Saturday, January 31, 2015

Colleen McCullough, Requiescat in Pacem

I was rooting around Harry Sidebottom's web page earlier this week and was intrigued by his comment that he may have made an enemy for life in Colleen McCullough. In addition to his own literary and scholastic output, Sidebottom has written several book reviews. Apparently, he panned McCullogh's book The October Horse back in 2003. Sadly, you can only access the review if you subscribe online to The Times Literary Review, which I am disinclined to do, so I have no idea what he thought of McCullogh's historical fiction.

I thought it ironic that I should be thinking about Colleen McCullough just a day or two before I heard the news that she died on her little island off Australia, January 29, 2015. She wrote some of the best historical fiction about ancient Rome that I've ever read—no matter what Harry Sidebottom thinks.

I first encountered McCullough's Masters of Rome series at the Elliot Bay Bookstore in Pioneer Square in Seattle around 1992. By that time, the second book in the series, The Grass Crown, was out. Before then, I only knew of her as a writer of The Thorn Birds, which I never had any interest in reading. The mini-series had come out in the early 80s and I had an instinctual dislike for it. For all I know, it could be the best read of my life (though I doubt it), but it seems like a bodice-ripper to me, which is enough reason to avoid it forever.

Because of my aversion to The Thorn Birds, I didn't get into the Masters of Rome series until about 2005, by which time the whole series (except for Antony and Cleopatra) had been completed and the books were available cheap at used books stores (I have the lot). I imagined that the books would be bodice-rippers set in a time before bodices, which didn't turn out to be true.

I'm not sure what finally prompted me to read The First Man in Rome, the initial book in the series, but it took a while to get into it. I read a good chunk, then put it aside for a long while. When I came back to it, I started over from the beginning and read through like I was on rocket fuel. I quickly ran through the whole series as fast as I could find used copies.

The series centers on Julius Caesar, even though he doesn't show up until the end of the first book (and then as a baby). The First Man in Rome develops Caesar's back-story with the rise of Gaius Marius, Caesar's uncle by marriage to his aunt Julia. We're also introduced to Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who is portrayed as another uncle through a likely fictitious marriage to Julilla, the younger of Caesar's aunts. Much of the story deals with the Jugurthine War where Marius finally commands as a consul and is victorious, though Sulla gets the glory for capturing Jugurtha. Marius goes on to to more consulships and defeats the Cimbri at Arausio.

By the second book, The Grass Crown, the friendly relationship between Marius and Sulla is wearing thin. Marius' ambition collides with Sulla's and each, unscrupulous in their own ways, see the clash coming. At Nola in the Social War, Sulla is awarded the rare honor of the corona graminea, the grass crown, which is given to a commander who saves a legion from annihilation. In the war against Mithridates, Sulla is awarded command of the legions, which Marius tries to take from him. Sulla marches on Rome to assert his right to command and then marches east with the legions to defeat Mithradates.

In the third book, Fortunes Favorites, Sulla returns victorious from the East and sets himself up as dictator of Rome. We see the rise of Gnaeus Pompey and Marcus Licinius Crassus and the adventures of a young Julius Caesar.

The fourth book, Caesar's Women, focuses on the political rise of Julius Caesar and ends with the formation of the first triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus.

The fifth book, Caesar, shows Caesar victorious in his Gallic campaigns and goes through the civil war that develops between Caesar and Pompey after Crassus gets himself killed in Parthia. The book ends with Pompey's death in Egypt.

The sixth (and what was intended to be the final) book, The October Horse, starts with Caesar's campaign in Egypt and his dalliance with Cleopatra. It goes through Caesar's murder at the hands of Brutus, Cassius, and the other senate conspirators, and ends with the establishment of Octavian as Caesar's heir and the death of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi.

The characters in the novels are certainly fictionalized, but not to the extent of HBO's Rome or nearly any other fiction work, TV series, or movie on the subject. What I found striking about McCullough's work is that despite the occasional ripped bodice (so to speak) and the often sensual physical descriptions of her characters, the historical depth of the novels is amazing. The first century BC is one of the most well-documented periods of Roman history, so McCullough had a lot to work with when adding texture and verisimilitude to the story. Her research work was so well regarded that Macquarie University awarded her an honorary D.Litt. in 1993.

After The October Horse (the one Sidebottom panned), McCullough called it good. However, she was persuaded after a few years to add a seventh book to the series, Antony and Cleopatra, because fans wanted that story told, even though it is not really part of the story of Julius Caesar (it's more of a bodice-ripping postscript, without an actual bodice).

I confess that I've read nothing else by Colleen McCullough and likely won't—I'm certainly not up for reading The Thorn Birds—although Song of Troy is a maybe. Generally, I don't like retellings of fictional tales; nothing beats The Iliad for telling the story of Troy.

I am curious, though, why Harry Sidebottom panned her. Sidebottom has related how he chose the 3rd century AD as the background to his Warrior of Rome novels because it was so obscure. I get the impression that he didn't want to fictionalize characters that could easily be researched by readers who would see the discrepancies between his fictionalization and the historical record. (Take for example, the HUGE discrepancies between the characters in HBO's Rome and the real ones—or even those characters as portrayed by McCullough in her novels.)

In addition to her work as an author, McCullough was a neuroscientist earlier in her life, but gave that up after her writing career proved successful.

So long, Colleen, and thanks for all the books. Thanks, too, for softening my heart towards historical fiction in general. Your fiction inspired me to learn more about the facts.

1 comment:

  1. Masters of Rome is second only to Aubery-Maturin as an historical fiction series. Please do give Song of Troy a chance! It's very interesting to see how McCullough rationalizes all of the epic cycle.