Colleen McCullough (muh-KUHL-uhk) was born in Wellington, New South Wales, Australia, of Irish Catholic stock. Her mother was a New Zealander of Maori ancestry, her father a cutter of cane. She was educated at Holy Cross College and the University of Sydney. Excelling in science and widely read in the humanities, McCullough worked as a teacher, a library worker, and a bus driver. Economic realities and a soap allergy prevented a career in medicine; instead, she studied neurophysiology and became a neurology researcher in Sydney, in England, and at Yale University’s School of Internal Medicine. In 1993 Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, awarded McCullough the D.Litt. degree. On April 13, 1984, at age forty-six, McCullough married Ric Robinson, a housepainter who would later be a planter. She settled on Norfolk Island, Australia, about one thousand miles east of the mainland.
McCullough began writing seriously while at Yale, where, in the evenings, she wrote her first novel, Tim, and the novel that would establish her reputation and her professional career as a writer, The Thorn Birds. Planning, often for years, before actually writing contributed to her speedy composition.
McCullough writes in a variety of genres. Tim, set in Sydney, can be only loosely labeled a romance, or a novel of awakenings. Tim Melville, a mentally retarded but handsome man of twenty-five, marries a woman of forty-three in order to gain future security for himself after his mother dies. In the end, both partners grow and mature in different ways. Two important themes concern emotional and social growth and the response by society to people who are mentally retarded.
Planned before the writing of Tim, The Thorn Birds was a great success. A saga spanning three generations treats the Cleary family, who toil with no apparent future and emigrate to Australia, only to find life there disheartening. The world of the novel is one in which women suffer at the hands of thoughtless men. Themes of suffering and of love and lust as destructive forces are developed. Although successful, the novel was not without controversy. Some reviewers attributed its success to skillful marketing rather than quality. Reading about a Roman Catholic priest breaking his vows, fathering a child, and still remaining in Rome did not resonate well with some Catholics.
An Indecent Obsession is a psychological novel set in a South Pacific army hospital near the end of World War II. It deals thematically with the social effects of homosexuality or the fear of it. A Creed for the Third Millennium is a dystopian novel. Set in the twenty-first century, the novel predicts future occurrences based on political and social trends current at the time of writing. The novelette The Ladies of Missalonghi makes an unusual use of the romance genre; some critics called it an anti-romance that undercuts the romance by showing its absurdities. The book satirizes snobbery related to wealth and social class and raises profound moral and ethical questions.
The first of the Masters of Rome series was published in 1990. Five lengthy historical novels, products of ten years of research, are set in the later days of the Roman Republic. The First Man in Rome focuses on a feud between Gaius Marius and his brother-in-law Sulla. The Grass Crown traces Sulla’s attempt to control Rome. Fortune’s Favorites continues Sulla’s saga as he ages and dies and a younger generation of would-be rulers arises. Caesar’s Women treats Julius Caesar’s rise to power between 68 and 58 b.c.e. The final volume, Caesar: Let the Dice Fly, opens in 54 b.c.e., with Caesar civilizing and romanizing various tribes in Brittania and Gaul. Other contenders for power are seen as they interact with Caesar. Critics commended McCullough’s thoroughness and storytelling skills in the series, though sheer size and scope may interfere with character development, according to some critics. Morgan’s Run is also a historical novel, tracing the life of a Bristol tavern keeper, a devoted husband and father who finds himself consigned to transportation to the continent of Australia in an experiment in penology in 1787. The central figure, Richard Morgan, is an unforgettable hero.
Colleen McCullough (muh-KUHL-uhk) was born in Wellington, New South Wales, on June 1, 1937. Her father, James McCullough, was an Irish emigrant who arrived in Australia in the 1920’s. His wife was a New Zealander with Irish Catholic roots. The family lived primarily in Sydney, Australia. The father, who was a sugar cane cutting contractor, was often absent. Colleen later described him as cold and disinterested in family. The household was expanded by Colleen’s mother’s nine brothers, who often lived with them during the 1930’s and 1940’s.
McCullough was educated as an Irish Catholic, attending parochial school for twelve years, then going on to Holy Cross College, and she graduated with honors in English, chemistry, and botany. She then intended to ensure her future financial well-being by attending the University of Sydney to study medicine. This plan was abandoned because of a lack of funds. After a stint away from school working as journalist, teacher, library worker, and bus driver, McCullough returned to the University of Sydney and obtained a degree as a medical technician specializing in neurophysiology. She worked in neurophysiology in Australia, London, Birmingham, and finally in the United States at the Yale University School of Internal Medicine.
While at Yale, McCullough decided to supplement her income by writing a novel. Using her evenings to work at a characteristically feverish pace, she finished ten drafts in three months and emerged with Tim (1974). The next year she began to write The Thorn Birds (1977). At this time McCullough was still working full time at Yale and writing in the evenings. She spent such long hours at the typewriter that she wore surgical gloves to keep her arms from rubbing against the desk and support hose to relieve her legs and feet from swelling. She finished the entire work in one year. The Thorn Birds soon became a best seller and made publishing history by commanding the highest paperback reprint price to date at that time—$1,900,000.
At the time of the success of The Thorn Birds McCullough was scheduled to begin nurses’ training in London. Once publicity for the novel raised her to celebrity status, however, she changed her plans. As a new millionaire she felt she would have been too conspicuous in any hospital, and her presence would not have aided either the patients or her own research for future books.
McCullough’s next work reflected her interest in nursing. An Indecent Obsession (1981) is the story of an Australian military nurse in a ward for mildly emotionally disturbed soldiers at the end of World War II. Critics considered it a more serious work than The Thorn Birds. McCullough considered it her whodunit.
At this point in her career McCullough decided that fame required a buffer and began to search for a more secluded place to live. She moved to Norfolk Island, a tiny bit of land off the coast of Australia with a policy which required that one be approved to live there. The remote location and absence of distractions allowed her to indulge her many hobbies, which have included reading, cookery, painting, gardening, and astronomy. She wrote a book on Australian food called Cooking with Colleen McCullough and Jean Easthope (1982). In 1984, she married Ric Robinson, another Norfolk Island resident.
Once settled in her new life McCullough continued her literary efforts. To her offbeat romance Tim, her family epic The Thorn Birds, her mystery An Indecent Obsession, and her cookbook she added a futurist novel called A Creed for the Third Millennium (1985), and an altered fairy tale entitled The Ladies of Missalonghi (1987). The latter work elicited cries of plagiarism from some readers, who saw in it a distorted reflection of The Blue Castle (1926) by L. M. Montgomery. McCullough’s response to the allegations was to point out that both novels are basically retellings of the tale of Cinderella and both happen to be placed in similar settings and time periods. The heroines, however, have very different motivations and are quite distinct from each other. Since the two books were similar in concept but not execution the charges of plagiarism were not accurate.
McCullough’s next foray was into the world of historical fiction with The First Man in Rome (1990). A painstakingly detailed account of the Roman republic before the time of Julius Caesar, it was the first book in Masters of Rome series. The series continued with six more novels: The Grass Crown (1991), Fortune’s Favorite (1993), Caesar’s Women (1996), Caesar: Let the Dice Fly (1997), The October Horse (2002), and Antony and Cleopatra (2007).
Colleen McCullough’s works contain meticulously researched worlds that envelop the reader in detail. Her characters are ordinary people who possess a recognizable humanity. They are compelled by old-fashioned concepts of duty and adherence to convention to the exclusion of personal happiness.