Sisterhood and Individualism: Love and other Ambitions (Australia, 1925 – 1933): Bittersweet is a perfect title for the romantic entanglements of four sisters – two sets of beautiful, devoted, non-identical twins – at the heart of this sweeping historical novel set when a young Commonwealth of Australia gained its independence from Great Britain, in the years leading up to and during the Great Depression. It takes place in a “kinder and richer rural area than most of Australia,” an imaginary town of 50,000 in the state of New South Wales: Corunda. The gem-like name also perfect. Derived from the mineral that turns out rubies unearthed here, the novel itself a gem.
With at least one man entangled with each sister, how they handle these relationships speaks to their traits, needs for purposefulness, and medical ambitions. For as much as this is Colleen McCullough’s “first romantic saga since The Thorn Birds” (published in 1977 to a tune of 30 million copies sold), it’s also a saga about a higher calling – a “new style” of nursing – a three-year, registered nursing program all four sisters enter in 1926, when the story takes off. New governments “as green as grass” matter greatly too. Everyone seems caught off guard by the approaching financial calamities except for a politically ambitious male character entangled in one of these relationships. Hence, this is an ambitious novel about ambitions.
Another author might not have pulled all this off quite so pleasurably, so seamlessly, even blending points-of-view within chapters, letting you get closer inside a character’s head. For this is Australia, McCullough’s native homeland, and she’s authored some 20 other novels. She’s also a neuroscientist who established a new department in a Sydney hospital, not unlike the experience that plays out at Corunda Base Hospital, where the sisters are circulating among the wards, renewed by that same clever fellow with grandiose political aspirations.
First, let’s meet these beguiling sisters, whose development is as strong and distinctive as their personalities: EDDA and GRACE, twenty months older than TUFTS and KITTY, roughly 20 and 19 when they head off to become “new style nurses.” Their father is the Reverend Thomas Latimer, “the sweetest and kindest man in the world.” Edda and Grace’s mother has passed away. Enter the “pushy, shallow, and social climbing” stepmother Maude Treadby Scobie, once the church’s housekeeper. Her only motherly cares are for Kitty, the most arresting, which has lasting repercussions. The sisters are united in their protection of Kitty and dread of Maude, “a sickly sweet apology for a mother.”
More about the twins, whom a cold-hearted matron as “starchy” as her nursing uniform, Gertrude Newdigate, insists they be called differently to hide they’re related from the “West Ender” trainees, lest they assume the sisters have been granted special privileges, commensurate with their more privileged backgrounds, which is definitely not the case:
EDDA (Nurse Latimer): The “ringleader,” fearless and the most gifted. Her highest ambition is to become a doctor (a “scientist not a romantic”). Too expensive, she pursues nursing, as “nurses had a certain power; anyone thrust into the live-or-die maw of a hospital came out with a profound respect for them.” It fits that Edda gravitates to the Operating Theatre and Casualty ward. Corunda can’t be enough for her, and it’s not.
GRACE (Nurse Faulding, mother’s maiden name): the complainer and most conventional about marriage, but she has an unusual passion for steam locomotives. It’s almost expected that Grace will be the sister who drops out of nursing school for a man. Her strength will impress you as life deals its blows.
TUFTS (Nurse Scobie, Maude’s first married name): Calmest, most logical. With “amber-gold eyes,” she resembles the actress Myrna Loy. At the hospital, she works alongside Dr. Liam Finucan, a decent 43 year old, Irishman plagued by a problem wife. A “plodding” pathologist and coroner who tutors all the sisters, liked by all. Tufts befriends him, but she’s tough! She prizes individualism over “the subordinate role in life that marriage demanded of a woman.” She has no desire to leave Corunda, finds plenty of misery here.
KITTY (Nurse Tready, Maude’s maiden name): Ravishing, likened to the actress Marion Davies. Standing out with her tantalizing “lavender-blue eyes” and frank, caustic dialogue – cutting remarks that are not enchanted prose! She finds a peaceful place in the Children’s ward, where she can be anonymous, where her beauty unimportant. Kitty loves Corunda. That striving fellow didn’t know Kitty detests being valued for her appearance; makes the egregious mistake of announcing his love for her upon first meeting and relentlessly pursues her. Charles Henry Burdham, bachelor, 32, is a wealthy Englishman, a “Pommie,” who quests to become the next Prime Minister of Australia. Since Kitty is the sister the least sure of herself, his pursuit creates one of the romantic plot tensions.
Charles – who must go by the name Charlie to mix with this unpretentious crowd – is a complex character who offers insight into the cultural and political climate of Australia after WWI. He’s clueless why being a “Pommie” is such a liability. Also going against him is his small size, “height no man can bear to be without.” On the positive side, he’s a compassionate doctor who cares about the common man, his politics often siding with the Labor Party but McCullough wisely casts him as an Independent, apt for his ambivalences. A modern man who gauges the parties are too entrenched in Old World thinking, he understands interest rates from his London time, predicting the onslaught of the financial crisis since he’s aware of Corunda’s heavy borrowing history. He prepares, he safeguards, so he’s more than ready to assume the position of next Superintendent at the sisters’ hospital. There, he ingratiates himself by much do-gooding, remaking this “army barracks” of a facility miserly run by the former head, Frank Campbell, under whom the sisters endured unnecessary hardships in their training, like housing and food. Their determination to rise above these challenges offers an encouraging message.
There’s one other male character to bring into this discussion – others and all the emotional involvements must be left for the reader to freshly come upon – charming Jack Thurlow, 30, another bachelor. A “true landsman” and horseman, he’s the one we envision riding gallantly atop one of the Arabian horses he raises on his “5,000 acres of magnificent land,” Corundoobar. As an heir to Old Tom Burdum (96), he refuses his extreme wealth, which the already rich Charlie gladly welcomes. Jack’s a man supremely content with what he has, values duty over money, and knows “money is no teacher of what makes humans tick.” What’s not to like?
You cannot write a novel steeped in Australia without a slew of quirky, unfamiliar expressions. Prose that delights such as: bikkies, flivvers, swagman, chooks, tuppeny, stickybeaks, bang on, codswallop, earwigs, karri, and my favorites, stiffen the snakes and starve the lizards!
Yes, the vocabulary is memorable. So are the characters, especially the nursing sisters, delightful reminders that “nurses were remembered.”