Friday Hoyden: Colleen McCullough

McCullough in 2004

I’ve just spent the last week, in between spring cleaning and the odd gleeful skip over the departure of John Winston Howard from the national scene, reading the latest volume in Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series of historical novels, which detail the final decades of the Republic, and especially the way in which the Republican institutions were either dismantled or distorted to allow for a growing authoritarianism which ended in the dictatorship of Julius Caesar and then the final descent into outright hereditary rulership ushered in via the Principate of Augustus.

It’s fascinating stuff, and although I’m sure that her primary reason for writing the books was simple fascination with those marvellous characters, her unifying thesis whereby the political intrigues of certain men (Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar, Antony and Augustus prime amongst them) demanding that the constitution be bent in their favour, building up into more and more losses of freedoms over the years, is salutary and sobering to absorb. The conflict between those who want to reform cumbersome traditions within the principles of Republican ideals, and those who bitterly oppose any reform in the name of honouring the Republic even though obsolete practises are choking the state, is also salutary.

McCullough became a celebrity with the huge international success of her second novel, The Thorn Birds, in 1977, so much so that she quit her job at Yale School of Internal Medicine earlier than she had intended, because she had become a tourist attraction.

McCullough in 1977

That novel, along with her first novel Tim, cemented her firmly in the public imagination as a romance novelist, although her books in fact cover a range of genres, including a biography of Sir Roden Cutler. Financial independence has given her the luxury of being able to give her publishers regular fits of the vapours as she yet again fails to write a sequel to a successful work (she claims to have killed off as many characters as possible in the Thorn Birds so that a sequel would not be practicable). The one series she has stuck with has been the Rome novels, largely because she views them as an extended single work, and they are far from the bestselling list despite having a loyal and appreciative following, who enjoy their encyclopaedic nature. Of course, the Rome books are hardly devoid of romance in either the original or the modern sense, which is entirely appropriate given the origins of the word1.

But it’s not her meticulous research and dedication to her craft (she redrafts her books at least six and often ten times) that makes McCullough a hoyden. Neither is it her career in research science at a time when few women had such careers (she was a neurophysiology researcher on three continents before publishing her first books), or her devil-may-care attitude to literary critics. It is her laugh.

McCullough at home on Norfolk Island in 1990

Even now, when she struggles with Macular Degeneration and needs to use a wheelchair, she still has that wonderful, hearty laugh. [As heard in this Enough Rope interview: Video | Transcript] Think about how few people, let alone how few women, you have heard who regularly laugh like that: full, throaty chortles and big belly laughs. That is the laugh of someone who is totally comfortable inside their own skin.

Apart from her saucy, boisterous and carefree outlook on life generally, I somewhat envy McCullough her financial independence and subsequent physical comforts: life in an island paradise,

McCullough at home outside on Norfolk Island in 1990

and these bookshelves. Is that just a hallway lined with shelves do you think, or does she have a room full of rows of shelves?

McCullough at home inside on Norfolk Island in 1990

I want one.

1. Etymology of the word “romance”:

It is revealing that one of the earliest (1330) recorded occurrences of romance states that “Frankysche speche ys cald Romaunce” (i.e. “the French language is called Romance“). As we see, this was a far cry from its modern usage. Its earliest meaning was the name given to certain vernacular languages, such as French, Spanish and Italian, which had evolved out of Latin. Linguists still refer to this group of languages as the Romance languages. Literally, romance means “Roman” as it comes from the Latin romanicus by way of the Italian romanzo and Provencal roumanso.

In 1330 almost all European books were written in Latin, hand copied by monks for the eyes of scholars and other clerics. In other words, unspeakably boring. A new kind of literature was emerging in France, however. Instead of stuffy Latin, it was written in the vibrant, earthy language of everyday speech: Romance (i.e. French). The new literature was filled with fantastic tales of chivalric heroism, eerie magic and the latest craze which was taking Europe by storm: “courtly love”. At first the English couldn’t decide whether such a book was a romance or a roman. We chose romance but the latter word survives in modern French where un roman is “a novel”.

For centuries, the essential part of a romance was its fantasy and remoteness from ordinary existence. The notion of it being a “love story” did not emerge until about 1800, around the same time that the romantic movement was taking hold in the arts.

Categories: Culture, health, history

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7 replies

  1. I meant to add this picture to the post as well: working on one of the maps for the first book in the Rome series.

    If you’re the sort of person who thoroughly enjoyed I Claudius, or the recent TV miniseries Rome, you should enjoy McCullough’s Rome novels.

  2. Thanks for writing this!
    I have been a fan of her Roman books since they first came out, and about halfway through realised that I needed the set as hardbacks to cope with the re-readings I give them every few years, usually when I’m on holiday, as they are terrific beach reading.
    The fact that she does all her own drawings and maps is very endearing, and the amount of research is astounding.
    One day I will have a library like hers!

  3. Oh, I didn’t know she was a neurophysiologist! I haven’t tackled the Rome books – should I add them to the groaning To-Read shelves?

  4. She apparently originally wanted to be a doctor, but gave it up due to an allergy to the soap needed for scrubbing at the time!

    Like Duckie, I keep on rereading the Rome books, so I reckon reinforce the shelf supports and add them to your list!

  5. I am doing some research on a particular acpect of Roman Republic circa 82 BC and it would be very useful to reach C. McCullough for confirmation on a few points. Is it possible anyone here knows of an on-line link that could help me with making contact or possibly an email address that she monitors? RegWorth

  6. regworth, because of her loss of sight in recent years, I’m not sure that she responds to such requests any more – her glossary sections in earlier Rome books used to end with an invitation to write to her for copies of some of her notes, but the latest one didn’t include that. You could contact her publishers, although you’ll probably get a more timely response from a university history department, if you ask them who is their resident expert on the time period.
    Anyway, thanks for asking the question, as it made me google her again to find her publisher details, which found me this news story, and reminded me that her book set 20 years after the events of Pride & Prejudice has now been published: The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet. I love the way that she describes it as a “chook book” rather than “chick lit”.

  7. Thank you tigtog, I’ll try your suggestion and see if there’s a possible contact through her publishers. Appreciate the quick response! Glad you were able to find something useful for your efforts as well. regworth

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