On the face of it, you might think that no two books could be more different than The Thorn Birds and Lolita. The former an epic romance set in the Australian outback charting the fortunes of the Cleary family, a big, brave book destined to make readers weep copiously into their hankies as undeserved misfortunes are piled upon that poor family’s head. Lolita, by contrast, is the story of an immoral maniac managing to outwit most of the divine retribution he deserves; it’s an intellectual book written in an ornate and sophisticated style that favours cynicism and eschews sentimentality. Yet at the heart of each story, powering the narrative forward, is a forbidden love affair between a clever, older man and a young girl.
In Lolita, the narrator, Humbert Humbert recounts in a manner that is both self-castigating and self-justifying his hopeless passion for the 12-year-old American girl Dolores Haze. Humbert knows he has always had a Lolita shaped hole in his heart, and his fate is sealed when he first catches sight of her guileless, sunbathing form on a suburban lawn. In The Thorn Birds, Father Ralph de Bricassart is an ambitious young Catholic priest rusticated to Australia after an unexplained act of insubordination. His life is transformed when he collects the family of one of his rich parishioners from the station, and sees young Meghann Cleary, neglected and isolated in her family and desperately in need of love. Meggie is beautiful and unaware of it; Dolores possesses the untarnished gloss of youth and makes the most of it, but both respond instantly and unwarily to the men who finally provide them with the attention they have longed for. In both cases, unloving and uninterested mothers have failed to provide any anchoring affection.
It is extraordinary how many similarities Humbert and Ralph share. Both are described as uncommonly handsome men, whose looks are more of a burden than a blessing. Humbert has no interest in women, and Ralph is forbidden by his vows from having any. Yet the issue of male beauty is more profound than this; for Ralph in particular, seems to despise those who admire him on the strength of his looks alone, and to fear that his popularity among his parishioners is due entirely to his aesthetic charm. Humbert has the same sort of reaction, although his disdain is born from a sneering contempt for women who cannot see past his charm to the monster who lies beneath. If both sidestep orthodox romance, it’s because, in their own minds, they are reaching for something much greater and nobler, and they fear the bestial side of their nature. Both are characterized as formidably intelligent men, but whereas Ralph’s intelligence aims for the spiritual, Humbert’s brain is one that maximizes cunning to keep him out of trouble. Neither can be content to be ordinary, or to be ‘just a man’ as Ralph puts it. Their whole beings are intent on transcending the drearily enmeshed fate of the domesticated male, in pursuit of an ideal – Ralph’s being a perfect relation with God, Humbert’s being a perfect relation with beauty.
And so, oddly enough, both authors find their way around the terrible obstacle of middle-aged men preying on little girls, by having these love affairs humanize their male protagonists. Ralph’s otherworldly ambitions are cast aside when Meggie comes into his life, and his strength and goodness, the nurturing, sympathetic side of his character are shown to the full. We cannot help but love Ralph as he loves Meggie because again and again he rescues her with gentleness and tact. The very fact that she is a child makes their relationship safe for him, although he is partly aware that it becomes a convenient cover behind which he can hide his deeper feelings. And the ghastly Humbert is touchingly concerned to protect Lolita from the reality of his passion for her. However tragi-comic his literary fumblings may be as he wrestles his young love on the sofa, he is most intent to keep her pure and untroubled by his lust. And what’s more, these men devote themselves to their girlish loves with absolute loyalty. No other woman stands comparison to the objects of their desire, they exalt and cherish and worship – and they do it silently and as unobtrusively (at first) as they can.
But what really struck me as intriguing was the use in both novels of an older woman to stand as an unwitting guardian to the younger girl, by trying to usurp the protagonist’s desire. In Lolita, Dolores’ mother, Charlotte, repeatedly comes between Humbert and her daughter in a competitive attempt to win his love. Completely blind to the attraction Humbert has for his Lolita, Charlotte nevertheless sends her daughter away, out of the house, eventually away to camp, in order to have their self-effacing lodger to herself. In the end, of course, Humbert agrees to marry her, seduced only by the thought of what easy access to Lolita such an arrangement will provide. In The Thorn Birds, Father Ralph is in unwilling thrall to rich Mary Carson, the doyenne of the region, on whom his hopes for a big donation to the Catholic church reside. Before Mary transports her brother and his family (including Meggie, her niece) to live at Drogheda with her, she provides Ralph with the only female company he enjoys, although it comes in the form of barbed, combative conversation. Mary is in her 60s and knows that this in itself would prevent Ralph from desiring her, although she nurses a fierce, unrequited passion for him. It is Mary who sees and fears the intimacy growing between Ralph and Meggie, and she hates her niece for being able to enjoy the genuinely loving companionship she shares with the priest.
But here’s where the differences arise that make all the difference: In Lolita, Charlotte is a stupid, unobservant woman, worthy only of Humbert’s pity and his shuddering physical dislike. He can’t even feel passionate enough about her to murder her when the opportunity arises, although he toys with the idea. And although Charlotte is only a middle-aged woman, the signs of ageing are drawn with delicate revulsion and lingered upon. In The Thorn Birds, the two female characters are more polarized in age, Meggie still very much a child, with Mary Carson a distinctly older woman, but Mary has intelligence and cunning and is more than a match for Ralph. If she can’t love him, then she’ll torture him, and this she achieves with notable success. In Lolita, Humbert describes himself as a spider in the middle of his web, throwing out silken strands in order to track Lolita’s progress through the house. In The Thorn Birds, that spider analogy goes to Mary Carson, sitting in the middle of her estate and manipulating the lives of all those around her. And so, Lolita reveals itself as a thoroughly misogynist text, all women condemned as innocent victims of clever males, despicable and worthless creatures once the initial bloom of beauty has faded. Whereas The Thorn Birds, by contrast, shows a much more even-handed attribution of power; women have as much right to money, intelligence and authority as men. And so for all that Lolita may be the literary classic, and proud of its pedigree, my vote so far goes to The Thorn Birds, a supposedly trashy family saga that never descends into unredeemable ugliness.
But I’m only halfway through both books, so we’ll see how it all goes.
On an entirely different note, I’m sorry to be so behind in my comments on this site – it’s just that everyone has been writing such interesting things, I feel I should set aside quality time to respond. And so it hasn’t happened. But I will certainly get to them later in the day.