Here’s my fourth selection for my 11-part series on my favourite authors of historical fiction.
#4 – Colleen McCullough
I would like to begin by saying I have a tremendous respect for Colleen McCullough’s work, and I use that word deliberately: When I think of Colleen McCullough’s books, I always envision her work as a feat of sheer effort, a supreme focus of will and intellect and time and knowledge directed down onto the printed page, distilled and purified and refined until it is as clear and as right as a human can make it. I find myself exhausted at the obvious labour involved in her creations, and I suspect that’s how she applies herself to everything she does.
When she was a young woman in Australia she was training to be a doctor, but she developed an allergy to medical soap, so she had to switch to neuroscience. She wrote her first three books as a researcher and lecturer at Yale, and then gave up her medical career to write full time on a tiny speck of land in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. She has been writing ever since, even though she is now going blind in her old age. Her life has been a series of hard choices, and I know that’s where some of her most driven characters have found their strength.
There are many other writers who have a greater dash and verve with their prose, and I wouldn’t include her among my top tier of character-driven authors, but when you read a novel of Colleen McCullough’s, at the end you have to set the book down in quiet awe that it came to be at all, and feel a warmth of admiration for the person who could make it so. If she would let me –and had I the means to do so– I would fly to her quiet home on the remote Norfolk Island and sit at her feet for a spell. I would gladly let her lecture me about her process, and though I probably wouldn’t be able to imitate a word of it I would be much richer for the experience.
Her Masters of Rome series are a revelation to a student of Roman history: Each a perfect jewel of scholarship that walks the tightrope of historical fiction with such conviction and purpose that I am left weak at the thought of it; my heart is in my throat at how much continuous effort and thought must have gone into each one. Beginning with Sulla and Marius and going through four generations to end with Octavian Augustus and Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony, as he is more famously known), her series of epics –each worthy of the title of opus– encompass absolutely everything we know about what really happened during the eight decades from before Gaius Julius Caesar’s birth up to the end of the Republic and beginning of the Empire. The staggering research involved in this feat includes the entire Loeb Classical Library as source material, and that is just to start! Fiction is only introduced to fill in the understandable gaps, and each work includes a lengthy disertation at its end explaining why she felt it necessary to invent someone, or explain a character’s choice as she did. For her works she was awarded a richly deserved Doctor of Letters from Macquarie University, and at one point the Prime Minister of Australia called her to personally plead with her for another book in the series. I find I cannot stomach most historical fiction set in this period any longer: She got it so close to what really happened, so very realistic and believable, that to read lesser work almost feels like an insult to the story there to be told.
If the Masters of Rome series was all she had ever written, she would forever have a firm place in the pantheon of my favourite authors, but of course she has enjoyed a long and storied career, and I want to speak about that as well. The first book of hers that I ever read was Songs of Troy. It’s probably the last book people think of when you mention her name, but I was blown away by her take on the possible historical origins of the various Trojan myths. Her treatment of Odysseus and Penelope and Achilles and Briseis in particular struck me as just right, and I resolved to read as much of her stuff as possible.
There’s a distinct tempo to her prose that is difficult to explain: Time marches at a steady beat in a McCullough novel. Nothing ever happens faster or slower than it really did. In Morgan’s Run we follow the lives of convicts transported from Britain to first Australia and then Norfolk Island, and you keep waiting for something to happen… You’re half-way through the novel before you realize the plot is the course of their lives, not any one incident. The climaxes and great moments are not a destination to be reached, but something to be endured in the natural course of the characters struggle to survive and build a new world. In the Thorn Birds –which I will admit is both a contemporary novel and a complete soap opera– we see again this metronome-like progression of story. Things happen as they happen, and you will wait for it. She’s that good.
I haven’t read her complete works, and someone I used to know well made me promise never to read The Independence of Miss Mary Bennett, a sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice that seems to revel in sticking it to fans of the original. I’m completely prepared to say McCullough has some quirks in style and substance that are not to everyone’s taste. I will say this, categorically: When that woman writes historical fiction, it often contains more truth than you would believe possible. Her stories are less made up than they are woven together from what actually happened. She uses the fiction to patch over what has been lost to time, and that is an amazing and difficult thing for an author to do with such consistency and bravery and effort over such a long career.
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