PUBLISHING

A tale of twin spinsters

CHRIS WOOD February 15 1988
PUBLISHING

A tale of twin spinsters

CHRIS WOOD February 15 1988

A tale of twin spinsters

PUBLISHING

The parallels are striking. In The Blue Castle, a little-known 1926 novel by Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery, homely spinster Valancy Stirling breaks free from a repressive family by wooing and wedding a disreputable bachelor, Barney Snaith. He agrees to the marriage only after Valancy shows him a doctor’s letter that gives her one year to live. In The Ladies of Missalonghi, written by best-selling Australian author Colleen McCullough (The Thorn Birds) and published last year by Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., the spinster’s name is Missy Wright, the bachelor is John Smith and the letter says much the same thing. The plots are both set early this century in resort communities, Montgomery’s in Canada and McCullough’s in Australia. They share an extraordinary number of details, down to the dowdy brown clothes that the two spinsters wear.

The similarities first came to light last December, when book reviewer and editor Maureen Garvie wrote about them in the Kingston, Ont., daily, The Whig-Standard. Garvie, who had read The Blue Castle as a teenager, reread parts of it to complete a review of McCullough’s novel for the newspaper. “I don’t understand how she could have let it happen,” said Garvie. “If you are plagiarizing something, you would at least change the color of the hair and avoid recurring phrases.” Before writing her article, Garvie cabled McCullough, who lives on remote Norfolk Is-

land, about 1,500 km east of Brisbane. The author replied that the similarities were “merely pleasant echoes” from when she read the book as a child.

McCullough insists that Missy is very much her own creation. “I’m no Miss Australia to look at, I never was,” says the portly, 50-year-old McCullough, who did not marry until she was 45. “And it was because of my own personal experience that I have had a particular fascination with the old maid.” She added, in an interview with Melbourne’s The Age newspaper: “I read Lucy Montgomery as a child, along with some 40 other books a week. Perhaps because I loved her work best of all, my subconscious recorded something.”

Both novels are tales of love conquering all. In Montgomery’s tale, Valancy lives a barren existence with a domineering mother, denied even the company of a pet cat. She finds comfort in fantasies about a blue castle in Spain, where she walks with a redheaded lover. But when her doctor wrongly diagnoses a fatal heart condition, she rebels, falling in love with Snaith. The story ends happily when he turns out to be not only a loving husband, but a rich man.

McCullough’s Missy also escapes from her emotionally empty family into fantasies of redheaded strangers. And her fortunes also change with a medical death sentence, a letter for another patient that she steals from her doctor’s desk. Smith, too, becomes a

perfect—and wealthy—husband. The two books even share some phrases, including the observation that the heroines’ envied cousins both “keep all their goods in the shop window.”

Garvie was not alone in finding parallels between the books. Letters noting the similarities have flooded into McCullough’s publishers. Said the author’s New York coeditor, Nancy Seitz: “There are striking similarities that look like more than coincidence. It is puzzling and worrying.”

Scrutiny of the two books has become intense. Last week a film crew from the Australian Broadcasting Corp. was in Prince Edward Island, where Montgomery grew up, preparing a report for the network. And Toronto lawyer Marian Hebb, who represents Montgomery’s estate, as well as the Writers’ Union of Canada, told Maclean’s that a legal action seeking damages from McCullough for infringement of copyright is “under active consideration.”

Amid the controversy, one thing seems certain: McCullough stands to earn more from Missy Wright than Montgomery did from Valancy Stirling. Montgomery’s lifetime income from her 20 novels amounted to about $250,000. By contrast, the Australian author earned about 20 times that much from The Thorn Birds alone. And McCullough’s latest book now contains an intriguing—and potentially lucrative—subplot.

-CHRIS WOOD with PHILIP GRENARD in Sydney and BARBARA MacANDREW in Charlottetown

PHILIP GRENARD

BARBARA MacANDREW