Authors: Colleen McCullough

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Australian novelist


Colleen McCullough (muh-KUHL-uhk) was born in Wellington, New South Wales, Australia, of Irish Catholic stock. Her mother was a New Zealander of Maori ancestry, her father a cutter of cane. She was educated at Holy Cross College and the University of Sydney. Excelling in science and widely read in the humanities, McCullough worked as a teacher, a library worker, and a bus driver. Economic realities and a soap allergy prevented a career in medicine; instead, she studied neurophysiology and became a neurology researcher in Sydney, in England, and at Yale University’s School of Internal Medicine. In 1993 Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, awarded McCullough the D.Litt. degree. On April 13, 1984, at age forty-six, McCullough married Ric Robinson, a housepainter who would later be a planter. She settled on Norfolk Island, Australia, about one thousand miles east of the mainland.{$I[A]McCullough, Colleen[MacCullough, Colleen]}{$I[geo]WOMEN;McCullough, Colleen[MacCullough, Colleen]}{$I[geo]AUSTRALIA;McCullough, Colleen[MacCullough, Colleen]}{$I[tim]1937;McCullough, Colleen[MacCullough, Colleen]}

Colleen McCullough

(Courtesy, Avon Books)

McCullough began writing seriously while at Yale, where, in the evenings, she wrote her first novel, Tim, and the novel that would establish her reputation and her professional career as a writer, The Thorn Birds. Planning, often for years, before actually writing contributed to her speedy composition.

McCullough writes in a variety of genres. Tim, set in Sydney, can be only loosely labeled a romance, or a novel of awakenings. Tim Melville, a mentally retarded but handsome man of twenty-five, marries a woman of forty-three in order to gain future security for himself after his mother dies. In the end, both partners grow and mature in different ways. Two important themes concern emotional and social growth and the response by society to people who are mentally retarded.

Planned before the writing of Tim, The Thorn Birds was a great success. A saga spanning three generations treats the Cleary family, who toil with no apparent future and emigrate to Australia, only to find life there disheartening. The world of the novel is one in which women suffer at the hands of thoughtless men. Themes of suffering and of love and lust as destructive forces are developed. Although successful, the novel was not without controversy. Some reviewers attributed its success to skillful marketing rather than quality. Reading about a Roman Catholic priest breaking his vows, fathering a child, and still remaining in Rome did not resonate well with some Catholics.

An Indecent Obsession is a psychological novel set in a South Pacific army hospital near the end of World War II. It deals thematically with the social effects of homosexuality or the fear of it. A Creed for the Third Millennium is a dystopian novel. Set in the twenty-first century, the novel predicts future occurrences based on political and social trends current at the time of writing. The novelette The Ladies of Missalonghi makes an unusual use of the romance genre; some critics called it an anti-romance that undercuts the romance by showing its absurdities. The book satirizes snobbery related to wealth and social class and raises profound moral and ethical questions.

The first of the Masters of Rome series was published in 1990. Five lengthy historical novels, products of ten years of research, are set in the later days of the Roman Republic. The First Man in Rome focuses on a feud between Gaius Marius and his brother-in-law Sulla. The Grass Crown traces Sulla’s attempt to control Rome. Fortune’s Favorites continues Sulla’s saga as he ages and dies and a younger generation of would-be rulers arises. Caesar’s Women treats Julius Caesar’s rise to power between 68 and 58 b.c.e. The final volume, Caesar: Let the Dice Fly, opens in 54 b.c.e., with Caesar civilizing and romanizing various tribes in Brittania and Gaul. Other contenders for power are seen as they interact with Caesar. Critics commended McCullough’s thoroughness and storytelling skills in the series, though sheer size and scope may interfere with character development, according to some critics. Morgan’s Run is also a historical novel, tracing the life of a Bristol tavern keeper, a devoted husband and father who finds himself consigned to transportation to the continent of Australia in an experiment in penology in 1787. The central figure, Richard Morgan, is an unforgettable hero.

Bibliography“Colleen McCullough.” In The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, edited by William H. Wilde, Jay Hooten, and Barry Andrews. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Provides biographical data and a summary and brief commentary on each of the novels written to date.DeMarr, Mary Jean. Colleen McCullough: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. The opening chapter discusses McCullough as a woman and a writer; the next discusses the wide variety of her fictional genres. Chapters devoted to each novel follow. Contains bibliography and index.Powers, Katherine A. “Ancient Evenings.” The Washington Post, December 15, 2002, p. WBK.06. Review of McCullough’s novel The October Horse, the final volume of her Masters of Rome series, refers to the “exhaustive and exhausting detail.”
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