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.