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...
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