By Colleen McCullough
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
It’s always slightly disorienting to hear a book you’ve never heard of described as a “classic”.
It’s even more disorienting to read that “classic” and discover that it is absolute trash.
I’m not sure what called ‘The Thorn Birds‘ to my attention after all these years. I suspect I started noticing it on bookstore shelves – it is a great title, after all, and a big honking book, and I love big honking books. I certainly did minimal research into the plot before I bought it, but buy it I did.
‘The Thorn Birds‘ is, apparently, the best-selling novel in Australia, ever. It is also the source material for the most-watched mini-series of all time, and it has been re-released as a ‘modern classic’. Only this last achievement surprises me: ‘The Thorn Birds’ is pulpy and plot-driven, perfect mini-series material, but only a classic if classicism is a measure of popularity and not of critical merit.
It is, at its heart, the story of Meggie Cleary and her family. Meggie is born in New Zealand, the only daughter of Fee and Paddy Cleary. Paddy is a sheep-shearer and the family is poor; however, Paddy’s estranged sister, Mary Carson, is the richest women (nay, person) in Australia, the owner of Drogheda, a sheep and cattle ranch as big as Ireland. When Maggie is a child, her aunt calls her father to Drogheda to come and run the ranch, promising to leave it to him when she’s done.
On Drogheda, Meggie meets Father Ralph de Bricassart, the astonishingly fit, astonishingly handsome, astonishingly suave local priest. Ralph and Meggie, the priest and the little girl, love each other on sight, he with a strange, protective, fatherly instinct for a lonely little girl, and she with the adoration a child feels for the only being that has ever loved it.
But Meggie will, of course, grow up and, of course, become very beautiful, and the love between them will change, mature, and, of course, become lustful and forbidden. ‘The Thorn Birds’ is the story of the way in which this deep and forbidden love will shape and deform not only their lives but the lives of the entire Cleary family, Meggie’s parents and brothers, and the two children she will eventually bear, one with the irresistibly sexy Father Ralph.
It’s really not a great book. The plot alone should give that away: it’s overwrought and creepy all at the same time: the fated and forbidden love between a devastatingly attractive, yet ambitious, priest and a lonely young girl, a young girl to whom he is both masculine ideal and father-figure? It’s wildly implausible and super gross.
From McCullough’s New York Times obituary: “Ms. McCullough’s fiction was prized by readers for its propulsive plots, sympathetic characters and sheer escapist potential. Its critical reception was mixed; reviewers took the author to task for sins ranging from stilted dialogue to the profligate use of exclamation points…Negative reviews did not appear to faze Ms. McCullough, whom The Philadelphia Inquirer, in a 1996 profile, described as “a woman supremely unafflicted by self-doubt.”
“I think in their heart of hearts all these people know that I’m more secure than they are, more confident than they are and smarter than they are,” she said of her critics in a 2007 interview on Australian television.”
Germaine Greer wrote a very satisfying re-examination of ‘The Thorn Birds’ in the Guardian when it was reissued as a Virago Modern Classic, in which she says, “It would probably be over the top to denounce ‘The Thorn Birds’ as a sneakily racist and sectarian book, but it is definitely contrived and insidious. Let’s just leave it at that.”
Germaine Greer is exactly correct: ‘The Thorn Birds‘ is contrived and insidious. ‘Insidious’ is a very good word for what it is: it is possessed of a deeply fucked up world view which it hides with plot, and then uses the outcome of that plot as an argument in favor of that worldview.
But what is the worldview? Great question, and the answer is: I’m not entirely sure, but I know it’s bad.
And, yes, I know that that is a bullshit thing to say, but it is nevertheless true. It is possible to know that something is corrupting without understanding its exact designs.
The world of ‘The Thorn Birds‘ is an all-white world. It is one in which the gigantic estates of the white landed gentry which locked aboriginal peoples out of the Australian economy for generations are remembered with nostalgia. It is one in which the sexual conquest of a young girl, a young girl in his charge, over whose family he has complete financial power, can be considered part of a priest’s spiritual deepening. And that the young girl is probably the seducer anyway. It is a world in which deferred sexual or maternal impulses curdle inside women and cause them to become frigid, deranged, spiteful, unnatural. Men, on the other hand, become even more dignified. And handsome.
If I am being completely honest, though, it is not this worldview, noxious though it is, which informs my primary objection to ‘The Thorn Birds‘. The truth is, if you read books written in different times and places, you encounter many noxious worldviews. They are a characteristic of almost every age and place except your own (and you will find that many of your own compatriots possess them, if you ask). You learn to hold the worldview in some remove from other assessments of artistic merit.
My primary objection to ‘The Thorn Birds‘ is that it is deeply mediocre. It is poorly written; the characters lack subtlety. The plot is appalling, not only from a moral point of view, but from a human point of view, from the point of view of a person who thinks and cares about how other humans behave, in real life. It is bad, merely bad. It is not a classic.
“He took the half-open bloom from her, his hand not quite steady, and stood looking down at it. “Meggie, I need no reminder of you, not now, not ever. I carry you within me, you know that. There’s no way I could hide it from you, is there?”
“…Please take it, Father.”
“My name is Ralph,” he said…”Do you want a keepsake from me, Meggie, is that it?”
“I won’t give you one. I want you to forget me, I want you to look around your world and find some good kind man, marry him, have the babies you want so much. You’re a born mother. You mustn’t cling to me, it isn’t right. I can never leave the Church, and I’m going to be completely honest with you, for your own sake. I don’t want to leave the church, because I don’t love you the way a husband will, do you understand me? Forget me, Meggie!”
“Won’t you kiss me goodbye?” (p. 268)
I really doubt that ‘The Thorn Birds‘ is popular among Aboriginal Australians, but I do not know why the white people of Australia have decided to embrace this glorified romance novel to their collective bosom. If I had to guess, it is because of the loving, lengthy descriptions of its landscape. They are loving, and they long – Australia is almost a character in this novel, and national pride is a powerful thing.
Which, fine, but it doesn’t redeem this trash-ass novel. Bad characters, ludicrous plot, white-washed world. Not a classic, bad book. Bad book all around.