Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

'The Thorn Birds': When Young, Sexy, Straight Priests Roamed The Earth

The first time I read Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds, I was about eleven years old and volunteering as a library-cart-girl at an old folks' home. Please save your praise on the latter point; even at the age of eleven I knew I wasn't going to get into a decent college from a Canadian hick town without performative volunteer work. I was there to use the elderly, not to serve them. Anyway, the first thing you learn about old people when engaged in such an act of questionable good works is: Old People Read Smut. They do! They love it. I could not keep anything vaguely bodice-rippy in stock. Hey, struggling novelists of America: write some Depression-themed erotica and just wait for the Werther's Original-scented twenties to start rolling in.

No, no, I love old people, really I do. I just wish they would stop voting.

Anyway, The Thorn Birds was our most popular title. And, on re-read, I can see why! This must be our most Classic of Classic Trash selections yet: foreign land, sweeping cross-generational saga, six hundred and eighty-eight pages in paperback, forbidden love (and not just "oh, he's married" forbidden! BINDING SACRED VOWS forbidden!), illegitimate children, and a weird, evolutionarily dubious metaphor about a made-up bird. This is what we professional trash-readers live for!

Your particular enjoyment of The Thorn Birds may be linked to where you sit on the priests/sexiness matrix. If you find the idea of priests sexy, this is going to be a fun billion pages. If, however, you find priests off-putting and completely lacking in erotic appeal, you'll still have a good time, but with a certain amount of ew along the way. I fall into the second category, but that's probably because the Catholic priests of my childhood were way more Ratzinger than Ralph, if you know what I mean. "Curious, how many priests were handsome as Adonis, had the sexual magnetism of Don Juan." I sense there's been a significant decline in the young, sexy priest department since the majority of said demographic opted to instead live fulfilling gay lives in major urban centers. (Even the actors playing young, sexy priests! Love you, Richard Chamberlain.)

Now, our beloved protagonists are Irish immigrants, of course. Honestly, I don't know why anyone bothers to write sweeping cross-generational sagas of forbidden love about any other group of people. We Irish have it all: massive guilt complexes, promiscuity, addictive personalities, and a complete inability to ever let anything fucking go, ever. It makes for good copy. If you're not convinced, pick up one of those Maeve Binchy novels you buy for your mom at Christmas, and try to picture the characters hailing from Wellfleet instead. What about a German Scarlett O'Hara? Morgen ist ein anderer Tag? That's just plain menacing.

Our heroine is pretty much there to wring tears from your cold-black heart. You can tell that right away, since the novel opens with a four-year-old Meggie tearfully witnessing her birthday present's willful destruction. Well, get used to it, Meggie, because your mother will yell at you for getting lice; the nuns are going to beat the tar out of you; your little brother is going to die of croup; your father will be burned alive; your other brother will go to prison for murder; yet another brother will be suffocated to death by a giant boar while discovering your father's body; you're going to fall in love with a priest; you'll get to make out for, like, a second; the priest will be separated from you by the machinations of an crafty dead woman; you'll marry a complete jerk (have fun figuring out what sex is on your wedding night!); you'll cheat on the jerk with the priest; the priest will immediately impregnate you; the kid will grow up to also become a priest; and then he'll drown. Oh, and after the funeral? The original priest will die in your arms. AH, THE RICH PAGEANTRY OF LIFE.

Sometimes, one wonders what sort of intervention would be necessary to keep disaster out of the lives of people like this. A good prenup (Meggie, do not sign anything over to Luke without independent counsel!) would work wonders. Also, condoms. A copy of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People"? A scrip for Wellbutrin? PENICILLIN? Just not being completely self-sabotaging every day of your life?

If I'm being hard on The Thorn Birds it's because I think that the world is bad enough without creating purposely depressing art, but, you know, the book is actually pretty great. And, well, "no one carried a pound of superfluous flesh, in spite of the vast quantities of starchy food," so they had that going for them, at least. Silver linings, my dears.


• Okay, have you read My Brilliant Career? Because THAT is a fantastic book by an Australian author that you can read openly in public without sniveling.

• Also, Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, which I read based on John Waters' recommendation and was all THIS BOOK WHAT WOW.

• Did you know that John Waters has fantastic taste in literature? Because he does!

• Have you met any sexy priests?

• Are you descended from Irish immigrants? Have you ever let anything go, ever?

• Does naming your sheep station after Drogheda, the site of Cromwell's notorious siege, qualify as letting things go, or not? I could see the validity of either interpretation.

• Do you like Maeve Binchy? They're super middle-brow, and all kinds of fun. Start with Light a Penny Candle.

• Did you get lice? I never got lice, but I constantly had paranoid fantasies about it in grade school. No one ever believes the teachers when they tell you it's not a Beacon of Shame and Disgrace.

• And, of course, Meggie's mother never told her about menstruation, so the priest had to. Are people's mothers still dropping the ball on that, ever?

• "Naked, Father Ralph stepped off the veranda to stand on the barbered lawn with his arms raised above his head, eyes closed; he let the rain pour over him in warm, probing, spearing runnels, an exquisite sensation on bare skin. It was very dark. But he was still flaccid."

For next time, let's do Valley of the Horses. While Clan of the Cave Bear didn't live up to its smut hype, reliable sources have advised that Valley of the Horses is where Jean M. Auel unleashes the dirty.

Previously: Clan of the Cave Bear and The Secret Circle

Nicole Cliffe is the proprietress of Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews.

70 Comments / Post A Comment

RonMwangaguhung (#3,697)

OMG. Rachel Ward was smouldering in the TV miniseries. SMOULDERING. I wanted me some of that when I was a little kid.

Limaceous (#2,392)

Confession time. I love this book (trashy as it may be), and have reread several times, but I've never seen the miniseries. I'm afraid it will be disappointing? Or, worse, boring?

Should I be watching it right now?

And, yes, I love The Thorn Birds when it is all wonderful crying and exquisite pain and extensive melodrama, but didn't Meggie seem just a wee bit tiresome? Like, am I the only person who just liked her actress daughter, Justine, better? How she was the only person who could maybe somehow escape the generations of tragedy compounded with tragedy.

@Limaceous I missed the miniseries too! And co-sign on Meggie.

Kevin Knox (#4,475)

@Limaceous No, I loved Justine too, for that exact reason. Everyone else just seemed doomed (to be fair, most of them were…)
As for the miniseries, I don't know whether it would be disappointing, but it certainly wouldn't be boring. It's only 8 hours long, and if I recall correctly, it's pretty faithful to the book.

barnhouse (#1,326)

LAWD was this a sublime entry from Nicole Cliffe@facebook, my favorite so far excepting perhaps l'affaire Des Barres, which, words cannot express. So firstly, thank you.

The best thing about this book is the color "ashes of roses" suggesting that you can burn roses and their flowerness apparently imbues the ashes with a roseate hue. I've never forgotten about this color and whenever I see an instance of it whether in a fabric or in a stone or shell I am immediately recalled to the book and its sad, sweet story.

Sexy priests, yes, I have met one or two. For those with a taste for this theme I can readily recommend the film El crimen del padre Amaro starring Gael García Bernal. I but rarely wish to relive the torrid (and ghastly) scenes of youth but this Bernal, I don't know. He is in every way, shall I say. Credible.

Which brings me to the problem with casting Richard Chamberlain as Ralph de Bricassart. Whatever that is that Gael García Bernal possesses in vats–what is it? Testosterone, balls, appetite, will? Whatever, Richard Chamberlain's stupendous lack thereof made him most unsuitable for this role.

But in the book Father Ralph de Bricassart lacks for nothing, which is why he is one of the great heroes of romance fiction.

lobsterhug (#66,323)

@Limaceous Justine is the best. I always imagined her German lover looked like Gabriel Byrne's Professor Behr.

Nabonwe (#12,500)

@Limaceous Yes, yes, yes, yes to ashes of roses, and that scene with the dress. Some people think they have to take fancy drugs in order to see a "new" color; but ashes of roses has existed in my mind since I was ten, and is glorious.

@Nabonwe I had an old-timey ashes of roses dress when I was little and I loved it! I don't think it ever actually fit me, but I would open the closet door and stare at it a lot.

rien à dire (#32,378)

@Limaceous I haven't read the book (yet–it's been sitting on my shelf, laying in wait), but the miniseries is DELIGHTFULLY trashy. As in, I was wondering how, in this day and age, I could get my hands on a VCR to tape a copy so I could have it forever…because it's too much of a guilty pleasure to actually purchase.

RustBeltFag@twitter (#206,926)

@Limaceous I was disappointed in the mini-series. Richard Chamberlain = not hot enough to get cast as Father Ralph.

@barnhouse i do the same thing. my mother wore alot of that color.

wichitakid (#215,788)

@Nabonwe I loved the movie and the book. Several years ago, I was painting a dollhouse, and saw the color "Ashes of Roses" and there was no question of paint color after that. Still love the color!

Pop Socket (#187)

This was the pass-around hit of my junior high. The girls would just sigh and clutch the book to their budding bosoms and sigh. Father Whatawaste was a popular object of fantasy.

City_Dater (#2,500)

@Pop Socket

The Father Whatawaste of my teen years had a motorcycle. He would roar up, take the helmet off his glossy dark curls, and unzip his leather jacket to reveal THE COLLAR.

I need to be alone for a little while now.

@City_Dater i'm going to dream about this a little.

Don't Panic (#12,659)

My sister and I may, or may not, be named after characters from The Thorn Birds.

Pandemic Endemic (#3,825)

@Don't Panic My parents were going to name my brother after Rachel Ward, who was at the apex of her Thornbirds fame at the time, if he had been born a girl.

That book is the randiest travesty but every 750 pages (I haven't read it in years but iirc that book is something like 3000 pages, right?) it gets even hotter than Internet porn.

@Don't Panic I'm named after Meggie! My mom loved the book/miniseries and thought Rachel Ward was gorgeous and Meggie was a "cute Irish name." And just ignored the whole seducing-a-priest bit, I guess.

Megoon (#201,547)

@Meg Morrison@twitter Same, right down to "ignored the whole seducing-a-priest bit." I always found it confusing… isn't the character's real name Margaret? Why isn't my name Margaret? I also know a Margaret whose nickname is Megan. Oh, the Irish.

themegnapkin (#201,538)

@Don't Panic I think her name is Meghann? Because mine is Meghan (only 1 n), and I suspect i was named after her.

Also: Colleen McCullough's ancient Rome novels are equally awesome, although mostly lacking in smut. They are why I know an awful lot about ~150-35 BC.

eanlaith (#214,943)


eanlaith (#214,943)

@eanlaith Sorry, Im just freaking out and laughing about this. Jesus H. Christmas.

Limaceous (#2,392)

@themegnapkin Yes to the ancient Rome books, which are undeniably awesome, and I got my boyfriend reading them too, though I'd say the first few are the best, and then it just drags on and on and you keep reading because you're so invested in it but McCullough's hero-worship of Caesar (he can do no wrong!) starts to get in the way of enjoyment. (I really did read every single one, even the last one, which just, ugh!)

And I would say they are not entirely lacking in smut! (She throws in a few Roman orgies and the occasional murder in the midst of all the politicking and warmongering.) Really, any time the story focuses on Sulla, it gets great. But, oh, how it bogs down in the many Italian civil wars.

themegnapkin (#201,538)

@Limaceous Word to the Ceasar hero worship. Gorgeous, charismatic, and 9.5x more brilliant than anyone else in the world, ever. And totally hairless except for the hair on his head! He had to have faults, right? He did get murdered after all. . . The last full book in the Rome series was the one that ended after his death, I couldn't get through the next and didn't even try for the one after that. I think she lost too much stream once her crush was killed off.

RustBeltFag@twitter (#206,926)

@themegnapkin I nominate the Rome series to get the Classic Trash treatment as well. And "not entirely lacking in smut" is an understatement. I'm pretty sure Sulla's romps with his slave boy were the most titillating man-on-man action available at my local public library in my adolescence.

wichitakid (#215,788)

@Pandemic Endemic
My last name is Cleary, and I "almost" named my daughter Meggie. (Megan) but instead named her Rachel. Now I have a daughter-in-law named Maegen. LOL!

David (#192)

Here in the US, (certain volunteers in Old Folks' Homes) were reading Robertson Davies to their charges.

@David Please say "The Salterton Trilogy"!

eatbigsea (#1,361)

@David I met him once, in the mid-nineties. He was the most charming, courtly man. I have always been partial to the Cornish trilogy.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Oh, man. Fifth Business is one of my very favorite favorite books in the world. Those were some lucky olds.

@barnhouse Mine too!

jessica d'no (#214,627)

I learned the word "flaccid" from this book when I was ten. Is it ever used not in reference to a penis?

laurel (#4,035)

@jessica d'no I clearly recall looking up "flaccid" in the dictionary while reading The Thorn Birds when I was 11.

I also read Forever right around the same time and found it kind of confusing that the penis was named the same thing as the priest.

@laurel Do not quote me on this, but I believe it's technically pronounced Flak-sid, and no one has ever said it correctly.

oudemia (#177)

@jessica d'no Holy crap — I logged in to leave that exact comment. Flaccid! (And yes, Nicole is right about the pronunciation!)

jessica d'no (#214,627)

@oudemia haha I learned by asking my mom. She had to have known EXACTLY what part I was reading. And somehow that pronunciation makes it worse, but I'm not worrying about it–I can't bring myself to use it.

laurel (#4,035)

@jessica d'no How often does the opportunity come up?

jessica d'no (#214,627)

@laurel Fair enough, not too often. It's not like I'm denying myself chocolate "until flaccid ends," or anything.

Figures that John Waters would be the go-to for excellent book recommendations. There's also that much-repeated line of his : "If you go home with somebody, and they don't have books, don't fuck 'em!"

What a guy.

mascarasnake (#214,638)

Two things my teetotal, suit-wearing farmer Grandfather always had to hand were Silvermints and what we referred to as his 'dirty books". They were Mills and Boon(Harlequin in the US, I think?) and a source of complete fascination to me. Looking back it seems bizarre that the only things he read were church newsletters and books about eighties careerwomen's love lives..

ALSO I have never ever met a sexy priest, but I did once meet one my mother dubbed Father Trendy because he wore a leather jacket and too casually dropped mild curse words into conversation. At the time he was sort of her boss as the hierarchy in Irish schools goes something like: Principal < Board of Management < Parish Priest

mascarasnake (#214,638)

@mascarasnake Oh and in Ireland we have a Bad John Waters, who is far inferior to Good John Waters but worth looking up on wiki. He's a columnist with one of our broadsheets, and no matter what issue he writes about it uuuusually boils down to the evil feminists destroying society.

Bittersweet (#765)

@mascarasnake: The priest who married my cousin and her first husband was an incredibly handsome specimen (my aunt called him "Father Hunk") but he still wasn't in any way sexy, and it had nothing to do with the uniform.

mklocins (#214,639)

I registered just to comment on this. My mother made me watch the entire Thornbirds mini-series with her this past New Years Eve -I know, I know, I lead a thrilling life- and OH MY GOD if you liked the book and have 8 hours to spare you should totally see it, if only for Barbara Stanwyck. Watching her demand (a soaking wet and "still flaccid") Chamberlain have sex with her was, I can't even.

@mklocins isnt it SO GREAT? i am not ashamed to say i own the miniseries on dvd and i watch it whenever i am home sick. it is one of my favorites.

combustamove (#214,660)

I love that we all read this at scandalously young ages! It was the first time I ever encountered anything about sex in fiction, I was nine and I had a lot to say at sleepover parties for a while.

@Limaceous Totally agree that Meggie was tiresome. Justine was way more interesting with her independence and badassery. Didn't she sleep with a married guy so she'd have more life experience and be a better actress? So practical. I totally dug that dedication to her ambitions.

I read the book and then watched the mini-series when it came out. The thing I remember from the book was that Meggie (I believe) had the beautiful hand-embroidered nightgown for her wedding night and barely got to wear it. I think of that whenever I see wedding night lingerie. It is a really good book and it's funny to me that my mom gave it to me to read when I was so young.

british petroleum (#214,899)

We had one hot priest growing up, memorialized in my brother's first communion photo. He was Irish and had a drinking problem. He did not last long, though my cousins mourned his leaving for years. Then there was Father Fast, who could finish mass in under 35 minutes. Also popular in my family.

whoneedslight (#758)

I hated the miniseries if only because I loved Bryan Brown in A Town Like Alice and hated to see him as the bad guy.

AddioKira (#214,906)

OK so. I just registered after a long time of lurks just to comment on this. I tried reading this book at a similar scandalously young age but I COULDN'T GET PAST THE DOLL. It just destroyed me and I went no further. Have I been depriving myself of sexy priests all this time? Am I normal? Does this ever happen to you?

alli525 (#16,797)

I just came here to say that I have friends in Catholic seminary who have dubbed me a "chalice chipper" (ahem: because I am constantly in love with one priest or another.

Miss Violet (#214,691)

I confess I am a lover of Classic Trash, although I've always felt strangely ambivalent about "The Thorn Birds". However, the seducing-Father-Whatawaste fantasy kept me entertained through many an optional Mass in high school.

May I take this opportunity to put in a request for some Judith Krantz? "Princess Daisy", or maybe "MIstral's Daughter" (my personal fave)? Delightful literature!

eanlaith (#214,943)

Oh man. Guys? I was named after this book.

My mom grew up in Ireland. Born in 1935, she grew up during wartime, her mother dead by the time she was 6. Her older sister had already “taken the habit” and so when mom aged out of the local school at age 10, she was sent to the nuns for more schooling. After a year and a half at the convent, where she worked in the kitchens, she’d gained weight and confessed to the Father that she must have got pregnant after the neighbor farm boy had put his tongue in her mouth when kissing her goodbye. The priest gave her absolution, but no sex ed. She took her vows when she was 13 years old and was a faithful woman of the cloth for 15 years.

In her late 20’s, she left the order and became a civilian again, though she kept her faith. She married, had kids and in 1978 was pregnant. She read this book. Over and over and over agin. Can you imagine? Can you FEEL THE PORN? So anyway, on the night I was born my father was, of course, in the bar. Because that’s where you go when your kid is being born in 1978 and you grew up on a farm in Ireland and your wife was an Old Virgin Maid at 28? Anyway, I was going to be either Margaret Mary or Sean William. And when the nurses handed me over to my exhausted mother, she could not for the life of her recall the name “Margaret Mary” and instead called me “Meggie”.

By the time my father arrived (the following day), the nurses were calling me Meggie. My mother (who remembered my “real” name at this point), was too polite and deferential in the face of the authority of the nurses to correct them. My father found this hilarious and jokingly took up the name with me as well. It stuck. Almost 34 years later, and I’ve grown up into “Megan” but the family still calls me Meggie.

rien à dire (#32,378)

@eanlaith This comment attached to this post makes–legitimately–for the best thing I've ever read. Can we please have an entire thread of Irish stories?

eanlaith (#214,943)

@rien à dire
Ah! I can tell you all about how Rose Of The Bridge (you know, because she lives at the bridge?) was the one to find mom when she had run away from home because one of the farm boys had called her stupid. She didn't run far, but she did lock herself into the cab of an abandoned truck (lorry) and wet her only pants (underwear) and fell asleep until nightfall. Does that qualify as an irish story?

rien à dire (#32,378)

@eanlaith Yesss! Never stop spinning these yarns!

Magsta (#214,950)

Guys my name is Meghan Cleary! I get this all the time from people who just meet me, usually older ppl who remember the miniseries, bc i go by Maggie. I was born right before the miniseries came out. Anyway after years of being asked if I'd read or seen the Thorn Birds, upon introduction to someone new, I finally read it and was so glad i did, because I now know to run in the other direction from any guy with Luke qualities. Luke is the worst.

love this book, love my priests. <3<3<3 i think i died a little when i first saw boondock saints. not priests, but they pray alot and are 'irish' lol can we talk about keeping the faith?

i am descended from almost exclusively angry off the boat irish people. i'm not an easy person. i only allow myself to drink whiskey in december, because i love it SO MUCH! i love everything about whiskey. it makes me warm, it relaxes me, it makes me funny and the world seem like a nice place. i can also drink copious amounts of it with no hangover or sick 0o genetics ftw

aannnnddd i'm going to stop now!

slbean (#214,975)

My mother desperately wanted to name me Meggie, fortunately my dad wanted nothing to do with that! Love the book and the miniseries, I try to watch it any time it's on.

bennis (#214,978)

Until I read this post, it seems that I have been confusing The Thorn Birds with The Thunderbirds for the last every year of my life.

magneticMC (#215,009)

My name is Meg Cleary and I am NEVER ok with anyone calling me Meggie. I read this book (since my mother was clearly obsessed) and it was the worst ever. I am also Irish Catholic.

Psychbucket (#179,624)

Oh yeah! I had a Literary Guild membership about the minute I got a job when I was 16 (no bookstores at ALL around) and this book was one of my first purchases. Good stuff, though I'm not sure what I'd think if I re-read it today.

Oh my ever-loving jesus. I love this book. I, like you, found it at my Gram's house when I was 11 or 12. It started my love of epic family novels. Included in that list are The Outlander Series, and "One Hundred Years of Solitude".
I also love Maeve Binchy's "Light a Penny Candle". However, I do think that "Light a Penny Candle" is the better of the two.

LaNegrita (#215,078)

To one Irish Catholic from another (who happens to work at a Catholic church): There IS a term for this:

Father What-A-Waste.

And yes, they still very much exist, although your assertion about fulfilling gay lifestyles stealing them away is likely on point.

m1m1m1 (#215,215)

I am an eighties baby, and my mother named me after Meggie in this book. When I asked her why, she said because she really loved the character, and Meggie had a great love of the outdoors, and it had nothing to do with her sleeping with a priest. So, when I got older I made myself read the book, and I'm still like… 'huh?' …

caddie (#189,150)

"We've never understood it. Maeve was always the stupid one." -a relative of Maeve Binchy's, marvelling at her success, to my aunt.

Man o man thank you for this. I saw the mini series surrepticiously at age 9 and it permanently gave me some priest fetish Ive yet been lucky enough to live out. Father Ralph, where are you? :D

I was forbidden by my mother to watch the miniseries, and so I snagged the book from the resort gift shop on a vacation when I was about 11. Devoured the whole thing, learned both the word "flaccid" and what a condom *was,* from this book. We were heathens, though, so much of the Priest Mystique was utterly lost on me!

BoxMeowBox (#215,449)

New to the party, here; hello, everyone.

Greatly looking forward to discussion of the Paleolithic pleasuring in Valley of Horses.

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