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…