Vale Colleen McCullough

ABC News – Colleen McCullough: Internationally acclaimed Australian author dies aged 77

I loved McCullough’s Rome books. Not just how she told the stories, but her copious endnotes about each personage and major historical incident and why she’d made some of her narrative choices regarding whether to go with the common historical view of particular famous persons or whether to highlight some of their lesser known aspects or indeed whether to go another way entirely based on gaps in the records and informed speculation on tantalising wisps of documented snippets. I found it an illuminating glimpse into how some of the famous histories of classical, mediaeval and early modern times may have been compiled, before modern academic rigor made histories more accurate but mostly much drier. Unlike those pre-modern historians, McCullough knew her academic rigor extremely well, but didn’t let it ruin a good story.

I wrote the post below back in 2007, when McCullough was one of our Friday Hoydens.

Originally published December 1, 2007

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.

I know what I’ll be rereading for the next few weeks.

Categories: arts & entertainment

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4 replies

  1. #ObituaryFail from The Australian, discussed in The Guardian:

    That these outrageous obituaries still being published demonstrates how little has changed, and how women’s lives are still too often abridged and disrespected. It shows us where the emphasis remains; a woman’s physical attractiveness and relationships with men are given more weight than her personal accomplishments.

  2. RIP Colleen.
    And grrr, That Newspaper. sigh

  3. #MyOzObituary – ‘rude’ obituary to Australian writer Colleen McCullough mocked online – thought this might be of interest to you.

  4. I loved her Founders of Rome series, and it was largely responsible for my supervisor being very impressed by how much I knew about the institutions of republican Rome. Our eldest daughter is studying classics at school this year: I must see if I can hook her on these books.
    I really admired her. I didn’t like all her books by any means, but I loved some of them. More than that, I admired her wholehearted and somewhat bloody minded approach to life. Why shouldn’t an incredibly erudite and successful author live of one of the tiniest specks in the Pacific where it is nearly impossible for her publisher to reach her! (Especially pre-internet.)

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