Adventures for Girls

So, I finished The Thorn Birds and found myself musing that for the first time, a televised version of a story had usurped the original book for me. It may just be that some stories happen as experiences, that they don’t really warrant close inspection, but gain their effects from a remarkable combination of time, context and impressionability in their audience. As I’ve mentioned before, I was fifteen when I watched the saga on television, and it was the talk of the common room at school. All us daughters sat watching it with our mothers, sobbing. My friend, Juliet, insisted that her own mother had cried so much that little pools of tears had formed behind her glasses. And we were all in love with Richard Chamberlain who was arguably at the height of his career and his beauty when he played the part. Years later, I rewatched the series on video and was astonished to note that if you described Richard Chamberlain physically – tall, lean, long face, high cheekbones, short nose, pretty eyes – all you needed to do was pop a blond wig on him and he became Mister Litlove. Incredible. I had no idea I’d been so affected by it as to go out and find myself a Ralph du Bricassart to marry.

We all knew he was supposed to be a priest but, god-less adolescents in the 1980s, we had little acquaintance with Catholicism and had no clear idea of what it all meant. The celibacy thing was no more than a good plot device, the sort of obstacle that dogged all dramatized love affairs. We dismissed the spiritual dimension but retained only the fact that Meggie makes a man break his principles for love. In fact, this was perfectly astute. In stories, the old gender divide is very hard to erode. Male characters get their kicks by saving the world; they get to alter the course of destiny, mess with time, engage in politics and battles and the creation of wealth. Women get to fall in love. Still, after all these years of gender debate, the greatest adventure that women regularly undertake is to deflect a man’s attention from world saving, tiger-wrestling, bad-guy-killing and money making. Despite all these terribly important things a man has to do, he can still sometimes forget them in the heat of his passion for a beautiful woman, and for a little while, that woman is validated. Even the women who appear in action movies are inevitably linked by romantic association to the men who do the real tough stuff. Women tag along because eventually the world will be safe again and they are in a good position to get the guy’s attention back. And so it stands to reason that we judge a woman’s adventures in romance by the obstacles she has to overcome to tear the man away from the world, and into her little domestic nest. We know Meggie Cleary must be very, very beautiful and desirable indeed because she makes a man abandon not just the saving of the world, but the saving of his own soul, in her name.

All this part of the book was wholly satisfactory to me. The story skipped along, just as I remembered it. The problems came, as they always do, after Meggie and Ralph had finally got it together. What to do about the girl’s great adventure then? Alas, the answer is that Catholicism, which got so joyfully bypassed earlier in the story, returns to take its dues. Meggie must be punished by ‘the Gods’ as the narrative hints endlessly, and lugubriously. I actually felt she was sufficiently punished by being the most boring character in the story. Everyone else has a bit of bite, but not poor Meggie, who must settle down to being simply dull, once her moment of glory has passed. She gets to punish Ralph du Bricassart a little, too, as a kind of offloading of the immense frustration she feels. But essentially, Meggie’s story is one of suffering, interrupted by a brief interlude of forbidden love, which in turn must be ‘paid for’ with grief. This is Catholicism acting like a mafia loan shark; happiness comes on credit and must be settled by excessive interest payments. The world of the Vatican that Ralph inhabits isn’t portrayed like this at all, however. It’s a world of fallible men, who tend to show compassion to one another. But as I continued reading, there seemed to be a deep gender rancour pervading the narrative, which meant that enclaves of men always seemed to come off okay. Men take care of men, and that includes God, who is clearly a bloke. It was the women, perpetually shoved out in the cold and treated like not-quite-people, who always had the raw end of the deal in this story.

The Australia of the first half of the twentieth century is definitely a man’s world. Although Meggie has – what, seven, eight? – brothers, she is the only family member to produce children. The men are devoted to the land and to their sheep and to each other. The result is a curiously sexless bunch. The same thing happens with Meggie’s husband, Luke O’Neill, who prefers to compete hard with the men in the sugar corn fields during the day and relax with buddy, Arne, every weekend. He marries Meggie for her money and can barely be bothered to do anything with her afterwards. In fact, viewed from this light, a priest is the best bet Meggie has for finding herself any male attention at all. At least a priest is around, and well-versed in domestic realities. Only Meggie’s daughter, Justine, seems to come out all right at the end of the story, and she refuses to succumb to love until the last few pages. In this book, her irrational refusals eventually take on the aura of a feminist act.

The overall effect is, curiously enough, of a romantic saga that is profoundly anxious about romance. The odds stacked against it, in the form of God, suffering, hard work, male competitiveness and sheep-shearing, seem too great to be overcome. I really enjoyed the trip down memory lane afforded by the first half of the book, but I had all kinds of doubts about the way the story was resolved.  But this weekend, I might just dig the DVD out and watch the early sections. Mister Litlove’s away again and it will amuse me to imagine how he would look in a long, black frock…


9 thoughts on “Adventures for Girls

  1. Oh this post made me laugh as well as being a totally apt description of women’s literary and media roles. Maybe that’s why I have yet to write a romance. I like stories of women who exercise their own agency, even within the limitations of their time and place, pushing the boundaries of what is supposed.

  2. I can’t believe I never really watched the miniseries or read the book. I did pick this one up at the used bookstore a few months ago so I will rectify the reading part one of these days!

  3. I had forgotten so much about this book ’til reading this, every word of it. Hmmm…maybe I’ll find the movie somewhere, on line even or from Netflix. I read the book very quickly, I do recall that. And remembering it now, overall, yes, see it, got it, the suffering woman who had only love to her name while the guys romped and worked and crowed and made rules, etc. Which is not a whine on my part. Just chiming in with you in retrospect. Yet I was a lot younger when I read it and just let the story drag me along then, without questoining. The sadness and the all the enduring that went on in the book kind of got to me, though – I do remember that. Isn’t it fun to pick up an old friend of a read like this, though and see what it looks like from here and now?
    Also loved your last line!

  4. You thought it was romance that brought you to Mr Litlove, but really it was the tv directing your every action 😉

    There is a Home and Away plotline at the mo about a woman who liks a priest (but he is not Catholic, so celibacy is not a problem, there is some other dark preistly secret keeping them apart) and they referenced The Thorn Birds, so thanks for letting me in on the reference.

    On a totally not related topic I am so sick of action heroines who must be involved in a love story with the male character – did someone pass a law while I was a sleep?

  5. Just my luck…when I was a young Catholic miss all the Catholic priests I knew looked like Barry Fitzgerald. Now I’M the one that looks like Barry Fitzgerald and THEY all look like Richard Chamberlain. How wry is that?

  6. Lilian – may you one day write a romance! I’ll bet you’d do something terrifically cool with the genre! 🙂

    Kathleen – very, very good book for when you have a cold or are in need of something engaging and comfortable. There was lots I enjoyed about it, and if I hadn’t seen the tv series first, I’m sure I would have read it differently too!

    Oh – it was SO interesting to go back to a story that had impressed me in my teens. I am quite sure then that I never had a single metafictional thought about it, and cared only for the fates of Meggie and Father Ralph! And it is a hypnotic sort of story. If I didn’t know it so well, I am quite sure I would have related to it completely differently. But yes, it is very sad, intolerably so in parts (I certainly remember crying through the tv version!).

    Jodie – lol! I read on someone’s blog (but could not remember who – so frustrating!) that you hardly ever, ever hear a dialogue between two women in a film that is not a discussion about a man. How that this be, in the 21st century? I manage to get through most of every day having discussions that are not about men or romance (unless they happen to be in a book I’m reading, and I can’t feel that counts). I used to watch Home and Away, too, but it moved station and time, and I can’t keep track if they do that. You can see how in later life I am fighting domination of my mind by television using the efficient weapon of forgetfulness! 🙂

    Grad – lol!!! You do have some excellent lines Grad! I think I fixed the typo, as it all looks good to me. Let me know if there was anything you wanted changed that I missed.

  7. Oh, this sounds very frustrating. How dull women’s lives can be in books. Did the author mean it as a critique of available opportunities for women, do you think? I loved your “Catholicism as mafia loan shark” line!

  8. Mr. Litlove looks like a blond Richard Chamberlain? You have yourself a hunky hubby there! I have fond memories of my teenage crush on the actor. Your line about Meggie needing to be punished by the gods but being sufficiently punished as the most boring character cracked me up!

  9. oh my. Is it too much to ask for photos? yea, I even think that better judgment should ignore that question of mine.
    (it was Jenny’s Books that talked about the movie situation rarity of women talking abt something not ‘man’. (I cannot figure out a better rephrasing…) )

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