The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

Ah, the classic Priest Fantasy.

What? You might be thinking. That’s blasphemy.

Yeah, but that’s apparently what makes it so hot.

Dirty movies aside, It is my opinion that the Priest Fantasy came straight from Colleen McCullough’s epic novel of love and loss in the heart of Australia.

I personally have never experienced a yen for the saintly brothers of Catholicism, but then, I’m not Catholic and I don’t run across them too much. Anyway, just in case you were wondering what the heck is the deal with the ‘Priest Fantasy’, The Thorn Birds is the book that made this particular fantasy so famous that it became an episode on Sex and the City. Since its publication in 1977, women have been swooning over Father Ralph de Bricassart and his fifty year intense  internal struggle with his celibate faith versus his passionate love for Meggie, the beautiful and spunky girl who he meets when she is, like, six.

(Ok, I can hear you saying: EW. Pedophile! And yes, I admit, to the casual reader, there might be a kind of creepiness to the twenty year old Ralph being super fond of a little girl he’s just met, but in the book it’s all innocent because Father Ralph is a really good man and has absolutely no flaws whatsoever. Except one. And then two, as we find out.)

Meggie’s family, the Clearys, are poor and have come to Australia to live on Drogheda, which is this big ol’ sheep farm belonging to the really wealthy sister of their father’s. Since they are the poor relations, all they have is a hope that when the old lady dies, she’ll leave Drogheda to them. But the sister is a selfish and cruel old cougar-type – she has the hots for Father Ralph, who keeps refusing her advances because he is a godly man.  But she’s also a shrewd woman, and she does find out his first weakness, which is ambition and power. This is key to the novel, because  it is what drives his character forward, and what makes him deny his eventual love for Meggie, his second weakness.

The woman dies and leaves Drogheda to the Holy Catholic Church, with Father Ralph as the trustee. This is a big slap in the face for the Cleary’s, but they are permitted to stay on as managers of the place, working the land and shearing the sheep and all that. They also get to move into the big house and hang with the swanky and elite country club types. Although this may have been pre-country club. And I’m not sure they have country clubs Down Under anyway.

The book follows the entire family for fifty years, from 1915 to 1965, and there are a lot of tragic deaths, and broken hearts, and children being big disappointments and going to prison and all the other fun stuff that makes up life. But the main story is the love story of Meggie and Father Ralph.

The young Catholic priest feels an instant pull to little Meggie which (being the wonderful, intelligent, good, honest, fair, just, kind, and devastatingly handsome human being that he is) he interprets this as a ‘elder brother’ kind of thing, (thank goodness) and immediately makes sure that Meggie has a pony, pretty dresses, a good education and stuff like that. The two become best friends.

Of course, as the years roll by, Meggie turns into this gorgeous seventeen year old, and Ralph realizes that he might feel something stronger for Meggie than mere brotherly affection. In a noble attempt to stop himself  from sinning, or bringing scandal on Meggie (who’s starting to catch on to his feelings and reciprocate them)  he leaves Australia. This really doesn’t do much good, since now that hes the trustee of Drogheda, you know he’s got to keep coming back there every few years. While he’s away he keeps telling himself that he only loves God, and that he’s not a real man who’s capable of falling in love. He’s a priest, he keeps reminding himself, he’s above all that – but through it all he can’t get the girl out of his head.

(Note: The thing that bugs me most about Father Ralph is that he does all these contradictory things: he keeps insisting Meggie call him Ralph, not Father, makes out with her while they’re out riding, dreams about her every night, thinks about her every second, but STILL insists that he’s meant to be a priest and that she’s meant to go off and marry some silly boy who’s not half good enough for her and forget him.

Hence the tragedy of the whole book I suppose. I mean, McCullough tells you about his childhood and how he’s kind of disconnected from people and God is the only thing that makes him happy. In a sense you get that she’s trying to convey the idea that Ralph had to wait for Meggie to come along so he could meet her – his soulmate- finding the one person he could truly be happy with, but by that time, its too late, since he’s already fixated on the idea that only the church makes him feel joy and no human will ever compare to that. It’s the tragedy of life. The things we miss along the way because we are so fixated on the way we think stuff is supposed to be. Just something to think about. End of Note)

Meggie, who spends the whole book loving Father Ralph and trying to lure him away from his chosen profession; at first with youth’s certainty that all she has to do is: “talk to him about it and he’ll leave the priesthood for her.’ Then with the more traditional way of a woman-scorned: she goes out an marries the first man she hooks up with (That’ll show him! she thinks. I can get a man and have a kid and move on with my life and THEN he’ll be sorry) Of course, when he hears he does feel sorry, but it doesn’t bring him back to her. Poor Meggie keeps giving up on him in despair, over and over, making sacrifices, finally coming to terms with the fact that he will never be with her although she will love him her whole life- and the beautiful and perfect man just keeps picking his stupid faith over her. You actually want to reach inside the book and slap him upside the head.

Meggie is such a wise-women, with her insight into Father Ralph’s mind, and she calls him on his feelings for her time and time again. But Ralph, man-like, keeps denying that he can be any good for her, and instead he keeps climbing higher in the church, finally becoming an archbishop and so on.

This goes back and forth for the entire span of the book and of course, the reader is delighted and enthralled by the frustrating and thwarted romance that is forbidden at every turn, even though these two people are clearly meant to be together and live happily ever after- they just never quite manage it and as a result: we have the Priest Fantasy.

The book is epic, beautiful, and Colleen McCullough’s best work. It’s Australia’s answer to Gone With the Wind and (surprise, surprise) it was turned into a passable mini-series in the eighties. (What was up with the 1970’s-80’s and it’s love of dramatic mini-series? Lonesome Dove, Rich Man, Poor ManRoots. Seriously.)

In the 1983 mini-series Father Ralph was played by the delicious Richard Chamberlain (who was the ‘it’ romantic leading man of the eighties. Believe me, he may be old now, but he was hot back then) while Meggie is played by the beautiful Rachel Ward. The cast includes Barbara Stanwyck, Christopher Plummer, Jean Simmons, etc etc. and some other old-school stars.

It’s a decent movie. I enjoyed all four hours or whatever of it. Definitely worth watching on a rainy afternoon.

I’m not going to write an excerpt here. Honestly the book is so good I’m not sure I could pick a favorite part. Plus it’s tiring to write all this and then copy out excerpts, too.

Leaving you with this: In the tradition of Romeo and Juliet, Scarlett and Rhett, Tristan and Isolde, Abelard and Heloise, etc etc etc….add Meggie and Father Ralph. Beautiful and tragic love story. And what’s not to love about that?


1 Comment

Filed under Coming-of-Age Books, Epic Novels, Girly Books

One response to “The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

  1. Anonymous

    I have to say that, after watching this movie- The Thorn Birds, I must find out some forums to see what do people think about this film. Moreover, I also want to hear more about the novel – The Thorn Birds that I have not read before. Thanks in advance for sharing your thinking and writing. Hope you can continuously write valuable things like that.


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