Many years ago, the Australian Historical Association held its annual conference in Newcastle. The organizers were particularly pleased when the then Premier, Bob Carr, agreed to open the conference. Since Newcastle is about 160 kilometers from Sydney, this involved complicated travel arrangements, and Carr’s appearance had to be kept under wraps for security reasons – even in those long ago days.
Bob Carr projected a reputation as a scholar and a history buff. Known as ‘the Sage of Maroubra’, he is certainly bookish, and – almost unheard of in Australian politics – he doesn’t follow sport. So many of the academic historians attending the conference opening were more than a little miffed when he devoted most of his speech to enthusiastic praise for Colleen McCullough and her 7 volume Masters of Rome series.
Historical novelists and historians work in parallel paths, but they don’t always respect each other’s work as much as they should. This was, of course, well before the rise and rise of Hilary Mantel, and in any case Colleen McCullough wrote blockbusters, not Booker-prize winners.
I’ve never read many historical novels since my Georgette Heyer days, and I suspect the same may be true for many historians. It is relatively easy for a novelist to get the objective facts right, yet still write anachronistically because their characters lack the mindset of their time: all those feisty Plantagenet women in Philippa Gregory’s novels, for instance, or Brother Cadfael’s multicultural sympathies, don’t quite match the reality of the middle ages.
Yet my classics friends tell me that Colleen McCullough got the tone just right in her Roman novels. Perhaps it is no coincidence that she appealed to politicians, including Newt Gingrich and Henry Kissinger, as well as Bob Carr. The civil strife of factional warlords in late Republican Rome must have been quite familiar to the factional warlords of the New South Wales Labor machine – or the American Congress.
Colleen McCullough died last week. She was 77, and had been in poor health for a while. Amongst other complaints – but she didn’t complain – she was blind as a result of macular degeneration.
There have been many obituaries for her, including one in The Australian that caused controversy. Twitter erupted first in offence, then in mockery. There’s a good backgrounder here. Other obituaries have been more respectful, but most concentrate on her initial successes, especially The Thorn Birds (1977), which sold 30 million copies and made her name and her fortune.
What none of them have mentioned, so far as I can find, is that she was also a great philanthropist. In her research for her books, Colleen McCullough built up a strong rapport with the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, and gave back to the Department generously but unobtrusively to support research.
Australians do not have a good track record where philanthropy is concerned, and usually when they give, they want some acknowledgement. Not Colleen. I’ve hunted through the Macquarie University website for evidence of her generosity, and there is just the occasional comment that ‘This project was generously funded in its initial stages by Dr Colleen McCullough-Robinson.’ She was a stalwart supporter of the department, but by her own wishes she flew under the radar.
Searching through the website I also found that in September 2005 Colleen McCullough spoke at a fund-raising alumni dinner. Her topic: ‘Writing Accurate Historical Novels – in a Non-Boring Way’. I’m sorry I missed it! Perhaps we all should have gone to it.
Vale Colleen McCullough.