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Colleen McCullough 1938?–
McCullough is best known for her popular novel, The Thorn Birds (1977), a generational saga set in Australia that was made into a television miniseries. Because of its romantic nature and entertaining narrative, The Thorn Birds has been termed an Australian Gone with the Wind.
McCullough's first novel, Tim (1974), sensitively explores a love relationship between a spinster and a younger retarded man. Although well received critically, it did not attain the best-selling status of either The Thorn Birds or An Indecent Obsession (1981), her third novel.
McCullough admits that she does not strive to create great literature, and most critics agree that the value of her fiction lies in its ability to entertain. They find her plots engrossing although somewhat contrived, her characterizations adequate, and her descriptions of Australian life and landscape skillful. Her thematic concern centers on the conflict between love and duty.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)
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This first novel of awakenings [Tim] is a lovely and refreshing addition to tales of love. It is also, however, a story with a difference, one that might be characterized as love triumphant, but not love without its bittersweet shadings. Mary Horton is a middle-aged, successful businesswoman, a spinster. Raised an orphan, she has lived her life alone, has relied on her own discipline and self-sufficiency—until Tim comes along. He is 25, an Adonis in body, a child in spirit…. Colleen McCullough's telling of the story of Tim and Mary—how they meet and what happens—is accomplished, sensitive and wise.
A review of "Tim," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the February 18, 1974 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1974 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 205, No. 7, February 18, 1974, p. 67.
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The course of this novel [Tim] is rather predictable and the bitterness of the last two pages does not restore realism to what is basically a very romantic tale—but it is a good, warm, rather lovely story with some delightful characters. And the slang of Australia in the somewhat idealized dialogue is spicy and, to northern-hemisphere ears, fresh and pleasant….
[The] plot is not only idyllic, it is a little too pat. Yet, it is worked out with skill and the people are real, made all the more real by their speech, much of it earthy slang. Some of the characters and some of their conversations are sheer delights.
A review of "Tim," in Best Sellers (copyright 1974, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 34, No. 4, May 15, 1974, p. 97.
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Tim is a simple, effective first novel by Colleen McCullough whose native Australia serves as the book's setting.
The novel is direct rather than subtle. It tells a gentle, spare story of a growing relationship and a mutual awakening of Mary Horton, a 45-year-old spinster who has never paid any attention to her own emotional needs in her climb from orphanhood to financial success, and Tim Melville, a strikingly beautiful, 25-year-old, mentally retarded boy whose innocence and gentleness are still intact.
Well into the novel, a specialist in the problems of the retarded voices what might be the book's central thrust: "Not one of us is born without something beautiful and something undesirable in us."…
Tim is a manual laborer "without the full quid," who catches Mary's eye and unsettles her world….
Each of the two people become the center of the other's life, partly because of their growing love for one another, and partly because Tim is being left without family to care for him.
Mary would never think of marriage as a solution, even though she is aware that she has awakened previously unfelt emotions in Tim, but when the suggestion comes from a qualified, objective source, she realizes that this would be one of the few ways in which Tim might actually enjoy his full manhood. The delicacy with which their strange love story is handled peaks here, because Mary admits to herself that she is not an unconventional woman and, though she clearly loves Tim, she is concerned about what people will say.
There are many genuinely touching moments in the novel…. (p. 59)
The novel moves quickly. Its language is clear and direct, full of colorful Australian slang. McCullough's feeling for character, from major to minor, is compassionate yet concise. They are without exception well-rounded and believable. Her delicacy is perfectly suited to the story.
A criticism: the novel really ends before Colleen McCullough ends it. It is an anticlimax when Tim cuts himself badly. Perhaps she means it to show that his beauty can be marred or that he truly needs taking care of and cannot survive on his own. Perhaps she means it to give concrete evidence of the way the world will always misconstrue this strange looking relationship. But nevertheless, it seems superfluous.
Still, Tim is a warm book to read, reassuring about goodness in human nature and about the power of love to overcome worldly obstacles and to make us care more for another person's interests than for our own. (p. 60)
Margaret Ferrari, in a review of "Tim," in America (reprinted with permission of America Press, Inc.; © 1974; all rights reserved), Vol. 131, No. 3, August 10, 1974, pp. 59-60.
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The Thorn Birds is the saga of the Clearys, primarily of Fee Cleary and her daughter Meggie. It is also the story of an ambitious Catholic priest, Ralph de Bricassart…. And it is, first and last, the story of Drogheda, this book's Tara. Land-in-the-blood is a major and vivid theme; it works here, it is not obnoxious.
The novel opens—and it opens slowly—in New Zealand in 1915, then switches to the ranch in New South Wales that the Clearys make their home. It's a setting the author knows in detail and describes with considerable force….
The plot creaks at times, and McCullough isn't above exploiting coincidence…. But one marvels much more than minds. McCullough does make her characters and their concerns come alive; she gives them (the leads particularly, and Ralph most of all) intelligence and complexity and dimension. Even the minor characters are not dull.
What holds the book together, however, is not the characters alone, or Drogheda, or even its rather refreshing wholesomeness, but McCullough's slightly quirky, very spunky style. Her prose, even when stately, owes little to any formula; it is driven by a curiosity of mind, a caring for the subject, and some other great energy within the author that in turn, at one remove, spurs the reader on. The Thorn Birds didn't make me laugh and weep, and I could put it down. It is, after all, a romance, and very long. But then I kept picking it up again, more times than can be accounted for by any sense of duty. A fine book.
Eliot Fremont-Smith, "The Book: Romance with Spunk" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXII, No. 13, March 28, 1977, p. 94.
Alice K. Turner
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"Happy families are all alike," wrote Tolstoy at the beginning of Anna Karenina, "but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."…
At the beginning of The Thorn Birds, its author, too, establishes firmly that unhappiness is to follow, though she lures us with the promise of at least one good time as well. She recounts a little parable, the legend of a bird that sings just once in its short life before proceeding to impale itself on the longest, sharpest thorn it can find: "For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain."
It all sounds promisingly dreadful, if a little corny (rhymes with thorny) … [but] I am here to testify that The Thorn Birds is a success both in terms of unhappiness and of uniqueness.
It is set in Australia, which, just for starters, is a change. I had thought that the remoteness of the Australian landscape might be a liability, but it turns out to be quite marvelous. At the time that the Cleary family arrives at Drogheda, the Victorian manor in New South Wales which is to serve as their Tara, the author, Colleen McCullough, takes a few pages to record their reactions to Australian wildlife…. Once she has set the scene, the author moves on, preferring to emphasize the dreariness of sheep, flies and dust, but for the reader that strange environment is established, and, like the other strangenesses of the book, accepted.
The story is that of Fiona and Paddy Cleary and their nine children, particularly of their only daughter, Meggie. There are very few outside characters … [among them Father, later Cardinal, Ralph de Bricassart]….
Very few novels spotlight a roman Catholic priest as a sex symbol, but Father Ralph's bravura performance in this one rivals the landscape for originality. Father Ralph is simply yummy…. And, of course, he is out of the running, which gives the author plenty of opportunity to dangle him as an erotic tease. (p. E1)
The third unique quality of this novel lies in the astonishing sexual deprivation which is the lot of every character in it, except, by necessity, for the parent Clearys, who make the novel possible. Priests and widows are more or less celibate in many novels, but McCullough is ruthless even with characters who might reasonably be expected to get a little fun out of life….
[In the long wait for the] moment of supreme whoopee, we get many other treats—violent deaths, cunningly crafted betrayals, womanly self-sacrifice, manly valor (and vice-versa for both), and a lot of good, solidly intriguing information about Australian life….
To expect The Thorn Birds to be a Great Book would be unfair. There are things wrong with it, stock characters, plot contrivances and so forth. But to dismiss it would also be wrong. On its own terms, it is a fine, long, absorbing, popular book. It offers the best heartthrob since Rhett Butler, plenty of exotic color, plenty of Tolstoyan unhappiness and a good deal of connivance and action. Of its kind, it's an honest book. (p. E2)
Alice K. Turner, "Cardinal Sin," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1977, The Washington Post), April 24, 1977, pp. E1-E2.
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Miss McCullough's plan [in "The Thorn Birds"] is to trace three generations of a New Zealand family, especially the Cleary women: Fee, Meggie and Justine (grandmother, mother, granddaughter) through poverty and wealth, loving and dying and all the emotional terrain in between. She takes her title from a Celtic legend about a wondrous bird that sings only once in its life…. (p. 13)
Miss McCullough wants us to see that her characters experience great joy bought with equally great suffering. The question along the way is not whether they will hurt as much as how and when the blows will come, and who will take the meanest cut.
Though "The Thorn Birds" is much more compelling entertainment than the popcorn novels waiting down at the neighborhood Safeway, it still shares the company of fiction so machined with plots and outfitted with colorful characters that even when it achieves conviction—mostly in landscapes, natural disasters and first-time sex—it seldom expands our knowledge of what we have to do to get through life, or what the source of our eternal struggle may be. Miss McCullough isn't that kind of writer. She doesn't intellectualize. She narrates. She makes things happen to people. And so often that you don't drop her lightly. Later you wonder whether all the excitement meant anything. (pp. 13, 18)
While Miss McCullough's vocabulary isn't any wider than her reservoir of ideas, her memories of Australia and her imagination never run dry. She reads easily. Her characters are credible, if interchangeable. She writes as if to improve on life. And if we read fiction to fill the boring spaces left by reality, then "The Thorn Birds" fits our need. It runs like a dream factory. (p. 20)
Webster Schott, "Golden Fleece," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 8, 1977, pp. 13, 18, 20.
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[The Thorn Birds] promises romance, sentiment, history, the appeal of a faraway setting.
You may ask: Is The Thorn Birds a good book? No, it isn't. It is, in fact, awesomely bad. The writing is amateurish, all adjectives and exclamation points. The dialogue is leaden…. The characters are mechanical contrivances that permit the plot to grind along without encountering much resistance.
To its credit, The Thorn Birds is as easy to absorb as an hour of The Bionic Woman and as addictive as popcorn, if you like popcorn…. (pp. 91-2)
Amanda Heller, in a review of "The Thorn Birds," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1977, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 239, No. 6, June, 1977, pp. 91-2.
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Promoters are calling [The Thorn Birds] the Australian Gone With The Wind.
The Thorn Birds does resemble Gone With The Wind in containing a feisty Irish paterfamilias, a long-suffering mother, and a set of red-headed twins. It also features a sexy priest, a huge fortune, and three generations of family on a sprawling estate. And how little it makes of these possibilities!
In scene after scene, McCullough moves to the edge of conflict, peeks over, then shies away. The book opens on Meggie Cleary's fourth birthday, when her brothers wreck her new doll. The parents admonish the boys not to misbehave again. They never do. Paddy Cleary's sister summons his family to live on her Australian sheep station, Drogheda, because she has $13 million she might leave them when she dies. Father Ralph de Bricassart takes away most of the Clearys' inheritance, and how do they react? "We're going to live in the big house …" says Paddy. "Let the church have Mary's money and welcome."
The Clearys redecorate the house, stay friends with Father Ralph, and never have any money problems. Father Ralph goes to Rome for an uneventful rise through the church hierarchy.
Meanwhile, back at the sheep ranch, Meggie Cleary has fallen secretly in love with Father Ralph and won't marry any of the neighbors' sons. She marries a shearer because he looks like Ralph, but soon spurns him with a crushing, "You can't kiss for toffee!" Drogheda endures a 10-year drought, but nothing happens because they have enough water tanks. The Clearys install screens on the windows to keep out the flies, and Archbishop Ralph notices them when he comes to visit.
When the characters are good they're goody-goody, and when they're bad they have a good excuse. Ralph confesses a dalliance with Meggie to his mentor, who says: "I am not shocked, Ralph, nor disappointed…. Humility was the one quality you lacked, and it is the very quality which makes a great saint …" McCullough allows her wayward priest to cop out of his spirit-flesh dilemma by deciding of Meggie that "she, too, was a sacrament."
Meggie bears Ralph a son, but nobody even guesses who the father is except Meggie's mother, and she never tells anybody. The insipid boy grows up to be a perfect priest, enjoying several tea parties with the cardinal.
The Thorn Birds does include a nifty fire and some colorful landscape. Punched up and rewritten, the story could make a passable motion picture. The book is definitely no page-turner, though. Instead of villainy, intrigue, or danger, McCullough offers silliness and easy resolutions:
A baby would solve everything so please let there be a baby. And there was. When she told Anne and Luddie, they were overjoyed. Luddie especially turned out to be a treasure. He did the most exquisite smocking and embroidery …
Don't we get enough of this sort of thing in real life? For escape and fun, we crave the exotic, the risque, the novel! How disappointing that the only interest The Thorn Birds can sustain is curiosity about its fate as a publishing venture. Confirmed in our dratted cynicism, we put down this mediocre book and wait to see how far the bally-hoo can carry the hohum.
Pat Caplan, "Everyone's Nice, Life Goes On—A Page-Turner?" in The National Observer (reprinted by permission of The National Observer; © Dow Jones & Company, Inc. 1977; all rights reserved), June 20, 1977, p. 18.
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[The success of The Thorn Birds] seems to reflect the accuracy for most readers of the jacket-blurb assurance that "there is simply no way to put it down once you have begun it." The declaration has been echoed by so many commentators (as if other words had failed them) and used with such extravagance (one of them "scarcely ate or slept for two days") that it has become a phenomenon of its own. (p. 15)
[Eliot Fremont-Smith] found The Thorn Birds "a fine book," with a "refreshing wholesomeness," but it didn't make him laugh or cry, and he could put it down, he said, "because it is, after all, a romance." At the same time, he acknowledged that something "spurs the reader on"—specifically, a style "driven by a curiosity of mind, a caring for the subject, and some great energy within the author" [see excerpt above].
While the book certainly has these qualities, I would not link them to its style, or styles—which seem to derive from (and sometimes unwittingly to parody) a great many old-fashioned novels. Nor would I attribute the smashing success of The Thorn Birds to its bringing an unknown continent to life. The author is at her best in describing the swarming fauna, the dramatic monsoons and droughts, the floods and fires of her native Australia. She succeeds as well in communicating her extensive knowledge of work processes [such as sheep shearing]…. Ultimately, though, I think that what "spurs the reader on" is nothing more than the conventional plot.
Popular fiction, Northrop Frye has said, is "stylized and conventional to a very marked degree. We know in advance the kind of story we are going to read, and … we find the continuity of reading easier because of an exceptionally vigorous pacing supplied by the convention…." (pp. 15-16)
[In The Secular Scripture] Frye elaborates on his theory of popular literature. The bulk of it, he says, he would describe as "sentimental romance," a category that extends and develops the "naïve" formulas found in folk and fairy tales. The many variations of romance make up a structure that Frye sees as constituting an eternal vision of the world—a secular parallel of sacred scripture. And his further observations would seem to explain the qualified responses to The Thorn Birds that I have cited.
Because this kind of fiction is designed to entertain, he believes, "guardians of taste" consider it a waste of time…. Great literature, Frye contends, is "the genuine infinite" as opposed to "the phony infinite, the endless adventures and the endless sexual stimulation of the wandering of desire." He then adds a crucial qualification: "But I have a notion that if the wandering of desire did not exist, great literature would not exist either."
No one claims The Thorn Birds is great literature, yet it does raise some interesting questions about this "wandering." The central liaison in the three-generation epic is between a handsome, ambitious priest, Father Ralph de Bricassart, and the beautiful, spirited Meggie Cleary…. [The young priest first thinks] of 10-year-old Meggie as "the sweetest, most adorable little girl he had ever seen, hair … not red, not gold, but a perfect fusion of both … eyes like melted jewels."
Whoever gets this far will not be put off by the prose, and knows what will happen. He will read on simply to find out how the inevitable will take place—how the priest's tenderness for the child will become passion for the woman, how his ambition will result in his becoming a cardinal. (Interestingly, the actual sex is not unusually titillating: McCullough is explicit only when encounters fail; when they are blissful she tends toward a rhetoric of "melting bones" and "roped limbs.") The story sets up a curious sequence of expectations during the "continuous" experience of reading that is not clear until the novel is over, and the "discontinuous" process of criticism (the distinction is Frye's) has begun. Then one sees that for half the book one has waited for the illicit love to be consummated, and for the other half one has waited for it to be punished. Thus the narrative serves both the rake and the censor in the reader, whose returning sense of discrimination makes him wonder at his easy surrender to each.
More than the fact of wish fulfillment, the atavistic quality of the wishes fulfilled are disconcerting to sober second thought. For example, the priest privately curses his aging patroness—"Wicked old spider. God rot her!" If she dies soon afterward, and her corpse does rot in the summer heat, what satisfaction have we derived? A licensed voyeurism? A hint that a priest's curses are efficacious? We are distressed, too, by the free-floating mythic suggestiveness that plays throughout, most of it having to do with symbolic incest. Love for a priest is love for a "father"; there are strange understandings between mothers and sons, between sister and brother….
Only once the tale has been told does the kill-joy in the reader emerge, making him recognize that the force carrying him along has been the momentum of conventions. McCullough's accomplishment lies in her large acquaintance with them, and in her skill at exploiting the "wandering of desire" while keeping inhibitions (and ordinary skepticism) temporarily at bay. To say that one cannot put this book down is really another way of saying that it is the most conventional novel to appear in a long time. (p. 16)
Ruth Mathewson, "Putting Down 'The Thorn Birds'," in The New Leader (© 1977 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LX, No. 14, July 4, 1977, pp. 15-16.
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"Something I can get my teeth into", the woman in the library said to me the other day. The analogy with eating is fairly important, as is the grass-roots conviction that novels should be long, pleasurable, and nourishing. The Thorn Birds, a saga of love, money, adventure and disaster in the Australian outback, has arrived in time to save a sizable part of the population from malnutrition.
Of course it will be publicized as Australia's answer to Gone with the Wind and of course it contains vast areas of tosh, although those interested in role reversal will notice that the petulance and whimsy that made life at Tara so taxing have taken an unexpected turn. "I'll make you writhe", says malevolent chatelaine Mary Carson to her parish priest, Father (later Cardinal) Ralph de Bricassart …: "You're the most fascinating man I've ever met. You throw your beauty in our teeth, contemptuous of our foolishness. But I'll pin you to the wall on your own weakness, I'll make you sell yourself like any painted whore. Do you doubt it?"
This is not merely bad writing; it is true innocence, and it should be respected. For Colleen McCullough, who is not yet a professional novelist but is every inch a storyteller, shares the same appetites as the average reader and indeed does much to satisfy them. Innocence and generosity transform this chronicle of three women into something that is very close to compulsive reading. And it is the sort of reading that kept people happy before the advent of the television serial, a blockbusting yarn that has very little to do with the way we live now. For all its lavishness, the underlying ethic is a stern one. Miss McCullough is at her most authentic when she describes the vicissitudes of work and the character of landscape…. Ralph is a dead bore; the love scenes have the awesome imprecision of Lord Peter Wimsey's honeymoon and it is clear that they have been imposed on a story which is mainly a territorial rather than a sexual odyssey. When describing the eminent churchman's escapades, which somehow do not stand in the way of his career at the Vatican, Miss McCullough seems to be leaning rather heavily on La Faute de l'abbé Mouret; when describing the agonies of cane-cutting in North Queensland, she is most vividly herself.
The novel is a weird mixture of unusual description and concocted incident. No summary could do justice to the plot and might in any case lend itself too easily to parody. Suffice it to say that the women are indomitable, the men unreliable, the territory formidable, and the cash turnover immense. We are allowed the comfort of a complete disregard for the norm…. It is something of an achievement—in fact it is a considerable achievement—that no one could read this book simply for an easy laugh. Discrepancies of scale disappear in the relentless onward march of the narrative and at the end, which, it must be said, is far too long delayed, are not much remembered. It is in fact a good bad book, and it deserves a suspension of the critical faculties. It will give the woman in the public library something to get her teeth into at last.
And I suspect that it is not exclusively a woman's book…. Despite Miss McCullough's scorn for her male protagonists, there is no sexism in her argument, and there may indeed be a kind of homestead revival in her readership…. I suggest we all stick with her. She is clearly extraordinary in a way both men and women can admire….
Anita Brookner, "Continental Drift," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3941, October 7, 1977, p. 1135.
William A. Nolen
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[In An Indecent Obsession, the] second world war is winding down. On an unidentified island in the Pacific, in a hospital to which wounded Australian soldiers have been evacuated is a special ward—Ward X—reserved exclusively for those soldiers whose wounds are not physical but psychological. They are "troppo," the Australian word for soldiers who have broken under the stresses of warfare….
Sister (Australian for nurse) Honour Langtry, a 30-year-old unmarried woman from an upper-middle-class Australian family, is in charge of Ward X. Since the ward is physically separated from the rest of the hospital and since there is no staff psychiatrist, Honour takes, by default, full responsibility for the five patients who remain there as the war ends and the book begins….
To this relatively stable mini-world, another patient, Sergeant Michael Wilson, is introduced. As the reader might guess, Wilson upsets the precarious balance….
An Indecent Obsession is never boring. Colleen McCullough has created fully drawn and believable characters, and she keeps her plot moving along nicely—though I do wish she could have introduced a bit of levity. There isn't a laugh in it. But the author also delivers a message, intended or not. It is that happiness, contentment and tranquility depend to a great degree on how we manage our relationships with our families, friends, lovers—all those who are close to us…. We're not always as sensitive as we should be to the effect that any one of our relationships may have on another; our worlds are too large. Fortunately, most of those with whom we come in contact have the basic emotional stability to understand or overlook moderate shifts in our emotions. But in the microcosm of Ward X, with all its inhabitants already on the thin edge, the delicate balance of interwoven lives, and their frightening fragility, becomes terrifyingly apparent. In fact, if Edward Albee hadn't already appropriated the title, A Delicate Balance would have been a more illuminating title for McCullough's book than is An Indecent Obsession.
Finally, the question a lot of potential readers will want answered: Is An Indecent Obsession as good as McCullough's The Thorn Birds? The question can't be answered. It's like asking if a nice, ripe orange is as tasty as a nice, ripe apple; it depends on your mood and your taste buds. I enjoyed both books, but I thought An Indecent Obsession was more intriguing, more thought provoking than was The Thorn Birds.
William A. Nolen, "By Love Possessed, by War Obsessed," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), October 11, 1981, p. 6.
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Ward X [the setting for "An Indecent Obsession"] has reached a certain balance with the help of a nurse-catalyst, Sister Honour Langtry, who initially emerges as almost a stock character in British fiction—a combination of Jean Brodie and Mary Poppins. Into this stabilized environment comes a new element: a soldier named Michael who has been placed on Ward X for no discernible reason….
The environment is one of the chief villains in this novel. Half the action is concerned with warding off the elements and the pests that inhabit the hospital: keeping dry, keeping cool, keeping free of mildew, keeping flies and mosquitoes and roaches out. Everyone on the ward is obsessed with this. The heat and humidity are pervasive and oppressive, and in Mrs. McCullough's hands are a constant reminder of the claustral feeling of the hospital itself and of the souls imprisoned there. (p. 14)
Thematically, "An Indecent Obsession" is a very old-fashioned novel, with its focus on the conflict between duty and love, a rare concern in contemporary fiction. It's not strange that the character of Honour Langtry, the quintessential nursing sister, has a powerfully Victorian flavor.
But there is a chilly wind blowing off Honour Langtry, and she is perhaps not as sympathetic a character as the author intended. Her commitment to duty seems less than righteous. She allows no other nurse on Ward X, on the grounds that it would confuse and tire these war-weary men, but one feels that her obsession is basically selfish. She wants the power to herself; she wants to be the center of their lives, and her lack of awareness of the part she is playing in her patients' dependency strains one's sympathy for her. Later, after the war and the horrible climax of the book, Sister Langtry goes into "mental nursing" because of her experience on Ward X. She does this, we are told, at considerable sacrifice in prestige, out of compassion and dedication for those patients who go into Australia's mental hospitals never to leave. But her "compassion" seems disinterested, impersonal, and I doubt that Mrs. McCullough meant to leave this cool impression.
Although much of this material has been treated before, Mrs. McCullough brings an immediate sense of time and place to her portrayal of Ward X, and her attention to detail makes one feel the discomfort of the sweltering tropical nights as well as appreciate the awesome beauty of the sea, the torrential rains and the sunsets.
The last lines in the book read: "Nurse Langtry began to walk again, briskly and without any fear, understanding herself at last. And understanding that duty, the most indecent of all obsessions, was only another name for love." Neither the sentiment expressed nor the suggestion that Nurse Langtry finally understands herself is convincing; nevertheless, Colleen McCullough is able to make the reader care about Sister Langtry, who, despite herself, is a vibrant enough character to make the book enjoyable and worth reading. (pp. 14, 54)
Joanne Greenberg, "Love and Duty," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 25, 1981, pp. 14, 54.
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Belying its label, Colleen McCullough's new chart-topper [An Indecent Obsession] is in the mould of one of those improving tales for young ladies with which our grandmothers were expected to educate their souls. "Or, Sister Langtry chooses the Path of Duty" would have made an excellent sub-title, containing enough of a clue perhaps to save the reader from spending the whole volume worrying mildly about the identity of the "indecent obsession" and drawing various, consistently wrong, conclusions. In fact, McCullough scatters clues liberally throughout, though that "indecent" has served to throw us off the scent. In the last paragraph she spells it all out; "duty" is the obsession in question, though McCullough adds, in an attempt at profundity, that "duty is only another name for love". Is that why it is indecent? There seems to be no other justification in the novel's pages for this brand of heavy irony. Irony, in fact, begins and ends with the title, though a dose of it would have been beneficial to the character of Sister Langtry, seemingly an amalgam of every screen and pulp-fiction Supernurse who has confronted the world of suffering manhood with a starched breast and soft, susceptible heart….
Despite the idealism her author wishes upon her, Sister Langtry spends a great deal of her time sexually sizing up her patients. Michael, whose arrival the first section of the book laboriously charts, is of immediate fascination, although "Sis", we learn, is already involved with another patient, Neil (officer-class, like her), and has been on the verge of succumbing to the beautiful but psychopathic Luce. For love and duty it is clearly going to be a long war….
McCullough touches on some interesting areas of ambiguity: between sane and insane, hetero-and homosexual, lust and bloodlust, male and female attitudes to sex, but fails to explore them in the depth they merit. She is far more interested in her heroine's state of romantically polarized conflict between Neil and Michael, love and duty. Her attempts at showing us the self-questioning side of Langtry produce some feeble interior monologue which reveals little more than the authorial strings at work.
Too many of the other characters (hypochondriac Nugget, crusty misogynist Colonel Donaldson) seem to be out of the Hospital Writer's Casebook; Luce, however, is convincing, with his veneer of swaggering machismo and his bitter social resentments. His death occurs offstage and its unpleasantness is handled with restraint. However, there is surely a missed opportunity here; McCullough might have involved the reader with the one character of tragic potential. Nor does the "whodunnit" frisson amount to very much. So manipulative a writer is unwilling to leave her readers the space in which to form their own doubts and draw their own conclusions.
The least one might expect from a best-selling author is the ability to tell a gripping story, but McCullough's narrative is often slow, plodding and short on surprise. The argument between love and duty becomes increasingly banal after the climax of Luce's death…. But at least the last, postwar section with Sister Langtry permanently committed to psychiatric nursing in unidealized surroundings attains a sober realism between the bouts of moralizing, and the avoidance of wedding-bells and happily-ever-after comes as a pleasant relief.
Carol Rumens, "Within the Starched Breast," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4106, December 11, 1981, p. 1448.
Thomas E. Helm
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496
One would not describe An Indecent Obsession as spellbinding, nor think of Australian novelist Colleen McCullough's treatment here of an army nurse assigned to oversee a half-dozen mentally disordered patients at the end of World War II as in any way comparable, let's say, to Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Her book has neither the emotional power nor the intellectual toughness associated with that American novel. Still, like her earlier work The Thorn Birds, this is a fairly well-crafted piece of fiction with a good story line and, for the most part, convincing characters.
Honour Langtry stands at the storm's eye, shepherding men whose lives are at loose ends, suffering from battle weariness and jungle fatigue but also, the reader is led to believe, something more serious, more troubling. The suffering of Ward X is not medical; the pain signals rather a malaise of mind and spirit, at once amorphous and sinister. One hopes to learn more of this peculiar pain not susceptible to the ministrations of the medical physicians, and one expects too that Honour Langtry, with sensitivities and an intelligence above the common sort, will penetrate its mysteries. Would that that were the case.
Honour does her duty, does it lovingly and, with but one important slip, does it without lapse. Yet she does it without profound reflection on the human misery around her. Even the malevolent Luce, with whom she is matched early on, as good against evil, makes no significant impression on her…. Luce is dispatched in a bloody scene well before the novel's end, and, while the circumstances of his death bear significantly on the plot, his character does not, nor does the fact of evil he apparently represents.
Love, it turns out, is the indecent obsession, and not just love in general, but love seen as duty. Here we are into something. Good for McCullough! With the contemporary abandonment by church and society of the idea that love can be, perhaps ought to be, duty, we have a novelist calling attention again to what is central to the love commandment of the New Testament: love as vocation, love as a claim on the will amid real possibilities and real limitations, love as an obedient service to others. These qualities define Honour Langtry's devotion to nursing, to Ward X and, above all, to the men who are her patients. One wishes only that the problems associated with evil or with the malaise of the human spirit might either have been integrated into the story or jettisoned. These secondary themes clutter the fiction, distract from its real point, and raise expectations that go unfulfilled. The net effect is that Honour Langtry's final discovery about herself and her work loses some of its force. (pp. 383-84)
Thomas E. Helm, in a review of "An Indecent Obsession," in The Christian Century (copyright 1982 Christian Century Foundation; reprinted by permission from the March 31, 1982 issue of The Christian Century), Vol. 99, No. 11, March 31, 1982, pp. 383-84.