Colleen McCullough McCullough, Colleen (Vol. 107) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Colleen McCullough 1937–

Australian novelist.

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).

Biographical Information

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).

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Walter Clemons (review date 25 April 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 2 May 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Steven Kroll (review date 22 July 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kay Cassill (interview date March 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kay Cassill (essay date March 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kirsten Grimstad (review date 25 October 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 29 October 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Sutherland (essay date 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Paul Gray (review date 20 May 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lisa Mitchell (review date 21 July 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Christine Bridgwood (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Cora Kaplan (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jane Yolen (review date 26 April 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sybil Steinberg (essay date 14 September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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James Idema (review date 7 October 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Don G. Campbell (review date 28 October 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Carol E. Rinzler (review date 4 November 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Gwen Morris (essay date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."


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Gary Jennings (review date 6 October 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Fred Mench (review date July 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Judith Tarr (review date 21 November 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Norma Jean Richey (review date Summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mary Jean DeMarr (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

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