally finds the person who might be able to inspire the citizenry to go on living: an obscure psychologist in Connecticut named Dr. Joshua Christian.
The hero's surname and initials tip off exactly how the plot will end, which is just as well. McCullough's claim to inverse greatness in this book does not rest on what she tells but on her miraculous ability to tell it ludicrously. She seems to emulate a process she admiringly ascribes to Dr. Christian: "to ruminate some particularly knotty concept into smooth mental paste." Hence the cascade of cliches, many per page and even paragraph. An adviser tells the President: "It's a hot potato, none hotter. We may be biting off more than we can chew." The "cool lustrous brain" of Judith Carriol manifests itself dimly: "The less people involved, the better," or, "If there is any reason in the world why you are where you are and who you are in this day, the reason is me!"
Carriol thinks Dr. Christian might be a good ersatz messiah because "the man had coined some very quotable quotes." None happens to be included in the novel, but Christian obviously has some way with words: "Too many people are so busy earning salvation in the next life that they only end by screwing this one up." Listening to such remarks, Judith experiences strange sensations indeed: "Her gut was crawling, shivering horrific tides of joy washed higher and higher up the shores of her mind."
Innards are terribly important to all the characters. The President approvingly decides that Dr. Christian has "guts. Scads of guts." Skeptics may argue that such a remark is no funnier than those that appear in many best sellers. They underestimate McCullough's mastery of sublime inanity. What other writer would somberly portray a heroine "feeling her purpose trickle away between her legs like a slow haemorrhage"? Where else could one find a statement both so unconsciously offensive and grammatically inept as "A devout Jew but nonetheless the most Christian of gentlemen, his sins were purely sins of omission and due to thoughtlessness and lack of perception"? No wonder this novel promises to become a blockbuster; readers will be savoring its thousands of gaffes well into the third millennium.
Lisa Mitchell (review date 21 July 1985)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 661
SOURCE: "A Creed for the Third Millennium," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 21, 1985, p. 6.
[Below, Mitchell offers an unfavorable review of A Creed for the Third Millennium.]
We're pushing the fast-forward button here to 2032–33—not quite 50 years from now. But when you think that 50 years ago, Rudolph Valentino had already been dead for almost a decade, you see how fast time flies. So what's good about Colleen McCullough's novel, set in a future where people are freezing to death, is that it's not too far in the future. We don't have a lot of exotic hardware to confound those of us who can barely set a digital watch.
Still, we want explanations for things that are not forthcoming. If, for instance, the Greenhouse Theory—among others—is correct and the Earth is getting warmer, why, in fewer than 50 years, will we be in an ice age? What happened? And at one point, the hero mentions—only in passing, mind you—that the average life expectancy is now 40. What happened in 50 years to lower it? (We are told that people don't smoke anymore, that "the expectancy of nuclear war disappeared, as did really irresponsible government" as well as "territorial usurpation, even starvation.")
But what really confounds about A Creed for the Third Millennium is the blurb on its cover: "A novel by the author of The Thorn Birds." No! That writer had an inner ear for graceful prose! She would never create the awkward, rambling, clumpy sentences in Millennium. She wouldn't reverse the basic writing dictum of "show, don't tell" the way this author does—especially about her female protagonist, Dr. Judith Carriol, who is "tall and fashionably elegant," "obsessively tidy and formidably efficient." Would a McCullough novel suffer mortally, as this does, from lack of subtlety and nuance? About our hero, Dr. Joshua Christian's sister-in-law, we read: "snorted Miriam"; "sneered Miriam"; "snarled Miriam"—and that's all on just pages 90 and 91! The author of this futuristic novel is also curiously given to archaic "nays" and "perforces." People are even "wont to enveigh." And all the main characters chew their lips in consternation. What with all this snarling, snorting and chewing, it's small wonder that one of the best things in the book is a little illustration on the nature of cats.
As to the main story, with a hero named Joshua Christian (J.C., get it?), who lives with his mother and a band of disciplelike family members called Mary, Martha, James and Andrew and who, we are told over and over, has "charisma" and is "chosen" to save the people, it isn't too hard to guess the ending.
Though much of the first and last sections of the book are embarrassingly bad, there is a treasure in the middle comprised of some of the spiritual message put into Joshua Christian's mouth. In a world gone gray, where everyone is cold and rootless through perpetual "relocations," where population is government controlled, where too much leisure ("Men nowadays are more often paid not to work") has increased national apathy, Christian has some healing words for his people suffering from "millennial neurosis." But anyone in 1985 who is given to blaming the "times" or "circumstances" for not getting on with their lives could underline a few things here. Instead of mooning for the past, make the best of a present that's not all you wish it were! Get up in the morning and find some purpose and peace and love in your life anyway. Make it happen! This "Christian philosophy" tells us to look to a God of our own understanding: "Don't shut out God from your mind or spirit because you can't take up membership in a church." However, a Creed for the Third Millennium's Christian philosophy is so far from the fundamentalists' that if this novel becomes a TV movie and is run during Easter week, it will be denounced from the pulpits. And that would be exactly like The Thorn Birds.
Christine Bridgwood (essay date 1986)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3760
SOURCE: "Family Romances: The Contemporary Popular Family Saga," in The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction, edited by Jean Radford, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986, pp. 167-93.
[In the following excerpt, Bridgwood explores characteristics of the family saga genre found in The Thorn Birds. According to Bridgwood, the presentation of extended historical processes in the novel is problematic because it reinforces the "social and sexual status quo" while offering new possibilities for women within the safety of family and tradition.]
Realism and Romance
It has often been pointed out that in contemporary popular romantic novels the external world drops away from the text except as a setting, leaving the hero and heroine viewing each other in a one-dimensional universe. If one function of romance is to move woman from her position of heterosexual subordination to one of unified and secure subjectivity, then the romantic relationship is the place where women find their authentic selves and have their identities established, completed and confirmed—in a kind of natural, absolute possession outside of any social, economic, or political context. The narrative leads to resolution through heterosexual union, which closes down the possibility of other desires and other narratives, and relegates women to a position beyond culture and history, firmly placed in the realm of 'nature' and 'eternal truth'.
In the family saga, however, marriage, with its consequent integration into the social order, is never the straightforward means of precipitating the narrative's climax and conclusion that it is in romance. The saga differs from other popular fiction genres in its lack of drive towards narrative closure and in its tendency to begin at the point where romance stops. The romantic fiction is structured into a coherent linear narrative around a few moments of transcendence (the first glimpse of the hero, the first sign of his admiration in the gaze, the kiss), whereas the family saga is, by definition, structured as a long-term process.
This brings me to the relationship of the family saga to realism. Although many of the saga's strategies remain those of classic realism, the form does lack some of the most important conventions of dominant ways of storytelling—the impetus towards the resolution of the plot, the circularity of a narrative that solves all problems it encounters, the successful completion of the individual's quest and, to some extent, the process of identification. Any full identification between reader and character (which has been seen as another of the principal means by which the realist text secures the recognition of its particular representations as 'real,' diverting the reader from what is contradictory in the text to what s/he already 'knows'), tends to be undermined in the saga narrative. Here, three-dimensionality of character is subordinated to the structure of repetition, contrast, variation and antithesis by which the text constructs its cross-generational profile of the family in its multiformity. In this sense individual characters in the saga are merely facets of a collective character constructed at a broader narrative level. The conflicts and problems which propel the saga forward tend to be structured in a series of oppositions, and it is the function of many of the characters to carry one or other of the terms of the opposition, as in the antithetical pairs of rebel/conformist, good mother/bad mother, promiscuous/faithful, rightful heir/rival claimant. In discussing the texts I will be considering how far this undermining of any full process of identification and the lack of drive towards narrative closure combine with other features to interrogate such primary ideological agencies as the family, romantic love and nationalism.
Writing and Reading
As a genre, the popular family saga is remarkable for employing a marketing strategy which appears to be attempting to reduce the sense of distance and difference between writers and readers. Most begin with a detailed potted author's biography presenting writer to reader:
'Danielle started working for Supergirls … when the recession hit, the firm went out of business and Danielle "retired" to write her first book, Going Home. She moved to California, seeking "an easier climate, gentler people and a better place to write."'
'Susan Howatch … was an only child and her father was killed in the Second World War … after working for a year as an articled clerk she was bored with practical law and decided to devote herself to writing….'
'Catherine Gaskin married an American and settled down in New York for ten years….'
Apart from the marked contrast to the anonymity and interchangeability of, say, Mills & Boon authors, what is striking about these doubtless carefully selected biographical details is the implication that the author, despite her glamour, is really not so different from the reader herself—she too has experienced common disasters (the firm went out of business, her father died), dilemmas (she was bored) and delights (she married and settled down). Cosy, intimate, first-name terms are being established.
Furthermore, the process of writing, although documented as being arduous and time-consuming—
'She began The Thorn Birds, writing it at night, after her work as head technician in a neurophysiology laboratory had ended….'
'Writing this book has been rather like writing a real-life detective story, with the facts given in old letters, stories and newspaper cuttings forming the framework around which my tale is woven.'
—is still depicted as springing almost spontaneously from the author's own history and experience. Judith Saxton, for example, dedicated The Pride (1981) to her grandmother and stresses in her acknowledgements that the idea for the book 'sprang from my grandmother's charmingly written memoirs.' This appeal to the unmediated matrix of (specifically female) experience, memory and writing as spontaneous growth, is of course belied by the complexity of the actual texts, but the ideology of the text as sold to the reader is that of oral history: we have all, as women, got such stories to tell, and, given the necessary effort, perhaps could. Look, for example, at the following extracts from the author biographies prefacing each saga:
'Her northern roots are strongly reflected in her work. She is an author who sets her characters against a backcloth she knows well.'
'The desire to write, she says, has been her one and only lifeline during a tumultuous and changeable life.'
'Her work with "wayward" girls and her own family has increased her interest in the female situation, present and past.'
The implication is that anyone could have a go, as it is too in a Guardian interview with Colleen McCullough (15 April 1977) which stresses her rise from ordinary student nurse to world-famous novelist.
In this sense, the marketing of the family saga produces significantly different implications from the escapism generally attributed to romance. The ideology of authorship in saga publicity appears to be directing the reader back into the potentialities of her own experience, into her family history as potential saga, to writing as a 'natural' product of living, achievable through application, strength of will, a harnessing of the general capabilities that women display in their everyday domestic and work situations. This universalisation of the potential power to write such fiction is matched by a universalisation of the fiction's material—despite the variants of geographical, historical and class settings, the saga families' fictionalised lives are nevertheless structured around a number of dilemmas which can be essentially similar for women of entirely different national, social and economic groups.
The construction of the family as a universal form, then, produces a series of crucial mediations between writer and reader, writing and reading, the production of a text and the pre-text of 'experience.' Linked through the shared experience of the family, the writer is merely a reader who has got her act together. Reading can be a rehearsal for your own transition to writing, and experience, through the family's historical dimension, is already on the way to becoming text. Far from being positioned in a simply passive, powerless relation to the text, the reader of the saga, in order for the text's central terms of family and experience to function, is established in a curious space of creative potentiality; poised between her personal experience, which is being valorised as potential 'material,' and a writing which declares itself as the 'material-ised' experience of someone not unlike herself. For sagas to work the reader must be, at least potentially, the next bestseller herself.
The great subject of the novelist, as Stephen Heath has suggested, has been crucially the family—the family as bridge between the individual and society, the private and the public. It has been posited as the site of the conflict and resolution of these terms in the world apart which it purports to offer: marriage and the family, a firm social unit offering a privileged mode of individuality and a haven of personal happiness. In this sense, the modern family saga explores the same terrain as the realist novel of the nineteenth century: the family and its dynastic considerations such as inheritance, the continuation of the male line, family duty, and alliances with outsiders and rivals. In the nineteenth century novel what is often at stake is the integration of a male pattern of inherited social power. Novels such as Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, which are concerned with the specifically female relation to this system of social power, have tended to represent women settling within that system through a struggle towards marriage, which once again occupies a decisive position in the 'individual and society' organization, proposed as a mediation between the two.
Where the contemporary popular saga differs, as it differs too from popular romance, is in its exploration not of the achievement of that state but of the maintenance of it. Although the saga undoubtedly works, on one level, to reinforce prevailing ideological definitions of the family, in other ways it challenges the concept of the family as definable purely in terms of blood relations and kinship, and moves towards a redefinition of the meanings of the primacy and exclusivity of the family. The 'family' in Catherine Gaskin's Family Affairs, for example, consists of an all-female group of two sisters, a woman who was briefly married to their father, her stepdaughter and a friend, all living in a house split into separate flats.
It is partly this redefinition and extension of the family in the saga that allows its representation as a highly sexualised site, a representation which (apart from guaranteeing a good read!) resists western industrial society's conceptualisation of the family as at once legitimating and concealing sexuality. The question of what actually constitutes the family is repeatedly stretched and renegotiated in the saga, activating conflicting discourses which are not easily contained by the text. Ideological contradictions within the family are opened up and then an attempt is made to sidestep them by the imaginary resolution of the redefined, expanded and sexualised family.
The Thorn Birds: Historical Process and Common Sense
An issue which continually resurfaces when thinking about the popular family saga is that of the contradictory effects of the narrative's extended time-span, with its invocation of historical process. Lillian S. Robinson, in her discussion of historical romance, argues that this kind of text obliges the reader to entertain some definition of history. By her account, the family saga, in its representation of history and women's lives over time, would necessarily show to some extent the overlapping and contradictory ways in which sexual differences are instituted under different conditions at different historical moments, with the sense of historical process working to interrogate exiting power relations and ideological definitions of sexuality and the social. And yet, as this analysis of The Thorn Birds attempts to show, it is precisely this historical materiality and the extended temporal perspective of the family saga which serves to make the social and sexual order appear as the natural state of things.
The Thorn Birds (1977) chronicles three generations of the Cleary family and their relation to the family home, Drogheda, a sheep farm in southern Australia. The narrative follows, in social terms, the advance from the slavery of frontier womanhood to the emancipation of the modern woman on near equal terms in a man's world. The Clearys are a non-dynastic dynastic family, the third generation consisting only of one daughter, Justine. Her grandmother Fee had eight sons (girls didn't count), and her mother two children, but Justine is able to repudiate the whole breeding business—'Not bloody likely! Spend my life wiping snotty noses and cacky bums?' Femininity is placed in the text as a site of social change and it is made clear that the pull of the homeland must be resisted to achieve this change. A critical point occurs at the end of the narrative when Justine has to choose whether to return home to Drogheda or to continue her career in Europe. She is on the point of flying back to Australia ('I want something safe, permanent, enduring, so I'm coming home to Drogheda, which is all those things'), marrying a local boy and retracing her roots after her European flutter, but is stopped in the end by the letter from her mother advising her to stay away for the sake of her career and happiness. Justine in the penultimate climactic scene is shown rejecting Drogheda and the bondage it represents to her.
Superficially, then, the moral trajectory of The Thorn Birds is towards the acceptance of a necessary distancing from tradition, the land, the home, one's country (all signified by the property Drogheda) in order to create space for individual growth. The bonds of the family are denied (Drogheda can give Justine nothing), yet at the same time sanctified (it takes her grandmother and mother, blood relations, to know her well enough to realise that Drogheda can give her nothing). What is more, Justine is able to move decisively outside the family circle only by moving into another stable, approved societal unit—that of marriage.
This last point suggests another discourse at work in the text alongside that of women's 'emancipation,' and which undercuts and problematises it. This is the discourse of common sense—'that's life'—the stoic acceptance of fate. The text is threaded through with the lugubrious insights of now enlightened characters—'we can't change what we are … we are what we are, that's all … what must be, must be … it is the way things are … it's just common sense.' This discourse produces the idea of a human essence which exists independently of the social, bringing with it the category of an essential femininity.
The appeal in the text to fate, common sense and an essentially masochistic female 'nature' are all synthesised in the legend of the thorn bird which prefaces and completes the text and is invoked at one crucial moment in the narrative. The thorn bird, following 'an immutable law,' spends its life searching for a thorn tree and having found it 'impales itself on the longest, sharpest spine' and dying sings 'one superlative song, existence the price.' The suggestion of feminine masochistic surrender to the victimising phallus is transparent, and is made explicit in Meggie's final-page reverie when, in epitomising her life-long frustrated love for Ralph, she reflects, 'I did it all myself. I have no one else to blame.' The final words of the text reach out to implicate its readers in this masochism:
The bird with the thorn in its breast … is driven by it knows not what to impale itself and die singing. At the very instant the thorn enters there is no awareness in it of the dying to come … but we, when we put the thorns in our breasts, we know. We understand. And still we do it. Still we do it.
In Meggie and Ralph's retrospective discussion of their relationship, the legend is invoked by Meggie to exonerate Ralph for his sacrifice of her to his clerical ambitions. For Ralph, the 'thorn' can be that of ambition, the will to power, but for women it is necessarily that of love and sexual experience. Female subjectivity is constructed within sexual categories, and even the shift from this with the third generation makes it clear that the thorn is only slightly less sharp for the autonomous, career-oriented modern woman.
There is then a contradiction in The Thorn Birds between the opening out with the third generation to a more independent, self-determining lifestyle for women (albeit within marriage) and the undercutting of any idea of social change by the discourse of fate and cyclical repetition which frames the text and operates powerfully within it—a contradiction which is clearly played out in the final few paragraphs of the text, which consists of an evocation of 'the same endless, unceasing cycle' and yet simultaneously asserts that it is 'time for Drogheda to stop' in order for progress and change to be made possible. This contradiction is common to most popular family sagas and can be explained further by reference to the double temporal structure which they are based on.
The saga is structured upon two parallel temporal axes, the one short, the other extended. The shorter axis produces a dramatic structure of various episodes, incidents and climaxes which revolve around and are supported by concepts of progress, the individual and (given that the text foregrounds female experience) the feminine—in The Thorn Birds, the life histories of Fee, Meggie and Justine. The extended axis, however, works to defuse this structure of individual drama, experience and change by overlaying it with a discourse of the 'long view' which speaks in favour of tradition, the family, the heritage, the dynasty. This is the ironic overview at work in The Thorn Birds' evocation of destiny, common sense and time as healer. The text itself has an investment in this ironic overview—it is after all on this axis that its key terms of family and saga are situated.
The tensions I have pointed to in The Thorn Birds stem not merely from the long-term/short-term antithesis, but also from the contradictions inherent in this ironic position itself. For irony, while declaring itself as an analytical, 'deconstructive' mode, is also classically conservative in its operations. It implies that if a long enough view is taken, all current events and individual dramas are insignificant in the face of the immensity of life ('the rhythmic endless cycle'). But individual histories can be swallowed up and individual experience ironised only because the longer timespan they are being set against is itself subjected to no questioning. The text rests on an unchallenged basis of tradition, history and family continuity, and in the end takes up a position entirely identified with these concepts, although of course some interplay between the two temporal perspectives is necessary for the narrative to function.
This then is the structural contradiction at work in the family saga. What The Thorn Birds in particular makes clear is that the ironic, male, long-term overview which is ostensibly in conflict with the specifically female short-term perspective does in fact hold some positive uses for women. The ironic 'life's like that' philosophy becomes a way of validating the suffering and frustration that Fee and Meggie's lives bring them. This is acted out in a great number of small details and incidents throughout the text, particularly in the scenes depicting their later relationship as two ageing women. Meggie as a girl was ignored by Fee precisely because of her femaleness, and the development traced in the narrative of their relationship, culminating in Fee's admission that 'I used to think having a daughter wasn't nearly as important as having sons, but I was wrong … a daughter's an equal' constitutes a powerful representation of female bonding. Like Justine's life story, it would seem to gesture towards an ideal of progress, towards social change making personal change possible. Yet this representation is critically undermined by the discourses which I've shown as clustering around the extended, ironic temporal axis; nothing really changes, everything comes full circle, 'history does repeat itself.' Meggie and Fee are constructed as women bound together by the inexorable patterns and cycles of nature, fate, family and love, agreeing, when looking back over their lives, that 'memories are a comfort, once the pain dies down.'
The mother-daughter relationship echoes the rest of the text by interrogating female subject positions in the framework of short-term drama and incident, while in the same breath recuperating any disturbance by setting it in the safer context of the 'long view.' This is how history in the saga works as a double-edged discourse; it is at once the sharp nudge of awareness of historical process—the 'vision of historical possibility' discussed by Lillian S. Robinson—and the soothing balm of an ideology of stoical acceptance which naturalises the social and sexual status quo, and is ultimately dependent upon essentialist categories of femininity….
I have tried to show how the popular family saga attempts the representation of ideological contradictions in a form which provides their imaginary resolution, and that this takes place through a fiction which entertains and exposes contradiction on one condition, that of final unity and reconciliation. This process is both aided and impeded by the double-edged discourse of the family, tradition, heritage, the 'long-view,' which on the one hand provides a secure foundation from which to interrogate short-term practices, and on the other renders any attempt to follow the reassuring pattern of classical narrative (that of an original settlement disrupted and finally restored) deeply problematic.
The analysis of romance fiction has happily moved beyond that earlier phase in which the genre was righteously denounced for its facile and yet (strangely) coercive ideological effects, an analysis which brought with it the image of women readers as the passive consumers of a discourse which could only further their oppression. The necessary rereading of romance has produced an understanding of the genre which exposes the crudity of that earlier model and its underlying assumptions about the relationship between texts and women reading. If the implications of this process of re-definition are to be drawn out fully, it needs to extend outside romance to those associated but distinct genres of which the family saga is one important instance. By attempting to situate romance within the broader field of women's reading, we can move towards not only a clearer definition of romance in its relationships of affiliation and difference with other genres, but also an understanding of the range and variety of the interactions between texts and women readers.
Cora Kaplan (essay date 1986)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6752
SOURCE: "The Thorn Birds: Fiction, Fantasy, Femininity," in Formations of Fantasy, edited by Victor Burgin, James Donald, and Cora Kaplan, Methuen, 1986, pp. 142-66.
[In the following excerpt, Kaplan identifies elements of fantasy and female sexuality in romance literature through analysis of The Thorn Birds. Kaplan draws attention to the novel's incest motif, portrayal of seduction, and treatment of sexual identity in light of Freudian psychoanalysis and feminist theory.]
The Thorn Birds confirms not a conventional femininity but women's contradictory and ambiguous place within sexual difference. Feminist cultural criticism has initiated a very interesting debate about the meaning of reading, and watching, romance. What follows is a contribution to that discussion which tries to see how, in historical, political and psychoanalytic terms, texts like Gone with the Wind and The Thorn Birds come to have such a broad appeal for women, centering the female reader in a particular way, and reworking the contradictory elements which make female subjectivity such a vertiginous social and psychic experience.
Fiction, fantasy and femininity. Since the rise of the popular novel directed at a female audience, the relationship between these three terms has troubled both progressive and conservative analysts of sexual difference, not least those who were themselves writers of narrative. The terms of the debate about the relationship between 'reading romance' and the construction of femininity have remained surprisingly constant in the two hundred years since Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen first engaged with the issue as a response to the expansion of sensational literature directed at the woman reader.
Both Wollstonecraft and Austen agreed that the 'stale tales' and 'meretricious scenes' of the sentimental and gothic novel triggered and structured female fantasy, stirring up the erotic and romantic at the expense of the rational, moral and maternal. Both thought that such reading could directly influence behaviour—inflamed and disturbed readers might, in Wollstonecraft's evocative phrase 'plump into actual vice.' But Wollstonecraft's main concern was not with junk reading as the route to adultery but as the path to conventional, dependent, degenerate femininity—to the positioning of the female self in the degraded, dependent role as 'objects of desire.' At the time she was writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Wollstonecraft was defending a relatively conventional sexual morality. Even so, she was much less concerned with the danger to women's sexual virtue which romance reading might breed than with the far-reaching political effects of such indulgence. As the narrative of desire washed over the reader, the thirst for reason was quenched, and the essential bridge to female autonomy and emancipation, a strengthened 'understanding' was washed out. The female psyche could not, it seemed, sustain or combine two mental agendas; for them it must be either reason or passion, pleasure or knowledge. Austen's version of this libidinal economy was perhaps slightly less punitive, but this was only because her ambitions for her heroine/reader were a less radical and more limited moral autonomy within the dominant convention as wife, mother and lover. Moral and spiritual integrity and, to some extent, independence for women were essential, but an independent life and an independently productive life were not unthinkable within her novels. Both Wollstonecraft and Austen assumed, as most analysts of romance reading do today, that romance narrative works on the reader through rather simple forms of identification. The reader aligns herself with the heroine and suffers her perils, passions and triumphs. The narrative structure of the fiction then 'takes over' everyday life, and gender relations are read through its temptations, seductions and betrayals. Alternatively romance provides an escape from the everyday realities; the pleasure of fantasy numbs the nerve of resistance to oppression.
Wollstonecraft's implicit theory of reading assumed the reader would identify herself with the female heroine. The reading of popular fiction and the fantasy induced by it depend at one level on the identification of reader and heroine, and the subsequent acting-out of a related narrative trajectory. Late-eighteenth-century theories of reading, as they appeared in both aesthetic and political discourses, assumed a fairly direct relationship between reading and action, especially from the naïve reader, i.e. the barely literate, uneducated working-class person—and women. In this period of expanding literacy and political turmoil, the question of the ability to read is at the centre of both progressive platforms of radicalization and transformation of the mass of people, and conservative fears of revolution. A great deal of attention was given to not only the dynamic effects of reading on the unschooled subject but also to the distinction between reading as a social act (a pamphlet read to others in a coffee house or village square, books read at the family hearth) and reading as a private act, unregulated and unsupervised by authority. Both forms of reading could be subversive, but the latter, less open to surveillance and control, more defiantly announcing the mental autonomy of individual subjects whose 'independence' is not acknowledged by the dominant social and political order, offered a particularly insidious form of subversion.
The question of women's reading, as it was understood in the 1790s was situated within these wider anxieties about reading and revolution, literacy and subjectivity. Accordingly both Wollstonecraft and Austen knew women must read to achieve even minimal independent status as subjects and were, in somewhat different ways, concerned with something more intangible and complex than a simple incitement, which sensational novels may produce, to misbehave. Private reading is already, in itself, an act of autonomy; in turn it sets up, or enables, a space for reflective thought. Fiction gives that reflection a narrative shape and sensational fiction produces a sort of general excitation, the 'romantic twist of the mind' that concerned Wollstonecraft. The desire to inhabit that provocative landscape and mentally live its stories rather than those of the supposed social real was as worrying as any specific identification with romantic female protagonists. In fact Wollstonecraft's analysis of the construction of a degraded and dependent femininity in A Vindication insists that although female children have no innate sexuality—she bitterly rejected Rousseau's insistence that they did—women come to see themselves narcissistically through the eyes of men. Through the gaze of the male rake, they become 'rakes themselves.' Female subjectivity was characterized in this account by its retrograde tendency to take up other subject positions and identify self as object. It was this already unstable degraded subject (constructed in childhood and early adolescence) that reads romance and fantasizes about it. For Wollstonecraft and Austen popular sensational literature both reinforced and evoked a set of romantic scenarios which the reader will use at once to interpret, act through and escape from ordinary lives. Each part of this reading effect is 'bad,' each involves different elements of projection and displacement and together they constitute the negative effect of fiction and fantasy.
There was very little possibility in late-eighteenth-century progressive or conservative thought for a positive account of fantasy for women, the lower classes or colonial peoples. For all of these lesser subjectivities the exercise of the imagination was problematic, for the untutored, 'primitive' psyche was easily excited and had no strategies of sublimation; a provocative narrative induced imitation and disruptive actions, political or social. When radicals supported the subjective equality of any of these groups, they generally insisted that their reasoning capacity was equal to that of a bourgeois male. The psyche of the educated middle-class male was the balanced psyche of the period: reason and passion in a productive symbiosis. Men of this class were felt to have a more fixed positionality. Radical discourses presented them as the origin of their own identities, as developing independent subjects, the makers and controllers of narrative rather than its enthralled and captive audience. This capacity to produce a master narrative like their rational capacity to take civic, political actions remained latent in them as readers. Men of the ruling class, so went the dominant mythology, read critically, read not to imitate but to engage productively with argument and with narrative. They understood the difference between fiction and fact, between imagination and reason. The normative male reader, unlike his credulous female counterpart, could read a gothic novel for amusement and pleasure. Like the poet whose writing practice used 'emotion recollected in tranquility,' the two modes of reason and passion were ever open to him; in the same way he could inhabit both a public and private sphere and move between them. The enlightenment asked man to subordinate passion to reason. Romanticism argued for a productive interaction between them, assuming optimistically that the rational would act as a check to passion, and that passion itself would be transformed, sublimated through the imagination.
As literacy spread and reading became one of the crucial practices through which human capacity, integrity, autonomy and psychic balance could be assessed, reading habits and reading response were increasingly used to differentiate readers by class and sex. By the 1790s reading by the masses was being argued for as a necessary route to individual and group advancement, as the crucial preparation for social and political revolution, and, at the same time, argued against as the significant activity which might stem the revolutionary tide. Thomas Paine pushed the polemic furthest, conflating reading with civil liberty itself—prophesying that censorship would breed its own revenge—that it would become dangerous to tell a whole people that 'they shalt not read.' Reading, both as an activity and as a sign of activities it may engender, became a metonymic reference to forms of good and bad subjectivity, of present and potential social and psychic being. So Wollstonecraft in 1791 ends her diatribe against romance reading on an uncertain note, insisting that it is better that women read novels than not read at all.
In the preceding two sections I have been deliberately using the term fantasy in its contemporary everyday sense: as a conscious construction of an imaginary scene in which, it is invariably assumed, the fantasist places him/herself in an easily identified and constant role in the narrative. This common-sense working definition has been undermined at various points in the discussion of autobiography and history, but it is more or less adequate for a preliminary account of fantasy as 'daydream,' as a conscious, written narrative construction, or as an historical account of the gendered imagination. Yet fantasy used solely or unreflectingly in this way invokes a notion of the relation between dream and fiction, without actually theorizing that connection. Unless we actually do work through that relationship and distinguish between fantasy as an unconscious structure and as forms of social narrative, we are unlikely to break free from the stigmatizing moralism which taints most accounts of romantic fantasy and gender, representing romance as a 'social disease' which affects the weaker constitution of the female psyche.
Psychoanalytic discussions of fantasy are not wholly free of elements of moralization but, as Alison Light has commented in her illuminating discussion of romance fiction, sexuality and class, psychoanalysis at least 'takes the question of pleasure seriously, both in its relation to gender and in its understanding of fiction as fantasies, as the explorations and productions of desires which may be in excess of the socially possible or acceptable.'…
Text: The Thorn Birds
In 'Returning to Manderley' Alison Light reclaims Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca as a text which provides 'a classic model of romance fiction while at the same time exposing many of its terms.' I would like to adopt a similar critical strategy towards Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds, a family saga whose events start in 1915 in rural New Zealand and end in 1965 in a London town house. Written by an Australian emigrée living in America in the mid-seventies, the novel subtly appropriates elements of feminist discourse, integrating the language of romance fiction with new languages of sexuality and sexual difference. Fantasy is quite unashamedly mobilized in The Thorn Birds both at the level of content—the narrative scenario—and at the level of rhetoric—the various styles which mark out its different registers within the story. Through these means the novel weaves a seeming social realism together with a series of original fantasies so that the text resembles the heterogeneous or hybrid form of fantasy described by psychoanalysis. Although, like a retold dream, the text rationalizes fantasy scenes into a coherent narrative sequence, the plot is in fact full of unlikely incident and coincidence which characters and authorial voice are constantly trying to justify. The implausible elements of the plot and their elaborate rationalization signals the presence of original fantasy in the text. Like many family sagas, The Thorn Birds inscribes all of the generic original fantasies, often mapping them over each other and repeating them with variations in the experience of different generations. Laplanche and Pontalis describe these fantasy categories as:
Fantasies of origins: the primal scene pictures the origin of the individual; fantasies of seduction, the origin and upsurge of sexuality; fantasies of castration, the origin of the difference between the sexes.
Ambiguities about paternity run through the text. Intimations of incest affect almost all the familial and extra-familial relations, as father-daughter, mother-son and brother-sister ties. These fantasy scenes are structured and elaborated from the women's position, which sometimes means only that they offer a mildly eccentric elaboration of the classic fantasy scripts. For example, castration fantasy in the narrative emphasizes both lack and power in women and mothers, on the one hand, and retribution by that eternally absent father, God, on the other. The third-person narration, typical of family saga romance, allows a very free movement between masculine and feminine positions, and different discursive genres and registers. It also permits the narrative as a whole to be contained within a set of determinate political ideologies for which the characters themselves bear little responsibility. Like Gone with the Wind, but with significant differences, The Thorn Birds pursues an interesting and occasionally radical interrogation of sexual difference inside a reactionary set of myths about history.
At the heart of The Thorn Birds lies a scandalous passion between a Catholic priest, Ralph de Bricassart, and Meggie Cleary, whose family are the focus of the novel. Ralph meets Meggie when she is 9 years old, the only and somewhat neglected girl child in a large brood of boys. Ralph himself is a strikingly handsome and ambitious Irish-born priest in his late twenties, sent into temporary exile in this remote bit of rural New South Wales because he has quarrelled with his bishop. Ralph loves the child for her beauty, and for her 'perfect female character, passive yet enormously strong. No rebel, Meggie: on the contrary. All her life she would obey, move within the boundaries of her female fate.'
The whole first half of the novel follows the Clearys' fortunes on Drogheda, the vast Australian sheep station, which belongs first to the widowed millionaire matriarch, Mary Carson, and after her death to the church, with Ralph as its agent. Its narrative moves in a tantalizingly leisurely fashion towards the seduction of the proud, virginal Ralph by Meggie, whose female fate seems to include some fairly fundamental disobedience to church and state. Ralph 'makes' Meggie, as he tells his Vatican superior and confessor later in the text, shaping her education and sensibility from childhood. She, like a dutiful daughter in someone's fantasy, returns his seemingly non-sexual love with a fully libidinized intensity.
The text plays with great skill on the two narratives of prohibition, familial and ecclesiastic, that are bound together in Meggie and Ralph's romance. 'Don't call me Father,' he keeps insisting, while disentangling himself reluctantly from the arms of the teenage girl who assaults him at every opportunity. Ralph is represented as mother, father and lover in relation to Meggie. Somehow it is Ralph, in the confessional, who has to tell the 15-year-old Meggie about menstruation, because mother Fee is too busy with the boys. Somehow it is Ralph, not Meggie's negligent macho husband, who arrives in a distant part of the outback to hold her hand in her first painful experience of childbirth.
The ideal feminine man—he has a way, he tells us, with babies—Ralph is bound to the church by pride and ambition, sure that it will give him a transcendent identity: 'Not a man, never a man; something far greater, something beyond the fate of a mere man.' Losing his virginity at 40 odd, Ralph discovers in media res that he is a 'mere man' after all, while Meggie finds out that only symbolic incest and transgression can make a woman of her. Their brief week's consummation takes place on a remote South Sea island. After an Edenic interlude, Ralph leaves for Rome and his rising career in the church. Meggie, gestating his son, returns to the Cleary family base at Drogheda with Justine, her daughter, by her husband Luke. Here, under her mother's benign matriarchy (her biological father, significantly dies before her marriage and adultery), she will raise her children and even enjoy a short second honeymoon when Ralph comes to Drogheda to visit years later.
The novel, 591 pages long, deals with major events in the life of three generations of Clearys as well as Ralph's trajectory from country priest to cardinal via his broken vows. Like Gone with the Wind and other family saga romances, part of its pleasure is in the local, historical detail. Most of the energy of the text, however, is reserved for the emotional encounters. Its power to hold the female reader, in the first half anyway, is linked to the inexorable unfolding of Meggie and Ralph's story, the seduction scenario played through the narrative of another durable fantasy—the family romance in which a real-life parent is discarded as an imposter and a more exalted figure substituted.
The incest motif is everywhere in the novel, saturating all the literal familial relations as well as the metaphorical ones. Within the Cleary household all the boys remain unmarried; they are, as Meggie tells Ralph during their island idyll 'terribly shy … frightened of the power a woman might have over them … quite wrapped up in Mum.' Most wrapped up in Fee Cleary is her eldest son Frank, the illegitimate child of a New Zealand politician, half Maori. Through her affair with him Fee has lost her social position; her upper-class Anglican family marry her off to their shy dairy hand, the Irish Catholic immigrant Paddy Cleary, and then disown her. Frank acts out an Oedipal drama with Paddy who he believes is his real father, until he goads Paddy into revealing his illegitimate status. They quarrel. Frank calls his father 'a stinking old he-goat … a ram in rut' for making his mother Fee pregnant yet again. The father, stung, calls the boy 'no better than the shitty old dog who fathered you, whoever he was!' This quarrel takes place in front of the child Meggie and Father Ralph. After it Frank leaves home, eventually commits murder and is given a life sentence. His fate is seen in the text quite specifically as Fee's punishment for her sexual transgression. In the second half of the novel, Meggie too will lose her much loved son by Ralph, first to the church and then by death.
These symmetrical events are reinforced by the deep but sexually innocent attachment of brother-sister pairs in each generation: Frank and his half-sister Meggie; Justine and her half-brother Dane. Within the male Cleary brood there are homosocial attachments too, the twin boys Patsy and Jims are represented as a symbiotic couple. And The Thorn Birds extends and elaborates the homosocial, homoerotic themes, though never in a very positive way, through Meggie's husband Luke's preference of his workmate Arne, and, within the church, through Ralph's friendship with his Italian mentor. Male bonding is seen as something of a problem in the book, a problem certainly for Meggie who, as she says, seems drawn to men who don't have much need of women and fear too much closeness with them.
Meggie (and Ralph) witness two primal scenes—in discursive form to be sure—in watching and hearing the revelations in the argument between Paddy and Frank. They hear a graphic, animalized account of the act between Paddy and Fee, and between Fee and some unknown lover, whom we later discover to be the half-caste politician. (Children often interpret parental coitus as a fight.) Ralph fears that Meggie will be psychologically damaged by witnessing the argument. The text doesn't follow this up with any reflexive comment. At a narrative level, in relation to the sequence of the fantasy scenes involving Meggie which now begin to move inevitably towards the seduction scenario, the fight, as a stage in the destruction of her innocence and perhaps an erosion of her father's authority, is certainly important.
Having sorted out in one part the question of the origin of babies, the next fantasy sequence is the one in which Ralph tells the super-innocent 15-year-old that she is menstruating, not dying of cancer. Meggie is presented as peculiarly ignorant of the facts of life for a girl who lives on a working farm. The author has to insert a long justifying didactic passage which claims, incredibly, that the sexual division of labour on the station, together with the patriarchal Puritanism of Paddy Cleary, has kept her wholly innocent. Even this touching moment of instruction stops short of full knowledge. When Ralph asks Meggie whether she knows how women get pregnant her answer is wholly within the register of fantasy:
'You wish them.'
'Who told you that?'
'No one. I worked it out for myself,' she said.
The next scene in the seduction sequence is the first unintended kiss between Ralph and Meggie, aged 16, which she half initiates. Ralph then leaves Drogheda for some time. In his absence Meggie has a conversation with her father in which it is clear that she believes that Ralph will, when she tells him to, leave the church and marry her. Paddy tries, without much luck, to disabuse her of this illusion:
'Father de Bricassart is a priest, Meggie…. Once a man is a priest there can be no turning away … a man who takes those vows knows beyond any doubt that once taken they can't be broken, ever. Father de Bricassart took them, and he'll never break them…. Now you know, Meggie, don't you? From this moment you have no excuse to daydream about Father de Bricassart.'
But Paddy is unconvincing as bearer of the reality principle, either to the reader or to Meggie.
After one more unsuccessful attempt to seduce Ralph in the hours after her father's death, Meggie is temporarily persuaded to give him up. She marries Luke, one of the seasonal sheep shearers, because he reminds her of Ralph physically. The substitution is an abominable failure, although it gives McCullough a rich opportunity to expand on the incompetent sexual style and homosocial tendencies of working-class Aussie males. Luke is like Ralph in that he can do without women, preferring the world of work and men, but he is unlike Ralph in that he has no nurturant qualities whatever. The text records Meggie's painful, incompetent deflowering in graphic and ironic detail which combines the style of a sixties sex manual with a feminist debunking of heterosexuality. Luke sets her to work as a servant for a crippled farmer's wife and goes off with the boys to cut cane.
Although the book's account of their brief marriage is convincingly realistic in its local incident, the extremity of Luke's punitive treatment of Meggie actually extends the fantasy register of the narrative. Ralph's accidental arrival during Meggie's difficult labour is the penultimate scene in the seduction sequence. He takes her through the menarche and childbirth and will, on Matlock Island, answer her wish at last and take her sexually.
Through the novel sexuality is discussed in at least two different languages. Sex which is pleasurable for women is narrated in the generic style of historical romance—steamy, suggestive and vague: 'It had been a body poem, a thing of arms and hands and skin and utter pleasure.' Bad sex is exposed in the new pragmatic realism of post-war prose: 'with a great indrawn breath to keep her courage up she forced the penis in, teeth clenched.' Ralph fucks Meggie in Barbara Cartland's best mode. In the process of losing his virginity he also forgoes his exalted notion of himself as above sexual difference. In sexual pleasure Meggie's femininity is confirmed. Meggie and Ralph conceive a male child, though Ralph's punishment is to be ignorant of this fact until after his son's death, since this is a fantasy from the women's position. Keeping men in ignorance of their paternity can be seen a female prerogative. The question of origins is thus reopened for the next generation in the final seduction, but the question of identity, sexuality and difference is temporarily resolved for Ralph, Meggie and reader.
Narrative rationalization binds the fantasy scenarios together. No amount of tricky discursive justification really explains why Meggie should witness Frank and Paddy's quarrel, need to be told by a priest about menstruation, time her labour for Ralph's visit—and so on. Yet all these events are necessary to construct a complex fantasy, a series of scenarios in which the reader's position vis-à-vis Ralph and Meggie is constantly shifting. Until the sequence reaches its penultimate moment, it is fair to say that the reader oscillates from the woman's position to the man's position—represented as poles of subjectivity rather than fixed, determinate identities. For it is wholly unclear that these subject positions can be actually identified with the gendered characters Ralph and Meggie.
What, in text and context, creates this reading effect which is responsible in great part for the pleasure of the novel? The Thorn Birds is directed at a female audience, one that by the late seventies has certainly been affected by debates around feminism, if only in their most populist and watered-down form. Even through media representations of feminist discourse there had developed among women a more inquiring attitude towards traditional masculinity and femininity. The acceptable social content of daytime fantasies had shifted enough to allow the woman to be the sexual initiator, especially if, like Meggie, she is also the model of femininity who only wants marriage and babies, content to stay out of modern, urban public space, down on the farm. Within the terms of the fantasy Meggie is allowed to be both active and feminine. With certain fundamental reservations about her social role The Thorn Birds offers the female reader a liberated de-repressed version of the seduction fantasy, a written-out, up-front story of 'A daughter seduces a father' in place of that old standard 'A father seduces a daughter.'
Most mass-market romance, as Modleski and others point out, has stuck with the conservative androcentric version, counting on the third-person narrative which looks down on the woman in the text to inscribe the active female as the knowing reader in the narrative 'a man seduces a woman.' Shifts in the public discourses about sexuality, specifically feminist discourse, permit the seduction fantasy to be reinscribed in a more radical way in popular fiction. They allow the narrative itself to express the terms of original fantasy from the place of the woman, while reassuring us through Meggie's character that such a fantasy, however transgressive in social terms, is perfectly feminine. If the text stopped there it would still be disruptive for, if we put the relationship between femininity and transgression another way, the fantasy sequence suggests also that, in order to be perfectly feminine, a woman's desire must be wholly transgressive. But the role reversal of the seduction fantasy is only the first and simplest stage in the transformation of the seduction story.
More unexpected and eccentric is the way in which Ralph as the feminine man and virgin priest is mobilized within the fantasy. Critiques of traditional macho masculinity abound in the popular fictions of the seventies, especially perhaps in Hollywood film. Decentred masculinity can be represented through a figure like Ralph, whose maternal characteristics are balanced by his public power. Ralph's feminine side is also signified, however, by his great personal beauty, to which he himself calls attention in the early scenes, and his prized virginity. As a beautiful and pure object of desire he stands in the text in place of the woman, often obscuring Meggie. As decentred man, Ralph displaces Meggie as the object to be seduced. This blurring of masculine and feminine positions is worked through in all but the last seduction scene.
Meggie's passion is usually straightforwardly expressive; Ralph's is held back by taboo. His desire is accompanied by shame, disgust and horror at his own wayward libido on whose control he so prides himself: 'I can get it up. It's just that I don't choose to.' 'Spider's poison,' 'snakes,' 'ghastly drive' are the phrases used to describe Ralph's illicit desire for Meggie. Yet Ralph is at last moved by his love for her, and his suppressed desire, to consummate the relationship. In the final scenario it is Ralph who pursues and takes action, restoring the initiatives of sexual difference to their right order. The moment of absolute transgression, when Ralph breaks his vows to the church, is later described by him as another kind of 'sacrament.' It is also the moment when the even more transgressive definitions of sexual difference that have been offered the reader are withdrawn. Incest makes real men and women of us all.
It is not simply plot and character that structure the text's unstable inscriptions of sexual difference. The narrative strategy and the language of the novel contribute centrally to this effect. Third-person narration helps a lot. Although the novel starts out with Meggie's early childhood traumas, setting her up as a figure who endures loss and punishment at an early stage, her psyche is always held at one remove. The authorial voice is adult and knowing about her, its tone sympathetic and realistic but never really intimate. Ralph's consciousness, on the other hand, especially where it touches on his feeling for Meggie, is presented consistently in lyrical and philosophical terms. Long paragraphs speculate on Meggie's attraction for the priest:
Perhaps, had he looked more deeply into himself, he might have seen that what he felt for her was the curious result of time, and place and person … she filled an empty space in his life which God could not….
Ralph 'redecorates' a room for Meggie at the presbytery in which she is installed as surrogate daughter. The text 'decorates' Ralph's feelings for her, offering us a running inner narrative on them, while Meggie's growing feeling for Ralph is rarely given such discursive space. The text gives us a 'natural' identification with Meggie because of her initial priority in the story and because she is the woman in the novel, but it also offers us a seductive alternative identification with Ralph, as a more complex and expressive subjectivity. The oscillation between the realistic and lyric modes, the disruption of the terms of sexual difference, is both titillating and vertiginous. It makes obvious what is perhaps always true in romance reading for women: that the reader identifies with both terms in the seduction scenario, but most of all with the process of seduction. In The Thorn Birds sequence the term in which subjectivity is most profoundly inscribed is the verb: seduces. It is both disappointing and a relief when the scenario reverts to a more conventional set of positions:
Go, run! Run, Meggie, get out of here with the scrap of pride he's left you!
Before she could reach the veranda he caught her, the impetus of her flight spinning her round against him.
It is as if the act itself, so long deferred, textually speaking, so long the subject of daydream within the narrative, stabilizes the scandalous encounter in terms of socially normative gendered activity and passivity.
There is a whole further generation of things to say about the rewriting of sexual difference in The Thorn Birds, but for the purposes of this argument it is perhaps enough to note that Meggie's 'liberated' 'bitchy' actress daughter makes, in the end, a typically feminine match with a macho German financier into whose hands Ralph delivers the stewardship of the Cleary family estates. The novel ends in the moment of European modernity with the union of Rainer and Justine. Twin 'stars' in public life, they also represent socially acceptable and highly polarized versions of late-twentieth-century masculinity and femininity in which tough public men are privately tender and ambitious, successful women are little girls at heart. There are fantasy elements in the 'European' part of the novel, but they are relatively superficial ones. And the seduction scenario between Rainer and Justine is definitely the right way round: 'A man seduces a woman.' Modernity turns out to be pretty old-fashioned after all.
The most daring interrogation of gendered subjectivity is located in the story of Meggie and Ralph and articulated through original fantasy. The English-speaking sub-continent, New Zealand and Australia, before World War II, and especially its idealized rural locations, Drogheda and Matlock Island, stand in as the 'archaic' and 'primitive' setting for the origins of modern sexuality and difference. They work in this way historically for the Australian reader, just as the pre-Civil-War American South does for the American reader, or early nineteenth-century Yorkshire for the British reader. But for the 'foreign' reader—and The Thorn Birds is written with an international reading market in mind—the setting is doubly displaced and mythologized through distance and history. It is as if, to paraphrase John Locke's famous colonial metaphor about America, 'In the beginning, all the world was down under.'
Myths of origin need actors as well as settings. The Thorn Birds does not revise biblical wisdom in this respect; transgression and sexuality are set in motion by Fee's adulterous, cross-racial affair with the half-Maori Pakeha. And I must admit, dear reader, that I have been an unreliable narrator and have held back a crucial piece of information from the text so that it can round out my argument. When Fee and Meggie confess their transgressions to each other, Fee lets slip an important piece of information.
I have a trace of Maori blood in me, but Frank's father was half Maori. It showed in Frank because he got it from both of us. Oh, but I loved that man! Perhaps it was the call of our blood…. He was everything Paddy wasn't—cultured, sophisticated, very charming, I loved him to the point of madness….
How does this 'trace' of 'Maori blood'—McCullough, like Freud, chooses a racist definition of race—work to explain an heredity of transgression in the text? In the first place the inscription of sexual difference at any historical moment not only requires an 'original' myth of a primal scene, it frequently takes on a third term of social difference and prohibition. This acts as defence, perhaps, against the scandal of the child watching the scene of its own origins or, in castration and seduction fantasy, the scandal of sexual difference itself. In any case, it is interesting that in modern Western myth this social difference frequently takes both a racial and specular form, projecting and displacing sexual taboo and illicit desire into cultural taboo and hierarchy. In The Thorn Birds, racial and religious taboo serve to express the transgressive and asocial character of original fantasy, just as class, race and symbolic incest do in Wuthering Heights. Although the men in these texts may threaten social coherence by their 'hybrid' nature and their deceptive veneer of civilization, it often turns out to be the 'savage' nature and original taint of the women who love them that are most profoundly disruptive. It is Cathy, not Heathcliff, who stands most absolutely outside the social, knocking at the window in vain. In these texts written by and for women, women nevertheless end up responsible for the scandalous origins of sexuality and difference. The Thorn Birds makes this point quite explicitly, adding Fee's own drop of 'primitivism' as a gratuitous racialist confirmation. These two anarchic women are contained in the narrative by the chosen role as mothers and matriarchs. Kept on the plantation, they are not allowed to affect the modern resolution of sexual difference and invade the public sphere. '… where do we go wrong?' Meggie asks Mum, 'In being born,' Fee replies.
The second half of the novel disappoints in terms of its normalization of sexual difference, rather like the last section of Wuthering Heights. But the really worrying elements of the European portions of the narrative reside in their overt politics. I have said very little about the novel's lengthy and interesting treatment of the Catholic church and the priesthood, a treatment which was in dialogue, no doubt, with elements of the reformist debates within the Catholicism in the seventies. Although the author takes a liberal Catholic line on the chastity of priests, the rest of her views on the church are anything but progressive. Despite acknowledging its economic opportunism and political infighting, the novel is largely uncritical of the church's international influence. Indeed, it openly defends the Vatican's record in relation to fascism and endorses its steadfast opposition to revolution. When Meggie and Ralph's son Dane becomes the perfect priest, he goes on holiday to Greece where his visit is shadowed by a threatening crowd which is 'milling' and 'chanting' in support of 'Pap-an-dreo.'
Although the story contains a rags-to-riches element, the origins and morality of wealth are never questioned. Rainer's rise to fortune and power endow him, in the novel, with wholly admirable and desirable qualities. With Ralph and Dane dead, he becomes the secular inheritor of the power which the church held earlier in the narrative. Fantasies of wealth and power find a lot of scope in family sagas, where they intersect with and support the original fantasies which are represented there. Like Lace, Dallas or Dynasty, The Thorn Birds masks the origins of wealth, naturalizing and valorizing it even as it exposes and, up to a certain point, reflects upon the nature of social myth and psychic fantasy about the origins of sexuality and sexual difference. It is this appropriation of fantasy, not fantasy itself, that is implicitly dangerous.
Reading The Thorn Birds should warn us away from those half-baked notions embedded in certain concepts of 'post-modern' culture and 'post-feminism' which see the disruption of subjectivity and sexual difference as an act which has a radical autonomy of its own and a power to disrupt hierarchies beyond it. The Thorn Birds is a powerful and ultimately reactionary read. In its unashamed right-wing bias the text assumes that its millions of women readers have become progressively reflective about sexuality, but remain conservative, uninterested and unreflective in their thinking about other political and social concerns. Indeed, to return to my initial analysis of the pleasure of reading Gone with the Wind, the reactionary political and social setting secure, in some fashion, a privileged space where the most disruptive female fantasy can be 'safely' indulged.
If we ask why women read and watch so much popular romance, the answers seem at one level mundane and banal. Still excluded in major ways from power (if not labour) in the public sphere, where male fantasy takes on myriad discursive forms, romance narrative can constitute one of women's few entries to the public articulation and social exploration of psychic life. It is wrong to imply, as many studies of romance reading seem to, that fantasizing is a female specialty. On the contrary fantasy is, as Freud's work suggests, a crucial part of our constitution as human subjects. It is neither the contents of original fantasies nor even necessarily the position from which we imagine them that can, or ought, to be stigmatized. Rather, it is consciousness of the insistent nature of those fantasies for men and women and the historically specific forms of their elaboration that need to be opened up. Our priority ought be an analysis of the progressive or reactionary politics of the narratives to which they can become bound in popular expression. Those narratives—which of course include issues around sexual difference as well as around race, class and the politics of power generally—can be changed.
Jane Yolen (review date 26 April 1987)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 475
SOURCE: "Vacant Lives in Great Big Australia," in The New York Times Book Review, April 26, 1987, p. 15.
[Below, Yolen offers an unfavorable review of The Ladies of Missalonghi.]
Colleen McCullough's new novel, The Ladies of Missalonghi makes the mistake of confusing the inevitability of fairy-tale logic with predictability, of confusing the accuracy of an account with textbook prose.
The short novel has fairy-tale antecedents—most notably Cinderella—visible in the heroine, Missy Wright, a girl whose real beauty is hidden behind a wardrobe of brown dresses and whose patrimony has been stolen from her by her wicked cousins. There is a handsome rich man, as close to a prince as Australia could produce, who chooses Missy above all the others. And a fairy godmother in the form of a beautiful, glowing woman named Una, who is ultimately revealed as an angel.
The book tries hard to portray Australia and the Australian mind accurately in the years just before World War I with occasional outbursts of leaden prose: "That they acquiesced so tamely to a regimen and a code inflicted upon them by people who had no idea of the loneliness, the bitter suffering of genteel poverty, was no evidence of lack of spirit or lack of courage. Simply, they were born and lived in a time before the great wars completed the industrial revolution, when paid work and its train of comforts were a treason to their concepts of life, of family, of femininity." A perfectly acceptable sentence for a history or sociology text, but hardly the kind of prose that sings in fiction.
In fact, the studied, ornate, empty prose echoes the studied, ornate, empty life that so many of the women of the period suffered through. But it is lucky for the reader that The Ladies of Missalonghi is novella length, a quick 189 pages plus several undistinguished line drawings by Peter Chapman, for that prose would wear down even the most ardent readers of romantic fiction or Colleen McCullough's many fans.
In her previous novels, Ms. McCullough showed herself to be a wonderful storyteller, with a gift for breezy characterizations and tales that galloped across the pages of her books. In Tim or The Thorn Birds one would never come across a sentence like this: "Answering the lure of the valley, she crossed to the far side of Gordon Road and lifted her face to the kindly sky and swelled her nostrils to take in the heady tang of the bush." Swelled her nostrils? Yes, The Ladies of Missalonghi is meant to be, in part, a gentle, genteel parody of the romantic novels that Missy reads. But fairy tale, text-book, romance, and parody do not sit well side by side. The Ladies of Missalonghi is a strange, silly bit of froth that tries to straddle too many genres and ends up simply being annoying.
Sybil Steinberg (essay date 14 September 1990)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2025
SOURCE: "Colleen McCullough: The Indefatigable Author Has Embarked on a Five-Volume Series Set in Ancient Rome," in Publishers Weekly, September 14, 1990, pp. 109-10.
[In the following essay, Steinberg reports on McCullough's Roman history series and offers insight into the author's motivations for writing it.]
To meet with Colleen McCullough one generally must take a 13-hour nonstop flight from Los Angeles to New Zealand, then board another plane to Norfolk Island, in the South Pacific Ocean, a three-by-five-mile bit of land that she calls "a remote speck at the end of the world." Small wonder, then, that PW sought out the author at the recent ABA in Las Vegas. The reason was not contiguity alone: McCullough's name will be much bandied about this fall, as Morrow issues the first of her five-volume series of historical novels set in the waning days of the Roman Republic. The First Man in Rome: Marius would be an achievement on any terms; running 896 pages, with copious notes, a chatty glossary, maps and illustrations all provided by the author, it is yet another departure for the writer who made her name with The Thorn Birds and has surprised her readers each time out with a novel quite different from the one before.
As advance readers of The First Man in Rome have discovered, it is not frivolous stuff. Exhaustively researched for historical accuracy and humanized through a plethora of small, telling details that bring Roman politics and society vividly to life, this is a complex story that requires respectful attention. Although she pronounces the book "not daunting for your average novel reader," McCullough admits that "a certain kind of Thorn Bird fan won't hack it." On the other hand, she crows, "at least I've written something that men won't be ashamed to be caught reading on the subway."
Nor does she feel that readers will be put off by the characters' cumbersome names, with their similar or identical praenomens and strings of cognomens. "Latin is the major root of out English language," McCullough says firmly. "Metullus is easier to pronounce than Raskolnikov." As for such monikers as Quintus Caecilius Metullus Numidicus and Quintus Lutatius Catulus Caesar, two characters prominent in the first book, McCullough is confident that their sharply delineated personalities will make them spring off the page.
McCullough has never been shy of taking chances. Having dreamed about this saga for 30 years and having researched for a decade, she is confident that it will find an audience commensurate with its 300,000 prepublication printing and status as a Book of the Month Club selection. So determined was she to do these books that she left Harper & Row, her longtime publisher, because of its reluctance to guarantee the entire five-book series.
Her fascination with the Roman Republic dates back to her college years in Australia. According to McCullough, she and her five best friends—all boys—had been "brilliant in high school, and when we got to first-year university we were bored dry. We'd all been science-streamed so we decided we'd embark on a program of culture. Amongst other things, we read the Penguin translations of the Greek and Roman classics. I always wanted to read them again, and after Thorn Birds I did. I came to the letters and speeches of Cicero and the Commentaries of Julius Caesar. And I was fascinated." McCullough pronounces the last word portentously, emphasizing each syllable. She lights another of a chain of cigarettes, smooths her hair, pulled back in a no-nonsense bun.
"One glaring fact hit me square between the eyes. For the first and last time in the history of the world until very recently, these were words written by the men who ran the joint. Not some historian scribbling away after the fact. I was awed! Reading Cicero's letters as he wavers between loyalty to Pompey and the temptation to turn to Caesar, and his glancing references to Cleopatra—whom he loathed—I suddenly saw a world that I wanted to enter as a novelist, desperately. At no other time in the history of the world did so many truly intelligent and talented men walk across a political stage at one time. And the Roman Republic gave us our law, our political systems, our engineering—so much! I thought, it's germane, it's relevant to modern living."
Determined to render the era with exactitude, McCullough assembled in her home on Norfolk Island "the best private library on Republican Rome in private hands anywhere in the world." She enlisted the aid of a full-time researcher, Sheelah Hidden, who was fluent in four languages and who interviewed experts in many countries. Hidden also located portrait busts of the characters, so that McCullough, who had decided that she was "fed up with people thinking that Cleopatra looked like Elizabeth Taylor," could draw the novel's illustrations.
"I did all this research and I put two million words on paper and of course, being me, I drafted it. Three drafts. This was all nonfiction preparation for the book—a monograph of each of the major characters. Next, I got continuous computer paper, and I made a chronological list of every single thing that happened. I did all that before I started writing the first volume. And I did it for the lot; it is done!"
To her surprise, however, Harper & Row was less than eager for the enormous project. "Fred [Mason, her agent] and I couldn't get a contract out of them. They dickered. Money was never at the root of it because we weren't asking for a lot of money. This hemming and hawing went on for six months."
McCullough finally wrote out a precis of each of the five books she contemplated: Marius, Sulla, Pompey the Great, Caesar, Augustus—and sent it to Harper along with a monograph on Cleopatra, so that they would see "how important the women in the books were going to be." The upshot was that Harper pressed her to abandon the first two books and start directly with the events involving Pompey. "When they informed me of this I was 55,000 words into Marius. I was crushed," McCullough intones dolefully. Though she is recalling a bad time, she is also indulging the raconteur's gift of spinning out a tale.
Convinced that the series should appear as planned, that "in order to understand what happened to the Roman Republic, one must start with Marius," McCullough recalls her anger at Harper's unwillingness to go along with the plan. "A creative artist can't work in that kind of atmosphere. You can't work for a publisher who doesn't want you. Money has never mattered to me, but by God, my work does!"
It was at this point that Carolyn Reidy, president of Avon, which had published all of McCullough's works in paperback, ventured to Norfolk Island to urge the author not to cut Avon out of reprint rights for the projected saga. McCullough, who had always enjoyed working with Reidy, sensed the time was ripe to jump ship to Morrow, and stipulated that Reidy edit all five books. She now professes herself "hugely pleased" at the arrangement.
Quite a lot about McCullough is outsize: her big, comfortable frame, clothed in a muumuu and absent of feminine adornment; her booming, uninhibited laugh; her open friendliness and large, unrestrained smile; her storytelling, delivered with gusto; her ego. But if she doesn't suffer for undue modesty, she is matter-of-fact about her accomplishments.
Born in Australia's outback, she says that she and her brother, who died 25 years ago, were both gifted children of a mean-spirited father and a mother determined to guarantee her children's education: McCullough attended Holy Cross College and the University of Sydney. Possessing what she calls "amazing mathematic and artistic and scientific gifts," as a child of the Depression McCullough decided to opt for security and "do science." An allergy to soap kept her from being a surgeon ("I couldn't scrub, you see"), so she became a medical scientist. Having earned an appointment at Yale as a research assistant in the department of neurophysiology, she arrived in New Haven on April Fools' Day 1967. She loved her job but was very poor, so she decided to write a novel at night to earn extra money. The result was Tim, "my bucket of tears book."
McCullough sent Tim to agent Freida Fishbein, then "a very ancient lady of 87, who placed the novel with Harper & Row. Fishbein had died by the time McCullough started The Thorn Birds, which was "very loosely based" on her family's history in Australia, so she herself delivered the manuscript to editor Ann Harris at Harper. "It was about four times the length of Tim, which had earned me $50,000. I thought, with any luck, maybe it would earn me four times that amount."
McCullough then went off to England, where she was due to start nurse's training at London's ancient St. Bartholomew's Hospital, to get background for the hospital novel she was "desperate" to write. "I didn't tell them I wrote books, of course. I was looking forward to some really hard physical labor because I am a workhorse."
Training was due to start on April 11, 1977. On February 2, The Thorn Birds made a record sale in paperback auction, and, McCullough recalls, "I hit the headlines everywhere. My cover was sprung. It was manifestly impossible that I go on to nursing. Can you imagine: a millionairess author carrying a bedpan!"
Other major changes in her lifestyle soon proved necessary. "When I became rich and famous, life became very complicated. It was unsafe for me to live on my own on any major landmass; you become prey to all sorts of nuts and bolts in the community." Hearing about tiny Norfolk Island, with its controlled population, she applied to live there. And, soon after, at the age of 46, married an island native, Ric Robinson, a descendant not only of one of the Bounty mutineers (as are many of the island's residents) but also of a Samoan princess and Isaac Newton.
Robinson, who is some years her junior, is "a colonial aristocrat in every way," according to McCullough a planter of the kentia palm ("it's the very hardy plant you see in all the hotel foyers"), Robinson modeled a reconstructed toga for his wife, providing irrefutable evidence that Romans did not sport underwear when wearing the garment. "It would have been impossible to pee in a toga if you wore anything underneath, you see. There's your left arm, weighted down by an immensity of toga: it's 16' by 9'. You can't possibly lower that hand …" McCullough rises from our table in a Las Vegas coffee shop, pantomimes the situation. PW is convinced.
On Norfolk Island, McCullough wrote Indecent Obsession, which she calls "my whodunit"; Creed for the Third Millennium, "my pessimistic novel of the future"; and the novella Ladies of Missalonghi, "my fairy tale."
The Roman series is her "bash at the historical novel." Happily embarked on the second volume, she is confident that she will produce the books at the rate of one a year. "The first one's always the hardest, and I got it out in less than a year, from go to whoa. It's not hard to do if you're well organized and well ordered. I'm not short of words. Maybe it's my scientific training, but my feeling is that for a writer, words are tools.
"Nobody expects a neurosurgeon to lay down his tools. I'm good with my tools. I don't mislay them. I'm a fluent writer. I do multiple drafts. Once I start, I'm consumed to finish. I work at a pace a lot of writers couldn't cope with."
McCullough slows her rapid-fire recital. She smiles broadly. "I'm such a nitpicker. I love the little details. If you're going to make it sing, it's the little details that will do it. I found one small detail in Caesar's Commentaries. Before a major battle, all the men sit down and make their wills. That's it, you see; that sort of detail makes it a world, and makes the world very real." To McCullough, writing feverishly on her remote island, that world is very real indeed.
James Idema (review date 7 October 1990)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 698
SOURCE: "Vast Roman Saga: Colleen McCullough Tackles Marius and Sulla," in Chicago Tribune Books, October 7, 1990, p. 3.
[In the following review, Idema offers a generally favorable assessment of The First Man in Rome, though noting its daunting length and large cast of characters with unfamiliar Latin names.]
At the beginning of the last century of the Roman Republic, which was already deteriorating under pressures of economic stress and class conflict, two leaders emerged whose friendship helped preserve the republic for a time and whose rivalry hastened its subsequent collapse.
Colleen McCullough's prodigious novel, first in a series, is concerned with the 11 years of friendship, years during which the relentless drive for supreme political power by Gaius Marius, a war hero who had transcended his humble origins, was abetted by his confidant, Lucius Comelius Sulla, a brilliant and corrupt aristocrat. Although at the close of The First Man in Rome the two still seem inseparable, there have been enough hints of unease in the late pages of the novel to suggest, even to the historically naive, the doom of their relationship and what that entails for the republic.
That process—the disintegration of the ancient regime and the establishment of the Roman Empire—is the background of Colleen McCullough's proposed saga. The next novel, she tells us in an author's note, is tentatively titled The Grass Crown. How many after that? She doesn't say. How many pages in all? The mind boggles.
Sheer bulk is what inevitably first impresses a reader encountering this book, and one surely can be forgiven for wondering how he or she is ever going to get through it. Nor is one reassured, flipping pages, to note the densely labeled maps and diagrams and the 111-page general glossary and pronunciation guide.
Indeed, The First Man in Rome is not an easy book to get through, unlike The Thorn Birds, McCullough's immensely popular novel about Australia. But the story is both entertaining and compelling—persevering readers will want to pursue the next book to discover the fate of Marius, the title character—and the novelist renders the volatile political and social fabric of ancient Rome convincingly. (Politics were even dirtier in 110 B.C. than they are in 1990 A.D., and a lot bloodier.)
Several of the major characters in McCullough's enormous cast—the women in particular—come through as real humans facing real and recognizable problems. Sulla's wife, Julilla, is especially sympathetic. Another attractive character is Publius Rutilius Rufus, a wise old friend of the First Man, whose long letters from Rome to Marius on the battlefields are diverting as well as functional to the plot.
But McCullough bludgeons us with her scholarship. In a somewhat defiant tone, she reports in the author's note that she has "gone to the ancient sources" and done her own research. She has executed all the maps and drawings herself, including the portraits of leading characters, and she directs readers who might be skeptical about historical details to consult the glossary, which she also wrote. Trust her, she implies.
Actually, the glossary is a most worthwhile pursuit in itself. Not only is it full of appealing facts, but it is also written in amusing, accessible prose—a good deal more user-friendly than the main text. Here one will find everything from the composition of the Roman Senate to how the toga is properly draped to what Gaius Julius Caesar's dining room looked like.
But the book as a whole is burdened with excessive information, as though in striving for verisimilitude the author felt compelled to empty her files—and the threads of the story frequently become entangled in needless digressions.
Easily the most troublesome element of the text, however, is the use of proper Latin names. Most often they are triple names, sometimes quadruple, and with an epic cast of characters the effect is at first disconcerting, very soon numbing. To keep track of them requires extreme vigilance, because before long, with their repetitive meter, they begin to register like limericks.
The author explains in a special not why custom dictated this elaborate form of address among citizens of the republic but not why it must be imposed on her readers.
Don G. Campbell (review date 28 October 1990)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1260
SOURCE: "McCullough's Roman à Clef," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 28, 1990, p. 11.
[In the following review, Campbell praises The First Man in Rome as "an absolutely absorbing story" that is well-researched and well-told.]
In at least one respect the parallel is discomfiting: a national political leadership in which great wealth is essential to achieve power. But it's not Washington, D.C., 1990, where dug-in incumbents defy political unknowns with lean pocketbooks to unseat them. It is, instead, the city-state of Rome in 110 BC, and the republic that has endured for more than 300 years has become fat, corrupt and inept, and is beginning to unravel faster than a 39-cent pair of socks.
This is the critical juncture that novelist Colleen McCullough—she, primarily, of the enormously popular The Thorn Birds—has chosen as the take-off point for her awesome and epic new work, The First Man in Rome. And, for her protagonist, she has wisely zeroed in on a most unusual man living in a most unusual time frame: Gaius Marius, tremendously gifted both militarily and organizationally and, alas, doomed in spite of his wealth to second-rate political status.
For it is not enough in this flaccid period of the Republic to have vote-buying and favor-granting wealth, alone. Inbred and obsessed with blood lineage, the path to the senate and, ultimately, to the post of consul, also requires an impeccable pedigree. Even though Marius, wealthy through land holdings and mining interests, has attained a seat in the senate through powerful friends, it is pretty well the end of the political line for a man sneeringly dismissed by his enemies as "an Italian hayseed with no Greek."
This is a complex and critical period in Roman history. In the previous century, beginning in about 264 BC, the city-state has become the undisputed military and political leader of the civilized world. But its reach is exceeding its grasp and it is saddled with generals who can't general and a citizen-army (one must be a landholder to serve) that has become disillusioned and burned out. Politicians buy their way to the revolving post of consul only as a stepping stone to a post consul appointment to the post of governor of a province that, at their leisure, they can then ravage and loot without restraint.
Fittingly, McCullough, in referring to Marius as The First Man in Rome, is labeling him, also, as Rome's first "New Man"—a new breed rising to prominence in spite of his lineage and, in effect, opening up the era of one-man rule characterizing the Roman Empire that would follow on the heels of the republic. For Marius, though, nothing would have been possible without the intervention of the powerful Gaius Julius Caesar Nepos, father of the Julius Caesar whose name has become synonymous with the Roman Empire, and whose bloodline is flawless.
But flawless bloodline, or not, Caesar is not wealthy enough to assure both of his sons the gold needed to climb the political ladder and, at the same time, provide his two daughters with handsome dowries. It is the vital quid pro quo of Marius' life—his wealth to assure Caesar the inheritance he needs, and in exchange, Caesar's 18-year-old daughter, Julia, as Marius' wife. (Never mind that the 48-year-old Marius has a wife of 20 years—divorce in Rome in 110 BC was a simple matter of the husband signing a parchment of divorcement.) It is, perhaps surprisingly, a most harmonious marriage in addition to giving Marius the entree he needs.
Firmly established as the consul, Marius quickly resolves the African revolt headed by Jugurtha, King of Numidia and becomes the instant darling of Rome to the point where he is reelected to the post of consul in absentia, which, at the time, was without precedent.
This six-time consul is a remarkable man, surrounded by other remarkable men—many of them venal, cowardly and self-seeking, but others, such as Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Marius' chief aide in both the African and German campaigns, fully as complex and as talented as the consul himself.
Sulla is a brooding and curious man: Although with an untainted blood-line, he was as shut out of Roman political affairs by his poverty as Marius himself had been by his humble birth. Most of his early life has been spent on the low side of the social scale—debauchery and blatant misconduct with members of both sexes for openers. How Sulla resolves his shortcoming (the necessary wealth for ascendancy) is vastly different from Marius' solution and up a far darker path. And yet, as different in temperament and morality as they are, these two men, both born leaders, fit together like a hand in a well-oiled glove.
Latin purists may quarrel with some of McCullough's use of phrases that, admittedly, sometimes clang on the ear as anachronisms. We can accept that, in one form or another, Latin had words literally translating as "a pimp and a pansy"—not to mention any number of bodily functions—for instance, but some of the expletives in particular have more of the ring of the language heard in a 20th-Century truck stop than in a patrician household in Rome in 110 BC.
Let's face it, too: The First Man in Rome, is, far and away, the story of the men who shaped Rome's destiny in an age where women were chattel (bought, sold, traded, given away in marriage without question); most of the women emerge two-dimensionally. In all fairness, though, McCullough's treatment of the women foremost in both the life of Marius (Julia, Gaius Julius Caesar Nepos' eldest daughter) and of Sulla (Julilla, Julia's younger sister) are fleshed out more richly. Julia is strong-willed; Julilla, knowing full well that there is something drastically wrong in her relationship with her husband, is weak and tragedy-prone—conditions that have no chronological boundaries.
This is an absolutely absorbing story—not simply of the military and political intrigues that went into the final days of the Republic but also of what it was like to live, love and survive at this pivotal point in our civilization. McCullough's research is mind-boggling (the illustrations and maps are by her, too), but this is pretty dry stuff by itself. It takes a master story teller to weave this sort of tapestry into a 900-plus-page novel that is every bit as hard to put down as it is to pick up.
Much has been made of the mastery of the novelist who can condense an unforgettable story into a few pages (Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage takes just 250 pages); too little has been said about the skill that goes into a sprawling story almost four times that length without the reader's interest flagging at any point.
Nothing in life is free, though, and The First Man in Rome requires some concentration, and back-tracking, by the thoughtful reader. Geographic names, for instance, are confusing, and while McCullough's plentiful maps are helpful, it is still touchy business; for instance, trying to relate Numidia Occidentis to our 20th-Century understanding of North Africa's coastline.
Readers who delighted, in the late Mary Renault's novels built around ancient Greece will be equally enchanted by The First Man in Rome, and by McCullough's promise that it is but one of several she plans on the waning days of the Roman Republic and the birth of the Empire. No less delightful, too, is the author's 123-page glossary with absolutely fascinating trivia in it. The Roman toga measured 15 feet wide and more than 7 feet long and made the wearing of underwear, and certain biological functions, logistic impossibilities.
Carol E. Rinzler (review date 4 November 1990)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 928
SOURCE: "Roman Soap," in The New York Times Book Review, November 4, 1990, p. 19.
[In the following review, Rinzler commends McCullough's research for The First Man in Rome but faults the novel for excessive length and slow plot development.]
When I finally get around to writing the history of 20th-century literature, I plan to devote a chapter to the withering away of the story, the virtual disappearance of the literate page-turner that Wharton, O'Hara, Nabokov and Cheever used to toss off every few years.
The pickings aren't much fatter if you're willing to settle for novels merely zippy enough to see you through a bout with the flu. Judith Krantz and Dominick Dunne are beginning to tire. Scott Turow and Jonathan Kellerman don't write fast enough to fill the shelves that are emptied of new Stouts and Creaseys. Because the historical novel is in a similar state of disarray, flu sufferers and others in need of diversion have eagerly awaited Colleen McCullough's new meganovel. Alas, only accomplished potboiler skimmers are likely to have much fun with The First Man in Rome.
Based loosely on historical events, the new novel, unlike The Thorn Birds, Ms. McCullough's huge 1977 success, spans only a decade (110 to 100 B.C.); this is sufficient time, however, for the book's mostly upper-crust Romans to undergo sufficient change (love, hate, birth, death, triumph, tragedy and so forth) to hold the reader—at least through the sections that deal with private Romans rather than public Rome.
The book revolves around its eponymous hero, Gaius Marius—Rome's ablest general, a man destined to be six times a consul—and his wife, Julia, a grave, beautiful and steady aristocrat who makes a love match of a marriage arranged by her father for money. (Julia also turns out to be the aunt of Julius Caesar, who appears as a baby at the end of the novel. Presumably we will see more of him; according to an author's note, this book is only the first in a projected series.)
Ms. McCullough is terrific when she's writing about women. All of her female characters quiver with life; a patrician woman who falls in love with a man who spurns her; another who is starved by her brother until she submits to marriage with a man she hates; a third who finds her vocation as that Roman rarity, a working mother. A handful of Ms. McCullough's legion of men are also successful characters, notably Lucius Cornelius Sulla. When we meet him he is a bisexual, libertine patrician with no money, living off two women in a ménage à trois. But the sheer overpopulation of the male cast of characters fogs them with a perplexing sameness, at least if you don't accord commercial fiction the same attention you pay Plutarch. (Let's see, was that Marcus Livius Drusus who threw his political support to Marius 300 pages ago, or was it Marcus Aemilius Scaurus?)
The plot moves along smartly when there's a woman on stage and Ms. McCullough is writing about love, emotion or sex (the last quite tame). What slows the book down are the arid stretches, making up roughly half of its length, that deal with politics and military campaigns. Whenever Marius is with Julia, The First Man in Rome is utterly engaging; when he goes off to war or the Forum, cleaning you closets is a more exciting alternative. Sustaining even such momentum as this ambitious novel somehow attains is as difficult for Ms. McCullough as it would be for most. The last hundred-odd pages, trailing off into a weak and confusing ending, suggest that she was simply exhausted.
Adding to the boredom factor is the frequent awkwardness of Ms. McCullough's prose. Forget the constant lapses of grammar and diction. What makes The First Man in Rome eminently put-downable is the author's determination to shoehorn in as much of her research as possible, marring the book with bulky, obese passages. To choose just one:
"When Saturninus introduced his second agrarian law, the clause stipulating an oath burst upon the Forum like a clap of thunder; not a bolt of Jovian lightning, rather the cataclysmic rumble of the old gods, the real gods, the faceless gods, the numina. Not only was an oath required of every senator, but instead of the customary swearing in the temple of Saturn, Saturninus's law required that the oath be taken under the open sky in the roofless temple of Semo Sancus Dius Fidius on the lower Quirinal, where the faceless god without a mythology had only a statue of Gaia Caecllia—wife of King Tarquinius Priscus of old Rome—to humanize his dwelling." (Bet you didn't get through that on the first try.)
Despite such meanderings, Ms. McCullough requires 95 pages at the conclusion of the novel to display still more of her research in the form of a glossary. I rather enjoyed this lagniappe, as well as the several maps the author provides, although her drawings of the characters, interspersed among the chapters, are amateurish.
Perhaps if Ms. McCullough had written a longer glossary and a shorter novel she might have avoided the odd and unsatisfying alternation of gripping sections with others that make one's eyes glaze over. Could she have lingered so long with the military and political material as a play for a larger male audience than she had with The Thorn Birds? Whatever the answer, it would have been a great help if only the novel had been rounded out to an even 900 pages with one more brief appendix: a list of the pages the story was on.
Gwen Morris (essay date Spring 1991)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3811
SOURCE: "An Australian Ingredient in American Soap: The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 24, No. 4, Spring, 1991, pp. 59-69.
[In the following essay, Morris identifies conventional American literary themes in The Thorn Birds and considers McCullough's treatment of social, racial, and gender issues as a source of the novel's popularity in the United States.]
The Australian cartoonist Horner probably summed up the views of many Australians when he suggested Colleen McCullough be given the Order of Super Suds (O.S.S.) in the New Year's Honors list "for introducing an Australian ingredient into American soap."
While this assessment of The Thorn Birds, particularly of the television miniseries, contains more than a grain of truth, the book cannot be dismissed so lightly. It has set records for sales and popularity. Published in 1977, over half a million hardback copies of the book had been sold by 1979. Avon paid $1.9 million for the paperback rights, at that time the highest price ever paid for paperback rights of a book. It was on the top of the American best-seller lists for six months. In 1983 it was made into a very popular television miniseries. By 1985, 10.5 million copies of the book had been sold, 750,000 of them in Australia and New Zealand. An examination of the content of the book, therefore, is highly likely to reveal useful data on American popular culture, as well as something about the Australian ingredient.
The Australian Ingredient
The most obvious Australian ingredient is the setting. There is also a secret Australian ingredient which may not be recognized by Americans.
The story is set first in a rural area of New Zealand, and then in Australia, on a sheep station, Drogheda, in the plains country of New South Wales. There are occasional forays into other parts of the world, such as Britain and Rome, but most of the action takes place in Australia. The plains are described as "all brown and grey, even the trees!" "horrible, fenceless and vast, without a trace of green." The nearest town is "on the very edge of the Back of Beyond, a last outpost in a steadily diminishing rainfall belt; not far away westward began two thousand miles of the Never Never, the desert land where it could not rain."
Although this country is something of a fiction, it would not appear out of place to many Americans. Despite the lack of cactus, the setting evokes images of the sweeping dry plains and desert of the American western. The producer of the television series of The Thorn Birds said "We looked into shooting it on authentic Australian locations, but there's nothing in New South Wales that we couldn't match right here [California's Simi Valley, a dry, hilly area north of Los Angeles]."
An American Soap
Colleen McCullough was born in Wellington in western New South Wales, Australia in 1937. Her father was an Ulster Orangman who had immigrated to Australia in the 1920s. She had a link to New Zealand through her mother who was a New Zealander of Irish Catholic and Maori ancestry. In 1967 she went to the United States. She therefore had almost ten years' experience of American life to draw on when she wrote The Thorn Birds.
McCullough says that she has no literary pretensions. It pleases her to think that "Joe the Garbage Man" can read her books. When she decided to write The Thorn Birds she made a hard-headed decision to appeal to popular taste, particularly American popular taste, because that was where the money lay. She has described how she came to write The Thorn Birds:
And I suppose I was 32 or 33, single, living on my own because I hated—until I met my husband—living with anyone, when I looked at my pay cheque and thought 'you are going to be a 70-year-old spinster in a cold-water, walk-up flat with one 60 watt light bulb.' So I turned professional writer.
Having already written hundreds of books—I burnt them all except one—I turned professional writer for the money. I didn't set out to be a best-seller because I didn't want to be a best-seller. I just wanted to earn a nice little sum of pocketmoney from writing.
I thought I'd achieved that. Tim earned me $50,000 which was lovely. I thought Thorn Birds was three times as long so I'd probably earn $150,000 for that. That'll do fine. Of course, it didn't work out that way.
The three principal characters in The Thorn Birds are aristocratic. They are commonly encountered in the nineteenth century "sentimental novel," in modern light romances and soap operas. Father Ralph de Bricassart is a direct descendant of a baron in the court of William the Conqueror. Meggie Cleary and her mother, Fiona (Fee) are aristocratic by colonial standards, being descended from one of the first settlers of New Zealand, an escaped Australian convict named Armstrong who fathered "a brood of thirteen handsome half-Polynesian children." Through money and the best boarding schools, a new line of colonial aristocracy was formed.
The marriage of a pioneer to a beautiful Indian "princess" is a common American literary device. For some European Americans, having an Indian female ancestor is a matter of prestige. The marriage of a white woman to an Indian male, however, is not acceptable. By setting the first part of the book in New Zealand McCullough was able not only to draw on her own family history but to include a Maori equivalent of an Indian princess in the story. It is doubtful if a black Australian aboriginal female ancestor would be acceptable to the popular American imagination.
Meggie's father, Paddy, though "a penniless immigrant from the wrong side of the Pale," is a common character type of the American western from the nineteenth century until the present. He is "a small man, all steel and springs in build, legs bowed from a lifetime among horses, arms elongated from years shearing sheep;… His eyes were bright blue, crinkled up into a permanent squint like a sailor's from gazing into the far distance … His temper was fiery and he had killed a man once." Fee is forced to marry Paddy when her cultured, half-Maori, but married lover, the father of her child, refuses to consider divorce. As breadwinner and father of a large family, Paddy plays an essential supporting role in the book.
The Thorn Birds is long, spanning three generations from 1915 to 1969. The action and the language are often very melodramatic. The actors live a life remote from that of the book's readers. These are some of the ingredients of American soap.
A Sermon of Afflictions
The reason for the title of The Thorn Birds is explained in a note at the beginning of the book. The thorn bird spends its life looking for a thorn tree. Having succeeded in its search it impales itself "upon the longest, sharpest spine" and in death sings "One superlative song. Existence the price…. For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain." This is almost an ornithological Crucifixion: death is sought willingly by an actor who is without guilt. As the story develops in The Thorn Birds, however, some of the actors are very guilty indeed. They gain happiness through sin. Then they (or someone they love) die. For these characters it is more accurate to say that the message of the book is the biblical statement that "the wages of sin is death." Fee pays for Frank, the son of her Maori lover, by his ruin, her husband's death, and finally her own. The death of Ralph's child, Dane is what Meggie receives for her sins. When he learns not only that he has a son (Dane), but that Dane has died, Ralph pays the price of his own death for his love of Meggie.
McCullough is very aware of the American feeling of national guilt:
I've never understood why Americans belabour themselves with guilt; why a generation that had nothing to do with slavery, and worked so terribly hard to integrate, blames itself so much for the sins of its ancestors.
The Thorn Birds is a modern sermon of afflictions, a Puritan jeremiad. The afflictions of American life are proof that the people have broken their covenant with God. By reciting the sins of the people some of the guilt can be relieved.
The Affliction of Race
Frank, the illegitimate son of Fiona and her half-Maori lover, is described as a dark and unstable force. He has a "vicious streak," there is something "wild and desperate" about him. He has an "alien" face, "black, black eyes" and "a dark heart, a spirit lacking inner light." His Maori "blood" is inescapable. His mother, says,
I have a trace of Maori blood in me, but Frank's father was half Maori. It showed in Frank because he got it from both of us. Oh, but I loved that man! Perhaps it was the call of our blood, I don't know!
He has some good traits. He helps his mother with the housework and he is the only one who hugs Meggie when she is a child, but he refuses to conform to family expectations. In popular American novels and films miscegenation almost always results in death, either of the alien wife, (rarely the husband) or of the resulting child or both. Frank must pay for Fee's sin. He leaves the family, kills a man, spends many years in jail and returns "a ruined man."
The Afflictions of Gender
McCullough says that the she set out in the book to illustrate "the martyr type of woman." The women are slaves to their men, to their children and to housework. The sons are forbidden to help.
The women are capable of doing "men's work"—Meggie is a good stockman, and Fee successfully manages the property after Paddy dies—but they see themselves as weak. Meggie says to her husband: "Oh Luke! I know I'm young and strong, but I'm a woman! I can't take the sort of physical punishment you can." Meggie sums up her attitude to life,
I'm just an ordinary sort of woman: I'm not ambitious or intelligent, or well educated … All I want is a husband, children, my own home. And a bit of love from someone.
Most of the men are also shown as martyrs. They are crippled by their inability to show emotion, by their ambitions to succeed in the world, or by both. McCullough has defended her depiction of males in The Thorn Birds—"It's not that the men are weak but they're hamstrung, for some good reason." Meggie's husband, Luke, however, is the archetypal, male, chauvinist pig. He treats her abominably, finally leaving to go cane cutting with his mates. He is possibly based on McCullough's own father who she described as "very, very good-looking … who used his good looks … He was a bastard. Tight as a fish's bum."
Relations between men and women are seen as a constant battle for power. Women succeed through subterfuge. Both Fee and Meggie consider they had tricked their lovers by having a permanent part of them—their children.
The Afflictions of Nature
The land makes the Cleary family rich, but it exacts a price. It is sometimes an Australian "howling wilderness." Paddy is burnt to death in a bushfire. Stuart, one of Fee's favorite sons, is charged by a wild pig and dies of suffocation when it falls on him. The other Cleary men (there are six sons) never marry. The land has taken away their manhood:
After all, what could you expect from the men? Stuck out here as shy as kangas, never meeting the girls to boot … And besides, the land's demanding in a neutered way. It takes just about all they've got to give, because I don't think they have a great deal. In a physical sense, I mean.
The Afflictions of the City
McCullough uses two other types of description of the land which are common in American literature, that of land as the connection with a time of innocence; and land as farmland tamed to man's agrarian needs. In New Zealand, for example, McCullough describes "an undulating plain as green as the emerald in Fiona Cleary's engagement ring, dotted with thousands of creamy bundles close proximity revealed as sheep." And in Australia,
Life went on in the rhythmic, endless cycle of the land; the following summer the rains came, not monsoonal but a by-product of them, filling the creek and the tanks, succoring the thirsting grass roots, sponging away the stealthy dust.
The Clearys (especially Meggie) are often portrayed as drawing their strength from this innocent land. When Meggie returns home to the plains from tropical Queensland, she comes,
Back to brown and silver, back to dust, back to that wonderful purity and spareness North Queensland so lacked. No profligate growth here, no hastening of decay to make room for more; only a slow, wheeling inevitability like the constellations.
The city, however is a decadent place. Frank finds his ruin in the city. Paddy says of city people,
Down in the city they don't know how the other half lives, and they can afford the luxury of doting on their animals as if they were children. Out here it's different. You'll never see man, woman or child in need of help go ignored out here, yet in the city those same people who dote on their pets will completely ignore a cry of help from a human being. Fee looked up. 'He's right … We all have contempt for whatever there's too many of. Out here, it's sheep, but in the city it's people.'
The Afflictions of Comfort
The Clearys are successful in worldly terms but their lives are full of tragedy. Although they are Catholic, they have achieved success through adhering to the values of American Protestantism. They are models of Calvinist Christianity. Their success is achieved through hard work, frugality, education and discipline. They are not fat—"No one carried a pound of superfluous flesh, in spite of the vast quantities of starchy food. They expended every ounce they ate in work and play." They spend large amounts of time reading and although they are poor, have several shelves of books behind the kitchen table. The children are strictly disciplined by their father and are sent to school, despite the cruelty of the teachers. The family goes to church regularly. Fiona gave up the Church of England for Paddy, but misses "the little touches" … like grace before meals and prayers before bed, an everyday holiness.
The "calvinistic, stoic upbringing" of the Clearys is contrasted with that of Meggie's schoolfriend, Teresa, whose family is Italian and very indulgent towards the children. Paddy distrusts Teresa's family and when he finds lice in Meg's hair, he horsewhips Teresa's father. After this, Meggie receives for her birthday the willow pattern tea set, like Teresa's, which she had coveted—another use of the "thorn bird" metaphor. She receives a gift at the price of losing a friend. As Ralph says, patting the dashboard of his new Daimler, "Nothing is given without a disadvantage in it." Success brings with it affliction.
Catholics are presented as comfort-loving and worldly, easily-swayed by temptation, and in the case of the nuns at the school attended by the Clearys, as sadistic. They also contrast strongly with the strict Cleary upbringing and system of morals.
McCullough believes in achievement through hard work and appears to discount good fortune as having any influence on success. She says,
… I earned my money and there's nothing in Marx that philosophically negates that … I remember one young man saying, 'Oh, all I can afford is one paperback at a time.' And I looked at him and said: 'Well, if you got off your butt'—he was a bright young man—'and did something about it, maybe you could afford to buy books by the carton. [as McCullough does] Because when I was your age I bought paperbacks too.'
Over the Counter Remedies
In The Thorn Birds McCullough also provides some simple prescriptions for curing the afflictions of the people. The formulae are as follows:
The afflictions of race: People from ethnic groups are inherently bad. They can't help themselves. For their own good, they must be made to conform.
The afflictions of gender: Men and women are a burden to each other. If a man really puts a woman down, she must retaliate by subterfuge.
The afflictions of nature: Whatever the cost, keep fighting nature until it is beaten into submission.
The afflictions of the city: Don't try to improve the city. It is an unnatural excrescence on the land. Retreat to the untouched countryside, if you can find any, as often as possible.
The afflictions of comfort: Everyone can become rich if they work hard. Good fortune has nothing to do with it. God is a very strict and success-oriented being. He watches for those who stray from the straight path of righteousness and become too complacent and happy. To keep people aware of their obligations to Him, He makes sure that every happiness is balanced by a tragedy. There is very little you can do to change this.
These formulae have the virtue of ethical simplicity. They involve no outlay of money and can be easily implemented by anyone. In providing simple answers to complex problems, McCullough is fulfilling a fundamental need of the American people.
Remedies in the Old; Remedies in the New
The remedies for the afflictions of the American people provided in The Thorn Birds are exactly like those which have been provided for them in American literature and life since the time of early settlement. Go back to the old is the message.
Another old message which can be found in The Thorn Birds is that of seeking salvation in the new. The story ends:
Meggie … stared wide-eyed through the window…. How beautiful the garden was, how alive. To see its small things grow big, change and wither; and new little things come again in the same endless, unceasing cycle. Time for Drogheda to stop. Yes, more than time. Let the cycle renew itself with unknown people …
Seeking salvation in a "New Israel" has preoccupied Americans for a long time. Part of the popularity of The Thorn Birds seems to rest on its portrayal of "new" lands in the same innocent state as the United States before it became an urban nation. The Thorn Birds shows Australia (and New Zealand) as unspoiled frontiers where Americans can live again their old dreams.
The Secret Australian Ingredient
For many Australians The Thorn Birds is an embarrassment as it presents a romantic and unrealistic view of Australian life, even of Australian life in the past. At least part of the story is based on McCullough's family history and many of the descriptions and dialogue ring true. Others are simply fanciful. It is irritating to have American customs and language transposed to the Australian bush. Meggie makes green fir tree cookies, for example, at Christmas time. Although many Americans make fancy cookies at Christmas time, Australians in general follow British customs, such as making Christmas puddings, pies and cakes, crammed full of dried fruit. This certainly would have been so between the years 1915–1969. In any case, the Australian word for "cookie" is "biscuit."
It is sometimes hard to resist the conclusion that McCullough is indulging in the old Australian pastime of the quiet, devastating joke and the tall story. Of her latest book, The Ladies of Missalonghi, she says:
I adored writing it. I've got a whole humorous side which you can't display in even an ordinary size novel because you just can't be irreverent about your characters for too long. The readers gets sated and starts to believe you're being smart—which, of course, you are. So, this was the first time I'd been able to do that.
Although she gets frustrated when she can't include her humorous side in something like The Thorn Birds, she says that she puts funny material in anyway. Then at the redrafting stage she takes it out.
The Thorn Birds is very funny at times. Even for an Australian, it is sometimes difficult to decide if there is any truth in some of the assertions in the book. Do shearers really get elongated arms as a result of prolonged shearing? Assuming that you are in the unenviable position of having a wild boar fall on you, how easy it is to die of suffocation as a result? Are there really any places in the deserts of Australia where it never rains? Do people in western New South Wales call kangaroos "kangas," or do they usually call them "roos?" Is it correct to call an Australian blue heeler dog a "Queensland blue" or should that name be reserved for a blue-gray skinned pumpkin? Did McCullough leave some of her funny passages in? Two of her favourite fiction writers are the Australian, Patrick Wright and the black American writer, Toni Morrison, both of whom write work which is often surreal. The Thorn Birds is sometimes so like a fantasy that it verges on the surreal.
There is an amoral, larrikin quality about the book which should alert an Australian that a good joke or a tall story is in the offing. But when many Americans do not know where Australia is, it is unlikely that they will be aware of the niceties of Australian humor.
In an interview with the Australian band, Men at Work, who made Vegemite an American household word with their song "Down Under," one of the band members said:
We managed to suck those people [Americans] in—a bunch of dags like us…. They don't know anything about us either…. They have a romantic view of Australia full of cuddly animals and pioneering men—or cuddly men and pioneering animals.
Australians love putting people on. The secret Australian ingredient in The Thorn Birds is Australian humor. McCullough presented the American public with a book which is an amalgam of American literary styles—a cross between a jeremiad, a western, a nineteenth century sentimental novel, and a light romance, in short, a classic American soap. She also provided remedies for the afflictions of American society, but these are nothing more than good old American snake oil, and out-of-date snake oil at that. Modern afflictions cannot be cured by a return to old, simplistic values. The old world is no more. Nor can a cure be found in new countries. Australia and New Zealand are not new, nor are they, unfortunately, unspoiled. If the American people swallow these remedies, their afflictions will not be cured, their sins will not go away. Colleen McCullough has fooled the American reading public. In The Thorn Birds she is quietly pulling the collective American leg.
Gary Jennings (review date 6 October 1991)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553
SOURCE: "Roman Scandals," in The New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1991, p. 13.
[Below, Jennings offers an unfavorable review of The Grass Crown, finding fault with the novel's slow development and excessive incorporation of historical minutiae.]
In The Grass Crown, Colleen McCullough continues the work she began with The First Man in Rome, a history of the Roman Republic and its surrounding world of the first century B.C. There is really no need for this volume's 74-page glossary and other endpaper flauntings of Serious Scholarship. The author, best known for The Thorn Birds, all too obviously did voluminous research, because every last fact and detail she unearthed seems to be included here, not a jot or title discarded as superfluous, irrelevant or reader-numbing. Observe:
"Drusus's house was right on the corner of the Germalus of the Palatine where the Clivus Victoriae turned at right angles to run along the length of the Forum Romanum, so it possessed a wonderful view; in earlier days the view had extended to the left into the Velabrum when the vacant space of the area Flacciana had existed next door, but now the huge porticus Quintus Lutatius Catulus Caesar had erected on it reared columns skyward, and blocked that old lookout."
If Ms. McCullough's attempts at evoking ancient Rome are only leaden, her evocation of ancient Romans is downright ludicrous. She makes them speak a yuppie jargon of "expertise" and "role-model" and "résumé" and "overreacting" and "off-putting." Also, never once do these ancient Romans not misuse the word "hopefully," a solecism very difficult to commit in Latin. Come to that, I should dearly love to hear the ostensible Latin for such lines as "Either you streamline your operation, Julia, or …"
I reckon this remorselessly detailed history is called a novel just because a good deal of the history gets put between quotation marks, purporting to be human conversation. As often as not, in these dialogues the characters regale one another with history they certainly ought already to know:
"'My dear little niece,' said Publius Rutilius Rufus…. 'Only consider…. Two hundred and forty-four years of the kings, then four hundred and eleven years of the Republic. Rome has been in existence now for six hundred and fifty-five years, growing ever mightier. But how many of the old families are still producing consuls, Aurelia? The Cornelii. The Servilii. The Valerii. The Postumii. The Claudii. The Aemilii. The Sulpicii."
There are a few action scenes in the book, notably some nice gory butcheries, but they are far between, separated by great swads of that dreadful dialogue-history and even drearier accounts of back-room political backbiting. To sum it up in blurbspeak, The Grass Crown is in the grand tradition of the Congressional Record, masses of gassy morass with a nugget of interest here and there. So I shall perform a public service. To save anyone's having to rummage for the Real Juicy Bits, here is a sample, the climax of the big sex scene:
"Fruit, sweet and sticky—thin bare twigs tangled amid a bluest sky—the jerky pain of hair caught too tight—a tiny bird with stilled wings glued to the tendrils of a webby cloud—a huge lump of packed-down exultation struggling to be born, then suddenly soaring free, free—oh, in such an ecstasy!"
Fred Mench (review date July 1993)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 737
SOURCE: A review of The First Man in Rome and The Grass Crown, in Classical World, Vol. 86, No. 6, July, 1993, pp. 517-8.
[In the following review, Mench commends McCullough's recreation of Roman history in The First Man in Rome and The Grass Crown, recommending both novels as supplementary reading for students of ancient Rome.]
Classicists will dispute some details and some unusual interpretations of the dynamics of the period 110 to 86 BC, but most will regret only that there are no footnotes in these two excellent historical novels. McCullough supplies maps (Rome, Italy, and elsewhere), plans (e.g., Aurelia's insula), authentic-looking drawings of major characters, casts of characters, pronunciation guides for Latin names and terms (First Man), a consular list for 99-86 (Grass Crown), author's notes and a glorious glossary in each novel (94 pp. in First Man; 74 pp. in Grass Crown).
The extensive glossaries (with singulars and plurals for most Latin words) constitute a lively course in Roman history, though not everything is precisely correct; e.g. Plautus did not, as McCullough says, shift his locales from Greece to Rome. She gives conflicting accounts of Jugurtha's death s.v. Jugurtha and s.v. Oxyntas, and cursus honorum would be better translated as "sequence of offices" than "way of honor." But, in 1600 pages of story, based on original sources and secondary analyses, she is essentially correct on verifiable historical details and understands Roman government and plebeian/patrician (as well as nobilis) distinctions.
McCullough depicts historical figures we all feel a proprietary interest in (Marius, Sulla, Drusus) but parts company with many historians in interpreting motives and relationships. For example, most would not see Marius (titular character in First Man) and Sulla (who gains the titular grass crown in the sequel) as cooperating so amicably all through the Jugurthan and Cimbric wars and the Saturninus fiasco. First Man ends with Sulla's arm affectionately around Marius' shoulder, and, though their relations are "tensely wary" as Grass Crown opens, they warm again as both see the danger of Mithridates and support M Livius Drusus in his efforts for the Italian allies. In fact, this accord between Marius and Sulla lasts almost 600 pages (through most of the Social War); according to McCullough, Sulla begins to hate Marius for upstaging him at his procession as new consul to the Senate and resolves to ruin Marius for stealing the affection of the crowd from him. After that we have the Sulpician legislation, Sulla's march on Rome and the Marian proscriptions, ended by Marius' death.
As novels, both read well, though some detail (e.g., troop movements in the Marsic war) may bog readers down. Nonclassicists will refer frequently to those casts of characters provided. First Man has the big battles (military and political) straight out of history, but also much about less crucial players. For example, from the charming but steel-backboned Aurelia, mother of Julius Caesar and well-developed as a feisty young bride who owns and manages a 9-story Subura insula, we see a lot of daily life. P Rutilius Rufus, uncle to both Aurelia and Drusus and (contra Plutarch) a close personal and military friend of Marius, writes many of the letters McCullough uses well in both novels to communicate information compactly. Occasionally McCullough's help to the non-classicist reader is intrusive: a tribune of the plebs would never call out, "I declare a contio, a preliminary discussion." But McCullough tells the stories well and creates interesting characters—some witty, brave, warm, some evil and cruel, some you like and some you hate (and a few you have mixed emotions about, such as Sulla and M Aemilius Scaurus, Princeps Senatus). Classicists will recognize some very young characters who will be important on the historical scene (and McCullough's sequels?) decades later (e.g. Cicero as a talkative 13-year old, or a very young and precocious Julius Caesar).
Unlike the five Roman historical mystery novels I recently reviewed (CW 86.1), even in paperback the two McCullough novels may be too long to use as supplementary reading for Roman history classes, though anyone teaching the post-Gracchan period should at least recommend both novels to students who want to look more closely at the events of these 25 years. Much of the material is, of course, fiction, not verifiable history, but it may help that period come alive for students who otherwise find Drusus dull or the Social war unintelligible.
The sequel will be titled The Rising Sun (presumably Pompey or Caesar).
Judith Tarr (review date 21 November 1993)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 844
SOURCE: "On the Way to the Forum," in Washington Post Book World, November 21, 1993, p. 4.
[In the following review, Tarr offers a generally favorable assessment of Fortune's Favorites, which she finds more fluent and engaging than the previous two novels in McCullough's Roman history series.]
Colleen McCullough has found her stride. Fortune's Favorites, the third massive volume of her saga of ancient Rome, picks up where The Grass Crown left off. Sulla, both hero and anti-hero of the previous volume, has come to both the height and the end of his career. The beautiful, deadly creature has grown old and hideous and more powerful than any Roman before him—he demands and receives the office of Dictator of Rome.
The younger generation, meanwhile, is coming into its own, as the middle of the first century B.C. approaches. If The First Man in Rome was Marius's story and The Grass Crown was Sulla's, Fortune's Favorites is that of two powerful personalities, Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great.
The novel follows the two of them through the years of their young manhood. Pompey marshals armies all over the Roman world and lays claim to the consulship of Rome. Caesar escapes from the dreadfully restrictive priesthood (a condition in which he could not touch iron or ride a horse, which effectively kept him, for the moment, from a military career) to which Marius sentenced him in boyhood, to a lively and varied career as soldier, diplomat, politician, and legal advocate.
The protagonists act out their roles amid a huge cast of characters: Sertorius, the rebel general in Spain; Spartacus the gladiator, who led the legendary slave revolt; and King Nicomedes of Bithynia, whom McCullough (perhaps cravenly, perhaps not) chooses to portray not as Caesar's homosexual lover but as a sort of grandfather-figure. Faces familiar from earlier volumes appear as well: Aurelia, the mother of Caesar; Caesar's aunt, Julia; the widow of Marius; and Metellus Pius the Piglet.
The great strength of McCullough's previous volumes was the depth and extent of her research, and their weakness was the resulting tendency to lose the characters in the mass of historical detail. Her avowed purpose, as she affirms in her author's afterword to this volume, is to relate all the major events of the period, apparently without exception. A laudable ambition—but a bit too ambitious. The result is often a loss of focus and a failure of Story in the face of History.
In Fortune's Favorites, McCullough still seems wary of getting too deeply into character. She shortcuts and short-circuits moments of powerful emotion: "He broke down, wept, dashed the tears away impatiently," she says of Spartacus in between stiffly impassioned speeches, giving him little time to emote as well as speechify.
Some of her facts are shaky—surprising amid such a plethora of research. She seems convinced here as in previous volumes that Roman horses were not only shod in the time of Caesar, but shod with iron shoes by farriers—a striking anachronism. Characters frequently pull out "a piece of paper," although strictly speaking they would have been making use of wax tablets or sheets of papyrus.
McCullough has developed an annoying stylistic tic, a tendency to repeat phrases several times in a paragraph and even within a sentence, as if the reader might not get the point the first time: "Pompey was not a type who appealed to Sulla physically, and he never liked to touch men or women who didn't appeal to him physically." She does, however, make use of this device to excellent effect in a letter of Pompey to Sulla, in which he never ceases to repeat the phrase, "My men hailed me imperator in the field." Sulla's reply is wonderfully nasty and very funny.
McCullough seems afraid also to let herself invent anything that might cause a pedant to object. After a glorious scene in which Aurelia pleads before Sully on Caesar's behalf, McCullough undercuts the effect with a bit of coyness that falls flat. "No one who participated ever recounted the story … Not from fear of their lives. Mostly because no one thought Rome would ever, ever believe it."
And yet, wobbles and weaknesses aside, McCullough seems at last to have found her stride. At last, she has characters and a story with which she appears comfortable.
The clunking and clanking of style and characterization in the earlier novels have smoothed perceptibly. The dialogue moves more quickly, and the speeches are much less wooden. The characters are still a bit transparent around the edges, but now, more often than not, they seem to come closer to living, breathing humanity.
Readers who found The First Man in Rome and The Grass Crown to be a bit of a slog should be pleasantly surprised by this latest addition to the saga. Fortune's Favorites is by far the best of the three. For all its ponderous mass, it moves lightly. It reads less like an overly conscientious imitation of Livy or Tacitus and more like a novel—and quite an entertaining one at that.
Norma Jean Richey (review date Summer 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 565
SOURCE: A review of Fortune's Favorites, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, Summer, 1994, p. 632.
[In the following review, Richey offers high praise for Fortune's Favorites.]
Fortune's Favorites is the third novel in Colleen McCullough's projected Roman series, focused on the world of Julius Caesar. Like the first two books, The First Man in Rome and The Grass Crown, the new work is a joy to read both for its marvelous narrative and for its presentation of truly extraordinary details, including maps and illustrations drawn by the author. Furthermore, McCullough incorporates extensively researched information into her story, such as women's use of cork-soled shoes to keep their feet dry, family relationships through generations of marriages and births, et cetera.
What some readers may not know is that McCullough, whose fame in the past has rested largely on the romantic novel The Thorn Birds, is in fact a brilliant researcher who has spent ten years preparing for her Roman series, which is the culmination of her life's work. For three years she paid a researcher $36,000 per year to travel and collect needed information and highly specialized data about her subject: clothing, extant likenesses of projected characters, genealogical data, military costumes, coins, and the like. Added to this is McCullough's ownership of the largest privately held collection of Roman materials in the world and her own first-rate intellect, all organized and planned to depict everything about the world into which Caesar was born, his life, and the influence of that world in history.
Fortune's Favorites forms a picture of Julius Caesar and his world that is better than Plutarch's, whose cameo analysis of characters has offered inimitable glimpses into the personalities behind historical figures. Whereas Plutarch gives readers intriguing snapshots of individuals, McCullough provides full pictures. Her Caesar is definitive, as she shows him to be a product of his world and his own love of that Roman world, always defined by his own dignitas.
The novel tells the ending of Sulla's story, so fully captured in The Grass Crown, and illustrates the long-range effects of the influence of Gaius Marius, introduced in The First Man in Rome. This continuation of the Roman saga covers early incidents of Caesar's career: organizing naval fleets, fledgling military and religious duties, family and political influences, and his public refusal to lessen his own sense of dignitas when burying his Aunt Julia—Gaius Marius's widow—by including banned images of her husband and son in the funeral procession. Every step of Caesar's story, which encompasses his family, his contemporaries, and his own devotion to Roman standards and law, is wonderfully clear, showing readers a world so complete that they can absorb everyday life along with events shaping Caesar for his role in Roman and world history.
All readers—scholars and laypersons alike—who love a wonderful, exciting, and eminently readable book will enjoy Fortune's Favorites. Colleen McCullough is presenting her life's work in this series, which is the best overview of Rome ever written. By the time Caesar crosses the Rubicon, readers who have followed his story will understand how this step forever altered Caesar's life and the foundation for the Western world, in which personality and power shape reality as change. The only criticism of the series that is not glowingly positive is that McCullough deserves a better editor to catch the sentence fragments that intrude on an otherwise constant reading pleasure.
Mary Jean DeMarr (essay date 1996)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4721
SOURCE: "The Thorn Birds (1977)," in Colleen McCullough: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Press, 1996, pp. 57-86.
[In the following excerpt, DeMarr provides a critical overview of The Thorn Birds, including analysis of thematic concerns, narrative style, and feminist interpretations of the novel.]
McCullough's second published, though her first planned, novel is her greatest success. Published in 1977, it propelled her into the ranks of writers with names recognizable and sought out by readers. The success of her later novels probably depended heavily on the public won by this blockbuster book and the immensely popular television miniseries made from it. Many writers with such popular successes continue to write similar works and thus fall into a personal and recognizable formula, so that a Stephen King novel or a Danielle Steele book promises certain characteristics to a devoted and regular following. McCullough, however, refuses to be placed into any neat pigeonhole, and each new book (or group of books) creates its own type and rules. All this seems, perhaps, a bit paradoxical for an author who had carefully done research into what made a novel succeed with a public of ordinary readers and followed up on her results by creating The Thorn Birds. In fact, Breslin calls it "fiction by the numbers." Nevertheless, McCullough's professionalism and her desire for financial success as a writer were clearly instrumental in her first great achievement. That success enabled her to direct the later course of her career as she wished. She will not be restricted to any particular set of readers' expectations. And even in The Thorn Birds, she breaks new ground by using a Roman Catholic priest as her dynamic romantic hero.
The usual critical observations about The Thorn Birds are that it fits in the category of the family saga and that it is an Australian Gone with the Wind. As a family saga, it belongs to a genre which follows several generations of a particular family and thus has several protagonists and covers a lengthy span of years. Describing both the genre and this novel, Clemons calls it "an old-fashioned family saga, featuring decades of tribulation studded with dire forebodings that more often than not come true." Reviewers noticed a number of similarities between McCullough's and Margaret Mitchell's books. Both concern the families, especially the daughters, of Irish immigrant fathers who have come to wealth in their new countries. Both depict large rural estates with beautiful and gracious mansions. Both contain strong-willed heroines who love men they cannot have and marry men who are to them poor substitutes. Both heroines create their own disasters through their short-sighted behavior. And both novels seem made to order for lavish dramatization: Gone with the Wind in the 1939 film and The Thorn Birds in the 1983 television miniseries. Both, it might be added, reached tremendous audiences as novels, and each made the reputation of its author as a storyteller and creator of strong and fascinating women….
Style, Images, and Symbols
McCullough has never been known as a stylist, that is for having a facility with language or for using images in a particularly effective way. The Thorn Birds was severely criticized by reviewers, in fact, for a plodding and ungraceful style which included unbelievable dialogue. It is agreed that her talent is that of a storyteller who can make her readers care about her characters and what happens to them, not that of one who creates a narrative with a graceful texture which enhances the telling. The Thorn Birds nevertheless contains some useful images which serve particular functions in the presentation of the novel's materials. Several are especially helpful in depicting characters and relationships. The most important one grows from the novel's title, which states its central theme.
One important image is used by Ralph for Mary Carson. Repeatedly he thinks of her as a spider, an image which captures her malice and her conscious weaving a web of evil as well as his emotional rejection of her as a woman, the rejection that ironically increases her desire to punish him. Like a spider, she intentionally ensnares her prey and destroys it. Her will and the accompanying letter challenging Ralph to do the right thing and destroy the will create her cleverest, most destructive web. The repeated use of the spider image, always in Ralph's thoughts, reveals his awareness of her true nature even as it stresses her actual malice and cruelty.
In contrast to Ralph's persistent vision of Mary Carson as a spider is his repeated view of Meggie as "a sacrament." This way of seeing her illustrates his need to define things in religious terms. He cannot admit his love for a completely human person but must translate that loved object into spiritual language. One brief scene, in which Ralph twice thinks of her in this language, will illustrate. Long after their liaison on Matlock Island, they briefly renew their physical relationship at Drogheda. As they kiss, his thoughts are indirectly conveyed. He is aware of "that mouth alive under his, not a dream, so long wanted, so long. A different kind of sacrament, dark like the earth, having nothing to do with the sky." And a few pages later, his thoughts compare her with the actual sacrament of the mass: "Tomorrow morning I'll say Mass," he thinks. "But that's tomorrow morning…. There is still the night, and Meggie…. She, too, is a sacrament."
In the sacrament of the Mass, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, with whom the worshipper is united in the act of partaking of the elements. Ralph's association of the Mass with Meggie suggests that she symbolizes something spiritual for him, with which he is united in the sexual act. Perhaps he is here attempting to join his physical and spiritual sides, the man and the priest in him. That he is rationalizing about his passion for her is clear, and his making her into an abstraction is a kind of idealization and romanticization which contrasts with her earthy need of him.
More important for the novel as a whole is the image of roses, especially the "dusky, pale pinkish grey, the color that in those days was called ashes of roses." When the Clearys first arrive at Drogheda, the masses of rosebushes around the homestead help make it seem like the lush, green New Zealand they have left, so unlike dusty, dry New South Wales. Throughout the novel, the roses are repeatedly mentioned, often in association with Meggie. Her first party dress, when she is sixteen, is in the ashes of roses shade, and she is particularly lovely in it. Ralph is torn by conflicting feelings, pride in her beauty and sorrow that she is growing up. Memories of that party and that dress are referred to throughout the novel, so that the moment becomes a special one and is seen as one which changed their relationship from that of a mature man and a child to that between two adults. It is also the color she is wearing when they briefly renew their affair after many years of separation. Meggie becomes Ralph's rose. In a moment of renunciation after Paddy's death, when he thinks he is leaving forever, Ralph urges Fee to help Meggie find some suitable young man to marry. Meggie, saying farewell, gives Ralph a rose, described as "pale, pinkish-gray" and thus similar in shade to "ashes of roses." He presses it in his missal and it becomes his romantic memento of Meggie. Later he tells her about the rose in his missal and calls her his rose, expecting these tender words to bring her joy. Instead, she explodes angrily at him and points out his romanticism, which she considers foolish. She tells him he does not know what love is really about, and she reminds him that roses have thorns, a line which connects this rose imagery to the thorns of the novel's title.
Another association, suggested by Meggie, occurs later. When Dane tells her he wishes to become a priest, she is shocked and horrified. She sees God as winning the battle she has been carrying on against Him all her life. In taking Dane from her, He is taking away her victory over Ralph. Now she connects the name of the color that had meant so much to her to the phrase associated with death and funerals. "Ashes of roses," she gasps and bursts into blasphemy.
"And I didn't understand…. Ashes thou wert, unto ashes return. To the Church thou belongest, to the Church thou shalt be given…. God rot God, I say! God the sod! The utmost Enemy of women, that's what God is!"
The beautiful flower, associated with her home and with her love as well as her anger, now becomes connected to her great loss. And when Dane is buried, his casket is covered with roses, associating the flowers again with pain and grief.
Roses are a trite symbol for love, but the symbol is inverted in The Thorn Birds. In associating roses with Drogheda, McCullough used them rather conventionally. The use of ashes of roses continued that conventional usage, but within the name that color already contains a paradox. To become ashes, the roses must burn. They must go through fire in order to create the beauty of the color. Through suffering and pain, beauty is created. This motif connects obviously with the meaning of the novel's title, and McCullough uses the shifting meaning of roses and ashes of roses to convey her central theme.
The novel's title is explained by an epigraph placed before its opening. It summarizes a Celtic legend of a bird which searches all its life for a thorn on which it may impale itself. That act, which kills it, enables it to sing so beautifully that its song is the loveliest thing in the world. The moral is, we are told, that "the best is only bought at the cost of great pain." The title is referred to only occasionally in the course of the novel. In a moment of acceptance, Meggie explains to Ralph what she has learned:
"Each of us has something within us which won't be denied, even if it makes us scream aloud to die…. Like the old Celtic legend of the bird with the thorn in its breast, singing its heart out and dying. Because it has to, it's driven to. We can know what we do wrong even before we do it, but self-knowledge can't affect or change the outcome, can it? Everyone singing his own little song, convinced it's the most wonderful song the world has ever heard…. We create our own thorns, and never stop to count the cost. All we can do is suffer the pain, and tell ourselves it was well worth it."
The novel closes in Meggie's thoughts, when she receives a cable telling her of Justine's marriage to Rainer. She smells the perfume of the roses in the Drogheda garden and thinks of its beauty but also of its ending. The ending of the Clearys and their descendants on Drogheda is now certain, and she sees that as the conclusion of a cycle. She accepts her own responsibility for its happening, but she regrets nothing. Then, in the book's final paragraph, the point of view becomes less clear. Whether Meggie is still meditating on the meaning of her life or whether the author is commenting on the meaning of her story is ambiguous. That final paragraph refers again to the legend of the thorn bird, ecstatic in the beauty of its song but unaware of its dying, and ends by universalizing its message: "But we, when we put the thorns in our breasts, we know. We understand. And still we do it. Still we do it."
All fiction, whether intentionally on the part of the author or not, expresses themes or abstract ideas. The Thorn Birds, which is not particularly theme driven, relies on characters and story for its interest and its achievement of a sense of deeper meaning through the use of images and symbols. Among the themes which are particularly obvious are the effects of repressive methods of child-rearing and the difficulties of life for members of the working classes in the early years of this century in New Zealand and Australia. Changes in life on Australian sheep stations over the period from World War I to the late 1960s are illustrated. Irish Catholicism and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church are depicted critically. Most of these themes are inherent in the historical materials used in the novel and relate to the book as an example of the multigenerational family saga. They create a context for the characters and relationships and for the central theme of suffering.
That central notion examined in The Thorn Birds is pointed out in the Celtic legend of the title. All the major characters suffer, and for each there is some repayment though frequently not enough. For Fee, the thwarted love for her first lover brings her Frank, who is taken from her, and Paddy, whom she does not realize she loves until it is too late. Meggie's obsession with Ralph brings a few moments of rapture and the gift of Dane, who is also taken from her—first by the Church and then by his untimely death. Meggie and Justine both feel unworthy because of their mothers' inability or refusal to show them any love. For Justine, there is guilt for being unable to love and for, she thinks, causing her brother's death. The men suffer, too. Paddy loves Fee desperately and never knows she cares at all for him. Frank is torn by his rage and his devoted love for the mother he thinks is being abused by her husband. His ultimate suffering, of course, occurs off stage, in the long imprisonment that breaks his spirit. Ralph is torn between his two sides, his love for God and the Church and his passion for Meggie. Only Luke and Dane do not truly suffer: Luke is not sensitive enough, and Dane is too good. Dane, in fact, prays for the suffering that will enable him to become the perfect priest, and his prayers are answered by the brief physical pain he endures at his death.
Related to the theme of suffering is that of love and lust as destructive forces. Love leads to the suffering of Fee and Meggie and causes Ralph to break his vow of chastity. Lust impels Mary Carson to create the cruel choice Ralph must make. By making him decide whether to present the will leaving her fortune to the Church (but in his control), she forces him to choose between his integrity and his love for Meggie, on the one hand, and his ambition to rise in the Church, on the other. Love becomes lust in the lives of these characters when it is not joined by true concern for the one loved. Selfish love repeatedly leads individual characters to behave in ways that damage others. Fee, obsessed with her first lover and with his son, withholds herself from her loving second husband and her children by him. In so doing she deprives herself as well as Paddy and Meggie of joy and support. Meggie, unable to think of anyone except Ralph, marries Luke, who is totally unsuited for her; withholds herself from her daughter, as Fee had withheld herself from Meggie; and separates Ralph and Dane from any possibility of being father and son. Ralph teases Meggie by refusing her and yet by returning repeatedly to her. Only Rainer finally loves unselfishly, considering Justine's needs as much as he considers his own. Thus it is through his wisdom that he and Justine are able to bring closure to the cycle of thwarted love which had followed three generations of Cleary women.
Another aspect of the theme of love is connected to ambition and the idea of the perfect priest. Both Ralph and Dane are referred to as perfect priests, but this reference is always ironic in relationship to Ralph. He seems to be the perfect priest, for he does all the external things well and makes an outwardly ideal impression. He is effective in ministering to others, but his rise in the Church removes him from the priestly functions of caring for and comforting ordinary human souls. His sexual involvement with Meggie is only the most dramatic illustration of the flaws that make him a very imperfect priest in the reality which underlies his appearance. Ralph's perfection is outward. Dane's, on the other hand, is inward and real. Dane is whole hearted and whole souled in a way that Ralph, tormented with internal conflict, can never be. A very new priest, just ordained, he gives his life to save another and, in suffering and dying, proves that he represents the reality of the perfect priest. Ironically, it is in the moment of achieving that perfection, through the suffering which he knew he had lacked, that he must die. Perhaps perfection in priests is no more possible in this imperfect world than is perfection in anything else. Just as the color ashes of roses represents a joining of suffering and beauty, so here perfection joins with death.
A Feminist Reading of The Thorn Birds
Feminist criticism is based on feminism, a social movement related to the struggle of women to achieve complete equality. In actuality, it is probably better to speak of "feminisms," using the plural, for there are many varieties of feminism, stressing various goals and using various methods. Many radical feminists urge the destruction of the present social structure, which gives most power and authority to men; other feminists believe in working for a gradual change within the system. Feminists have undertaken a variety of causes, among which are the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment (which failed after a long and bitter struggle), the accomplishment of equal pay for equal or equivalent work, the protection of women and their children from abuse by husbands and other men, equal access to education and jobs and professional advancement, and many other goals.
Feminist writers tend to present their ideas in fiction in two basic ways. One is to show what is wrong and the other is exemplify what is more desirable. One who uses the first method might depict women who are traditional in their attitudes (who desire only to marry and have children and live a life of domesticity). Such a writer might then show how those attitudes may lead to disaster (the seemingly perfect marriage ending in divorce or the death of the husband, perhaps), leaving the woman unable to support and care for herself and her children because she has no training or skills. Domesticity may be shown to be a trap, not a "happy ending." A writer who uses the second method might create strong women who succeed despite all the obstacles a patriarchal society (that is, one run by and for men) can put in their way. Independence, rather than reliance on a male, will be shown as desirable. Both writers would have the same goal of helping readers focus on the needs of women and showing them how women can live effective and fulfilled lives. Feminist writers also examine issues and problems facing women, such as poverty, abuse, discrimination based on gender, and so on. They dramatize the lives of female characters facing those issues. They illustrate attitudes toward women of both women and men. Definitions of "femininity" and what the ideal woman should be like may also be discussed.
Feminist critics look at writings by feminist and nonfeminist writers in different ways. They assume that women are as important, talented, and interesting as men and point out that this assumption is not universal. They point out how literature examines the ways in which women have been exploited and suppressed. Such critics point out social conditions, prejudices, inimical legal provisions, and many other ways in which women have not been treated equally with men in literature. Feminist critics also look at the work of women writers, trying to ensure that the work of these writers is treated fairly and not dismissed simply because of their female authorship. These critics point out issues or themes of particular importance to women and study the ways in which female characters are depicted. Feminist approaches sometimes lead critics to examine the presentation of male characters and themes, for these often affect female characters and themes as well.
In reading The Thorn Birds as a feminist, one immediately recognizes the emphasis within the plot and characterization of this novel on women as being born to suffer. The parallel experiences of three generations of Cleary women illustrate the pain that comes to women because they love and the guilt and need for atonement that follow obsessive love for men who do not really need them. Fee suffers all her life as a result of her youthful love for a prominent, married politician. She showers all her love on her son by that man and cheats both the husband, who truly does love her, and her other children, especially her daughter. After the death of her husband and one of their sons, she realizes that she deeply loved them both and finds herself unable to love her daughter because her daughter is a reminder of her own errors, someone who will repeat her own mistakes and relive her own suffering. She tries not to think of Meggie as any different from her sons. Meggie repeats Fee's rejection of her, finding herself unable to love Justine as she dotes on her son Dane. The lot of women is to love and suffer—or so it seems until the end of the novel, when Justine finally overcomes her guilt and sense of unworthiness and is able to give herself to Rainer.
The feminist critic might argue that McCullough has stacked the decks. She has presented Fee and Meggie with men who are not available—Fee's lover is already being married, and Meggie's is married to the Church. Justine is more fortunate in finding Rainer, who not only is available but is willing to wait patiently for her to be ready for him. As Fee and Meggie eventually realize, they have caused much of their own suffering, and Meggie comes to believe that her few moments of ecstasy and her motherhood of Dane made the suffering worthwhile. Ironically, when Fee and Meggie finally come to an understanding late in the novel, Fee tells Meggie that she enjoys her because they are equals, though she never enjoyed her sons in that same way. Perhaps their very sharing of the burdens of womanhood is what enables them to empathize with and enjoy each other.
The novel is based on patriarchal assumptions and set in a strongly patriarchal society. Patriarchy, literally "rule by the fathers," is involved whenever men have power over women, whether that power be exercised through the legal system, through the force of custom, or through internalized acceptance by women of their own inferiority. Luke's assumption that Meggie's money will become his personal property when they marry, an assumption that he baldly expresses to her and which she accepts unquestioningly, illustrates the power of patriarchal thinking. Meggie is a very feminine woman in the traditional sense—having her own home and babies is the central goal of her life. Domesticity is what she longs for and can never have with Ralph. Ralph thinks of her ability to bear burdens as being particularly "womanly," one of the things he especially loves in her. All these details underscore the patriarchal nature of the society and reveal the assumptions of the characters that women are lesser beings than men, born to suffer and to support the efforts of their men.
In this patriarchal world, relationships between men become important, and McCullough illustrates male bonding in three different contexts: within the Cleary family, among male laborers, and in the Roman Catholic hierarchy. With the partial exception of the Cleary family, these are three different worlds in which women have no place and from which they are consciously and intentionally excluded. Within the family, there are a number of sons and only one daughter. The carrying on of the Cleary name to the next generation should have been assured, and yet Meggie is the only member of the second generation of the family to marry or to have children. The sons elect to remain part of the family on the homestead, and they form no meaningful relationships outside the family. They never become involved with women, seemingly unable or uninterested in romantic or sexual connections. Frank leaves home, but the result is his commission of a murder, his long prison sentence, and his return to his family a broken man. The youngest sons, twins, who serve together in World War II, are so close to each other that there is no room for anyone else in their lives. When one is wounded in such a way that his sexual function is destroyed, little is actually lost—the permanent effects of the wound seem more symbolic than practical. The Cleary men are perhaps not very highly sexed. Or perhaps they are so close to each other that they have no need of sex or of women.
Luke is less aware of his male bonding than are Meggie's brothers. He thinks he wants to achieve his own place, but in fact he becomes a part of a male culture which has no need of women and little interest in them (except as sex objects) when he joins the crew of cane cutters. When he enters the story, he is part of a group of sheep shearers who travel about the stations hiring out as needed. That status seems a temporary expedient but turns out to represent the sort of life he demands. With his "mate" (an Australian slang term for "close male friend" but particularly appropriate in this context) and the other cane cutters, he becomes immersed in a culture which values a man by the amount of cane he can cut and which fills his life with the comradeship of those with whom he lives and works. His visits to Meggie taper off as he becomes more and more a part of this male world. He repeatedly postpones leaving the cane fields, always saying they need a particular amount of additional money, but it is clear to Meggie and to the reader that there will never be enough money, that the money is just a pretext. Despite his protestations, he does not really want to leave the backbreaking work because it offers him rewards in male companionship that he does not find with a woman.
The third male society is Ralph's, the Roman Catholic hierarchy which no woman can enter since no woman can be ordained to the priesthood (though the novel does not raise this issue) and which no woman can connect with because priests are vowed to celibacy. The conflict within Ralph between man and priest, of course, is based on that requirement of celibacy, and the novel would not work if the characters were not Roman Catholic. Perhaps as a result of the absence of women (except in tangential ways—as nuns, as housekeepers), the priests create for themselves a society no less male than that of Luke in the cane fields. The scenes among priests, particularly the friendship between Ralph and his mentor, Cardinal Vittorio Scarbanza di Contini-Verchese, illustrate the intimacy which grows up between these men who are denied intimacy with women.
The priests at least regret that part of their humanity must be repressed, and their sensitivity contrasts sharply with the vulgarity of the cane cutters. But their society is no less exclusive, and its exclusion of women is no less indicative of a low status for women.
McCullough does not write as a professed feminist, and in some ways her fiction, including The Thorn Birds, can be considered antifeminist since it makes use of patriarchal assumptions without necessarily questioning them. And yet her novel demonstrates the cruel effects of women's exclusion from men's worlds and of the harm done by relegating women to subordinate roles and to suffering.