Obituary: Colleen McCullough, author

Colleen McCullough, author. Picture: Getty
Colleen McCullough, author. Picture: Getty
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Best-selling author best known for The Thorn Birds and Masters of Rome

Colleen McCullough, author.

Born: 1 June, 1937, in Wellington, New South Wales, Australia.

Died: 29 January, 2015, on Norfolk Island, Australia, aged 77.

The Australian author Colleen McCullough, whose novel The Thorn Birds sold 30 million copies worldwide, was also a hugely successful television mini-series starring Richard Chamberlain, Christopher Plummer, Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Simmons. Chamberlain brought to the role of the priest who had to decide between the church and his love a real authority and bewildered charm. The TV series won many awards including four Golden Globes.

One of McCullough’s first books, Tim, written in 1974, was also filmed and starred the young Mel Gibson in his first film.

The books that brought her international acclaim were the seven-volume epic Masters of Rome, scholarly accounts of the last days of the Roman empire. Her research was extensive and concentrated not only on the dramatic events of the period but captured the changing social issues of the Eternal City.

Colleen McCullough spent most of her childhood in Sydney – her mother was a Maori and her father an Irish immigrant who worked as a cane cutter and was often away from home.

From an early age McCullough was a voracious reader and fascinated by writing. She attended Holy Cross College Woollahra and specialised in both English and science.

She had intended to read medicine but discovered she was allergic to the antiseptic soap that surgeons used to scrub up with. Instead she studied to be a neuroscientist at Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney and after four years at the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London McCullough did research and taught for ten years at the Department of Neurology at Yale Medical School in America.

It was there that she started to write professionally and completed Tim.

The novel had a hard-edged story – it was about a middle-aged woman’s romance with a good-looking, intellectually disabled handyman. It was a best seller and Gibson co-starred in the movie with Piper Laurie.

While in the US McCullough had started work on The Thorn Birds – the title was based on a legend about a bird that sings more beautifully than any other just once in its life.

The novel is a steamy, fast-moving romantic tale that gained widespread acclaim in Australia when it was published in 1977. It dealt with the forbidden love of an ambitious priest who, as punishment for insulting a bishop, has been relegated to a remote parish.

His complex relationships make him question his vows as a priest and McCullough lets the story unfold with a gripping honesty and a definite sympathy for the characters.

She was a fine wordsmith and knew exactly how to pace a scene and let it bubble to an exciting climax.

McCullough sold the paperback rights for £1.3 million and in 1983 the mini-series was screened worldwide to enormous success. The starry cast was well received by the public – especially Chamberlain as the handsome, confused priest and Plummer as the bishop. But not by the author.

In fact, McCullough did not care for the TV series at all – she used to refer to it as “instant vomit”: also commenting: “I didn’t think that the director had any idea of what he was doing. The screen writer was a Baptist female from the Mid-West, and I didn’t like Chamberlain in the role anyway.”

It didn’t stop her earning many millions from the series which became a cult show.

In all McCullough wrote 25 novels and while many were based on historical subjects – Morgan’s Run was about an English prisoner sent from Bristol to serve in a penal colony in the 18th century.

Others were finely crafted works of romantic fiction: The Ladies of Missalonghi, for example, contrasts the lifestyle of a family before and after the First World War and the emergence of feminism. However, her 2008 reworking of Pride and Prejudice, the Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, upset Austen purists.

Apart from The Thorn Birds, the book for which many will remember McCullough is the epic Masters of Rome. The seventh book – Antony and Cleopatra, concentrates on their love. But McCullough cleverly does not make it a straightforward passionate romance. Cleopatra is not a great beauty, nor a shrewd political schemer, and Antony is far from being a war hero. But it is McCullough’s command of the details of Roman history that drives the narrative forward with a relentless energy.

The flawed characters are given a real identity and make for compelling reading. One critic wrote: “In McCullough’s writing the grandeur of ancient Rome comes to life as a timeless human drama against the dramatic backdrop of the Republic’s final days.”

McCullough was in poor health in recent years, going blind and suffering from crippling arthritis.

She is survived by her husband of 30 years, Ric Ion-Robinson.

ALASDAIR STEVEN