In 1977 when The Thorn Birds was published I was fresh off a junior-high year of obsessively re-reading Jane Eyre and addictively consuming hundreds of Barbara Cartland category romances for my 7th grade reading log (fortunately, I had some understanding of the quality/quantity distinction, which is probably why my English teacher let me inflate my numbers so cravenly as long as there was a diversity of other literary selections mixed in with the formulaic Cartlands). I was also sneakily reading Harold Robbins paperbacks and other similarly torrid material I found stashed in the guest room. And I’d discovered James Michener and the lengthy escapism of the place-based epic historical novel/family saga. I still have an incredibly dog-eared copy of Centennial with heavily doodled inside covers – I was practicing signing my name in different handwritings, and designing monograms. I loved that book.
But I think Colleen McCullough’s sweeping Australian saga of the sheep-ranching Clearys and tormented fallen angel Father Ralph de Bricassart was probably the first mega bestseller and cultural phenomenon in which I was old enough to participate as a reader while it was happening – buying a copy while it was on the bestseller lists, re-reading it several times while waiting for the TV miniseries. So I had a moment of intense nostalgia when I heard news of Colleen McCullough’s death, on the radio during my morning commute one day last week. With commute time nearly doubled due to the heavy snow congestion on all the roads here in metro Boston, I had plenty of time to try and remember details about Drogheda and the impossible, illicit romance of heiress Meggie and vow-breaking Father Ralph.
It’s not a book I’ve thought about continuously over the years, and I haven’t re-read it since high school. Still, as Sarah MacLean pointed out in her USA Today tribute to McCullough, The Thorn Birds is “one of those books” — fiction readers of a certain age all know it and have a response to it, and for many romance readers it probably was a formative literary experience in centering so fully and unapologetically on a doomed, star-crossed romance.
To be truthful, I probably wouldn’t have felt moved to do a post about this book, except as it comes up tangentially when people talk about romance novels with clergy heroes. Sitting in traffic listening to the NPR obituary I had a random thought about how it would be nice to chat with other romanceland twitterfolk about McCullough’s passing, and the influence of The Thorn Birds. But then I got to work and forgot about it, until the next time I was on twitter and saw the uproar over her obituary. I mean the misogyny and sexism embedded therein was so egregious the retweets were crossing all my tweet streams, even my “serious” work twitter where I mainly follow economics eggheads and policy wonks far from the world of book talk and literary criticism.
So this has all been stewing for me, and I thought about how vividly I can remember reading The Thorn Birds as an utterly immersive experience. But I read Michener the same way, at the time. And can you even for one minute imagine a similarly offensive framing of his life’s work?? Actually, people all over started to do just this kind of thing, with some hilarious results. Just google #MyOzObituary. Even when pointing out Michener’s populist rather than literary pedigree in the hierachy of publishing, The Economist’s obit leads with an admiring: “Spurned by many but read by millions.”
Then today I read this good essay by Danielle Binks (via @RomanceProf) that explores the various facets of literary sexism that are exposed (again..) by this latest episode, with particular focus on persistent denigration and snobbery around the most-read genres, which happen to also be the most female-oriented genres, of romance and “women’s fiction.” This is a marvelous synthesis, and contains an thoughtful articulation of the relationship between broad cultural sexism and particular forms of literary elitism, especially the ambivalent position of the romance genre in the literary establishment. Binks also pulled together many good links and many wonderful quotes from around romanceland, offering contextualization of anti-romance literary snobbery within broader considerations of sexism, and outlining a history of centuries-old disdain for “silly novels by lady novelists.” Against all this, there is the empowering narrative of women’s shared experiences of reading, expressed by Sarah Wendell, among others, and quoted by Binks as well:
Sarah Wendell asked a similar question of her followers – if The Thorn Birds was a gateway romance book for them – and the response was overwhelming; ‘For many, many readers, it was the book that introduced them to the genre. For some, it was a book given to them by their mothers or aunts, and for others, it was the book their moms hid from them so they wouldn’t read it (which of course they did anyway)! When I asked on Twitter, many women told me that they remember clearly seeing their moms reading the book, and that the miniseries was an event.’ (Danielle Binks, “When will we write an obituary for literary sexism?” Daily Life, 2/2/2015)
I haven’t got any larger deeper insights here. I might quibble about the fact that while the novel does tell the story of a powerful romance, the lack of a happy ending among other things sets it outside the bounds of conventional genre romance, and it reads more like a Michener than a Woodiwiss, at least in my recollection.
But I do share this feeling of connection as a Thorn Birds fan of a certain age. I’m thinking there may be similarly powerful nostalgia around other memorable book-to-screen “events” from the 70s, from Garp to Scruples. OK, maybe not Scruples. (I liked Princess Daisy much better.)
Today I’m just taking a few more words than I can fit into a 140-character tweet, to offer my small personal contribution to the powerful tradition of reading and remembrance that is finding expression this week in talking about Colleen McCullough, her life, her books, and her impact on a generation of readers. I’m grateful for her literary legacy, and I’m glad to share in celebrating it with many other lifelong readers.