Of Michener and McCullough: A Brief Remembrance, with Links

download (1)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.

Screen_Shot_2015-0_3182522cTo 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.

 

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Pennyroyal Preacher Man

Badass (?):  Reverend Adam Sylvaine, brawny yet contemplative Eversea cousin, discovering his vocation, serving the flock of Pennyroyal Green as their vicar while dodging the lustful and marriage-minded pursuits of the entire female population.

Falls For: Eve Duggan, widowed Countess of Wareham, notorious former Covent Garden actress, courtesan, and all-around Scandalous Woman.

Brought to You By: Julie Anne Long, in A Notorious Countess Confesses (2012) (7th in the Pennyroyal Green series)

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Hangs Out In: The pulpit, the vicarage, and a certain bedchamber at Damask Manor.

Likes: Children and old people, sarcastic and scandalous old women in particular.

Dislikes:  Anyone making snide, insinuating comments about Evie’s past.

Badass Hero Moment: When a man of the cloth throws a punch, or offers up five pounds he doesn’t have, you know it’s meaningful.  Fortunately, he’s also forceful and persuasive from the pulpit.  Definitely a winning combination.

Badass Annoying Moment: Makes snide — beyond insinuating — comments about Evie’s past.  (At that point, though, they were both pretty much acting like idiots.)

(too) Frequently Described As: Golden.

Looks Like….?

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(Richard Chamberlain, The Thorn Birds, 1983)

Ha ha.  JAL has a clever bit of dialogue around the fact that Rev. Sylvaine doesn’t wear a “dress” (a cassock), and he’s (obviously) not a Catholic priest.  He’s really more like a lanky, broad-shouldered country gentleman who happens to have the care of a church and its flock of parishioners rather in place of an estate. Still, the contrast between his outward control and inner lust, along with the inevitable loss of control and explosive sex reminded me of the infamous Father Ralph. Yes, I know Pennyroyal Green is a million miles from the Australian outback and really there’s nothing else similar about these two.  But it made me smile to think about the Thorn Birds!

To Read Or Not To Read?  So. The whole thing about Adam being a vicar really got me thinking, though, about what had to be different about him — from the other Eversea and Redmond males — in order to make him believable as both an alpha hero and a clergyman.  I think both Adam and Evie were just kind of too… something… maybe it’s that they were both too earnest.  It must have been a challenge to write him in such a way that he’d come across as a red-blooded…well… badass like his cousins Colin and Ian.  These two, who we’ve already met and married off in prior books, make regular appearances here, checking up on Adam. It’s as if Long uses them to give Adam some badass glamour by association. I kept trying to figure out if he needed this kind of bucking up, or if he really is just a kind of beta badass, who keeps a low profile but is a force to be reckoned with when pushed to his limit.

What’s more convincing is Adam as a man exploring his calling as a caretaker of souls, even as a somewhat ambivalent sermon-writer and preacher.  His humility as he discovers his gift and his vocation are nicely conveyed.  But combined with the fact that Evie spends almost the entire book doing good works of one kind or another (she visits the parish poor, she makes huge and almost irrevocable sacrifices in order to provide for her own poor relations) there may have been too much humble pie for me.

That’s always part of the problem with a (former) courtesan heroine; there always have to be dire circumstances that forced her to sell herself,  she has to be stoic and/or unapologetic about being a fallen woman, and she has to refuse to “drag down” the hero, before they can arrive at the HEA.

Bottom line — these two could not have made more incompatible career choices, and it just wasn’t quite as sparkling and fun — or even as funny — as the preceding Pennyroyals. I don’t know if I’m going to start giving letter grades, but if I had to, this would be a solid B. Anything from JAL is just so beautifully written and Pennyroyal Green is a place to which one wants to return again and again.

Tangentially Related … and Possibly Diverting:  The setting in quaint PG, with the requisite assortment of odd and earnest villagers, at one point taking turns in a dramatic recitation of 1st Corinthians that is both sweet and ridiculous, also made me think about funny old Dibley.

Romance arrived for our dear Vicar of Dibley in the HILARIOUS episodes where Dawn French lusted after, and landed, smoldering Richard Armitage.  Found this awesome video of Armitage and French romancing and goofing around together. I firmly believe any excuse to watch Richard Armitage should be taken advantage of, so Enjoy!

Pamela Poll:

Who’s your favorite badass sexy preacher man? Can a clergyman be a convincing alpha hero?