A conversation in front of the TV, circa 1983:
‘So, is anyone going to prepare dinner?’ The man stands in the doorway, tentatively scratching at an imaginary fault in the surface of the wooden doorway. He’s been here before, once a week in fact, and knows by now not to come across too accusingly, too strongly. Petrol on fire.
The two women sitting in front of the TV flash a look at him. The look is enough of a warning and he retreats back down the hallway from wherever he came. They certainly don’t care where that is. As long as he doesn’t disturb their watching again, and keep the children in tow, like they asked, no, told him to.
The women sit riveted, tissues in hand, for there are many moments where they cry out during an episode. Moments of intense empathy for the two main characters that can never be together; times where they clench their fists and bash the sofa at the unfairness of it all and other times where they laugh and embrace each other.
And as the end credits roll up across the screen they sit for a moment longer, taking their time to awaken to the realities of their world – their world that is not a farm in Australia and does not include a handsome priest and a fiery red-head. They get up reluctantly to start cooking a belated supper.
Can you guess what series I’m referring to? I guess only if you were born pre-1970. Yes, it’s ‘The Thorn birds’! A series that kept every nation across the globe riveted to the screen for months on end.
For us post-1980 babies we are in luck. The series is based on a book, with the same title as the series, by Colleen McCullough. And as always, the book is far better than the series. And what an epic it is!
‘The Thorn birds’ (1977) tells the story of Meggie Cleary, the only daughter of a struggling farmer and his wife from New Zealand whose luck change when his estranged sister contacts him out of the blue to come and run her very successful farm in the Australian outback, called Drogheda, after a town in Ireland.
Meggie is ignored by her mother, who carries her own burdens of the heart and has no time beyond that which is taken up by raising children, cooking and cleaning. Meggie becomes the protégé of the local clergyman, Ralph de Bricassart. Now, before you think – oh no a story about a paedophilic priest, you have to read the story to get to the bottom of their very complex relationship that grows into a forbidden love as Meggie grows older.
These are really the very broad outlines of the story. To go into detail of all the intrigues and drama of an epic tale that spans the lifetime of two star-crossed lovers would take much more than one blog entry and I wouldn’t do it justice anyway.
Colleen McCullough fabricates a story, not just of human struggle and hardship, but weaves the very dust of the Australian outback into it with all its struggles of fires, droughts and many other hardships. She really writes with such vivid descriptions that nature, the very essence of what Australia is made of, becomes one of the main characters in the book. It is just as much part of the story as that of the humans who walk in it.
An interesting fact about McCullough is that she was a neuro-scientist, of quite high acclaim, and wrote ‘The Thorn birds’ amongst other books until she was successful enough to step away from her research and be a full-time writer. She was an intelligent woman who, due to her medical background, knew how to do thorough research with the added benefit of seeing into the human psyche.
When ‘The Thorn birds’ was published a great scandal was caused at the temerity of suggesting that a priest could submit to the ‘wiles’ of a woman. Yet McCullough explores the possibility thereof with great understanding of the human heart.
So, as an experiment, whisper the name ‘Father Ralph’ in an older woman’s ear and see her get that far-away look in her eye and hear her sigh for the pining love between a priest and an ordinary girl called Meggie that was not so ordinary.