It isn’t often that affairs in the literary world find themselves included in Sixty Minutes. And yet last year viewers of this program were presented with an all-out brawl between two literary camps: one supporting the reputation of the Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery, the other defending the integrity of the Australian Colleen McCullough. The point of contention was McCullough’s novel The Ladies of Missalonghi (1987), which allegedly plagiarised one of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s lesser known novels, The Blue Castle, originally published in 1926. The fact that one of McCullough’s prime accusers is a New Zealand librarian added to the controversy’s cross-national resonances. Both Montgomery and McCullough are frequently associated with national stereotypes: as McCullough ruefully acknowledges, part of her problem seems to be that she has interfered with an author who is a ‘Canadian icon’. Montgomery’s writing is recognised as playing a major role in establishing one of the most persistent images of Canadians—as wholesome, vigorous, close to nature. On the other hand McCullough’s own brashness and sense of herself as a tall poppy under attack draw upon a stereotypically Australian set of images. The authors in play in this controversy, then, are recognisably national, if quite dissimilar. As one critic commented, ‘McCullough’s hearty cowpat jokes would be quite out of place in Montgomery’s world.’
The textual similarities between The Blue Castle and The Ladies of Missalonghi are striking. In each novel a spinster (Montgomery’s Valancy Stirling, McCullough’s Missy Hungerford) lives with her mother and an old aunt. Each is a dark, pale, flat-chested and brown-eyed woman who contemplates death with pleasure as a release from her restricted and hen-pecked existence. Each wears dresses in a shade known as ‘snuff brown’; each dreams of wearing pink as a bridesmaid; each sleeps in a cold bedroom with a handworked motto on the wall and a passe-partout engraving of a queen. An uncle owns the country store and teases her unmercifully; an enviable and beautiful cousin who ‘keeps all her goods in the shop window’ and is recently engaged is everything Valancy/Missy is not. Suffering from pains around the heart, each spinster consults the doctor; Montgomery’s Valancy comes away from the consultation with a letter containing the prognosis that she has only a year to live; McCullough’s Missy steals an unaddressed letter from the doctor’s desk which states that a patient has no more than a year to live. Valancy/Missy falls in love with a mysterious bachelor, Barney Snaith/John Smith, a ‘jailbird’ in the eyes of the local community. Barney/John is tall, with brown eyes and a grim/flinty smile. Valancy/Missy decides to speak her mind and say what she really thinks about her family; she then leaves home against her mother’s will and proposes to the jailbird. When Barney/John is presented with the doctor’s letter, he agrees to marry the spinster out of compassion and her request for some happiness before death. After marriage Valancy/Missy flourishes into a provocative/eye-catching woman as the groom takes her to a wonderful blue castle/green valley. As a wife she has no money worries; her husband ensures that an empty money jar is always replenished. In the final turn of events, Barney/John is revealed as a wealthy man who changed his name and drifted to Africa, Klondike, China, Brazil, Texas/Klondike, England, South Africa, China. When it is revealed to him that his wife is not about to die from a heart condition, the scene is set for them to live happily ever after, a respectable couple in the eyes of the town. Each novel, then, presents the same trajectory of unfulfilled spinsterhood being replaced by married bliss; the mousy, passive spinster is transformed into a sexual and assertive woman.
McCullough’s agent has admitted that The Ladies of Missalonghi is a ‘pleasant echo’ of The Blue Castle. Others find something far more serious. Mary Rubio, Professor of Literature at the University of Guelph, Ontario, lists fifty-eight points on which the characters and plots of the two books coincide. Eileen Robinson, the New Zealand librarian who has taken a prominent part in assessing the similarities between the two (and who has generously shared her work with us), accuses McCullough of theft; ‘a book has been stolen and spoiled’:
When I read Colleen McCullough’s latest best seller The Ladies of Missalonghi I was sickened and angry. In June 1987 I wrote accusing her of rewriting The Blue Castle, a lesser known book by the author Lucy Maud Montgomery of Anne of Green Gables fame and out of print for fifty years. I told her how that to me, it seemed like the same book with plot, characters, dialogue twisted enough that it was not legally plagiarism but enough so that a book written lightly, humorously, deftly and about honesty and assertiveness had become a thing of hamfisted vulgarity and manipulation, with the heroine turned into a cheat.
In her own defence, McCullough draws upon several different kinds of explanation. First, she recalls: ‘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.’ This suggests that perhaps Montgomery’s book left subconscious traces; it addressed especially powerful desires and emotions, which resurface in the later novel. Secondly, McCullough defends The Ladies of Missalonghi as an accurate representation of the small-town life which McCullough’s own mother knew; in fact the novel is dedicated to her mother. The similar details in the two novels are explained here in terms of verisimilitude: small country towns are essentially the same in Canada and Australia at the turn of the century. So both heroines are referred to as wearing ‘snuff brown’ because that is what was commonly said at the time; it is historically accurate and therefore occurs in both novels. McCullough refers to, but does not pursue, a third line of defence. She points out that her intention in The Ladies of Missalonghi was to rewrite Cinderella, and that neither she nor Montgomery are noted for the originality of their plots:
A plot is what you hang your characters on, and our characters are vastly different. Both our heroines may have worn the same brown, but the same women they are not …
This line of argument can be taken further. If we explore the echoes and overlaps between these two novels in terms of genre, the textual similarities emerge in a different light. We can begin to think of both novels as being derivative, located within the generic conventions of popular romance.
The popular romance is consumed in large quantities by a largely female audience. Even feminist critics, eager to recuperate women’s culture, have shied away from these popular feminine narratives, which so patently set up a logic that hinges on the domination and subordination of women. As Ann Snitow argues, romances reinforce the prevailing cultural code by proclaiming that a woman’s happiness and fulfilment are only achieved in the company of a protective man. This is the pattern played out in The Blue Castle and The Ladies of Missalonghi.
In both novels, reading romances is presented as a nurturing activity for women. The respective spinster heroines, incarcerated in their oppressive female households, find fulfilment and assert their independence through compulsively reading romantic novels. In both novels, this kind of reading is viewed as a deeply subversive activity. Perhaps reading romances has more complex functions than at first appear. Indeed, several feminist critics have recently argued that romantic fiction functions as an escape, even as it celebrates patriarchal institutions. Janice Radway, for example, sees romance reading as a strategy with a double purpose. A number of readers she interviewed saw reading romances as connoting a free space where they feel liberated from the need to perform domestic and routine duties. Secondly, by carefully choosing stories that please them (often checking beforehand to see that the author had not ‘pulled any dirty tricks’ by ending the romance unhappily), they escape figuratively into a fairytale in which the heroine’s needs for emotional and sexual fulfilment are met. In this way, Radway suggests, reading romances provides women with a vicarious sustenance.
Radway proposes that popular romances have power and resonance for the women who read and reread them, because the ideal romance symbolically represents female needs and goes on to depict their satisfaction within the present institutional and social arrangement. Characteristically, romantic narratives comprise two intertwined stories: the heroine’s search for identity and the tale of her developing relationship with the initially reluctant hero. These two stories dovetail so that by the end of the romance the mature heroine achieves emotional fulfilment and intense bonding with someone who is reciprocally nurturant and protective in a maternal way. So the ideal hero is not only ‘spectacularly masculine’, he is also ‘unusually nurturant’.
It may seem illogical to argue that romance fiction is as much about finding a form of motherly nurturance and affection as about the need to be found desirable by men. This desire to merge with a wholly attentive other, however, is quite explicit in the plot of The Blue Castle and The Ladies of Missalonghi. Both novels focus initially on the emotional inadequacy of the heroine’s relationship with her mother. As much as anything else, the story is about the heroine’s need to break free and find a kind of maternal affection. This is why the diagnosis of terminal illness is such a significant agent of transformation: it legitimises this desire and gives the heroine the impetus to propose to a hero who is capable of this kind of nurturance. In the explicit representation of a heroine who is seeking not sexual ecstasy but a protective relationship, each of the novels has elements of the ideal romance, as these elements are defined (and required) by readers themselves. The key similarities between the two novels may be the product of generic convention, rather than of plagiarism. McCullough’s crime may indeed not be one of theft—stealing an original plot—as much as one of deviance—refusing to play by the rules of the generic contract.
If we map these rules in terms of the ideal romantic plot, we find an identical set of narrative functions. In the following summary the italicised elements are those identified by Radway as key elements women readers seek in the ideal romance:
1. A sexually immature spinster heroine is trapped in a household of emotionally deprived, non-nurturing women. Her desires are represented in the wish-dream of the blue castle/green valley.
2. A spectacularly masculine and unusually nurturant hero who is capable of tenderness appears as a mysterious stranger in the small town.
3. The transformation is set in play by the assumption of the heroine’s terminal illness, which causes her to become a defiant woman who proposes to the stranger on the basis that she has only a year to live.
4. A precarious relationship develops, in which the heroine is cared for by the hero out of pity.
5. The removal of the ‘misunderstanding’ leads to the revelation of the hero’s unconditional love and dependence (and, incidentally, his wealth and breeding!).
Characterisation can also be understood in terms of generic convention. Of particular interest to us here is the cousin/bride figure, who is traditionally the foil to the heroine. As fair as the heroine is dark, the cousin/bride manipulates men by flaunting her sexuality; she is the incarnation of the calculating female who seeks marriage for wealth and social position rather than for love.
In The Blue Castle, the foil functions in this traditional way, but here McCullough changes the rules of the game. In The Ladies of Missalonghi there is a slippage between the heroine, Missy, and her foil, Alicia. Missy takes on some of the foil’s calculating qualities when she tricks the hero into marriage: ‘I don’t care if I got him through trickery and deceit.’ The end justifies the means. The audience response to this failure to maintain the rules and tone of the genre is clear. Eileen Robinson speaks of Montgomery’s book being ‘stolen and spoiled’. It was this moral spoiling that triggered her anger in the first instance:
I teach Assertiveness Training and have always liked The Blue Castle because a passive woman becomes assertive. But McCullough takes the same woman and turns her from passive to manipulative. That’s what really fired me up. The difference in the personalities and characters of the two authors are to me made so explicit in the two books. McCullough’s version is full of cheating. Montgomery was a person of great integrity.
As both McCullough and her critics admit, ‘the same heroine they are not’. Underneath her snuff-brown dress, McCullough’s heroine has a different moral character. She helps to advance the notion of woman as self-interested and manipulative, qualities that the traditional romance heroine lacks. This breach of contract jeopardises the reader’s identification with Missy and McCullough’s novel becomes a failed romance, an inadequate retelling of the romantic myth. Although popular romances are novels in that each purports to tell a new story of unfamiliar characters and unknown events, in fact the ideal romance retells a single tale whose final outcome the readers always know. These elements must be ‘properly and reassuringly fixed’. Those who seek the reinscription of the traditional popular romance feel betrayed, and with reason.
Yet for a different kind of reader there is a pleasure in this text, precisely because of its failure to ‘play by the rules’. In a review of McCullough’s novel published before the plagiarism controversy, Australian writer Kate Grenville had no hesitation in reading the novel as ‘a joke’, ‘a piece of genre writing’:
It’s a spoof on the classic romantic fantasy. There’s Cinderella, a whole lot of Ugly Sisters of both sexes, a Fairy Godmother … and of course a Prince Charming. Characters are thin, language is flat, there’s no real sense of place (though it’s set in a fictional Australian town)—but this is a spoof of genre writing, so none of these qualities would be appropriate.
For Grenville there can be no doubt that The Ladies of Missalonghi is to be read as play, as a send-up of romantic fantasy; ‘references to romantic writing pop up everywhere like signposts’. The claims of verisimilitude (life in small country towns at the turn of the century and so on) recede and a ‘literary self-consciousness’ is foregrounded. So the heroine’s house is called Missalonghi, the place where Byron, the great romantic, expired; the action is motivated by a book whose plot the heroine openly copies; the pivotal character is a librarian who lends Missy the romances from which she gets her ideas.
Once this literary self-consciousness is set up it even starts to make the language of the book bearable, part of the joke. Which is really the only way to enjoy it. Listen to this: ‘This was the proverbial last straw: Alicia stiffened until she became utterly rigid, gave a gurgling moaning shriek, and fell over with a crash to join her mother on the floor.’ Now if that’s not a joke Colleen McCullough is in deep trouble as a writer.
Grenville is right to note that reading The Ladies of Missalonghi as a spoof allows some vindication of McCullough’s skills as an author. It opens the way for some readers to enjoy the novel as something other than ‘the usual pale-pink sort of romance’.
The plagiarism controversy raises larger issues. To what extent can such a ritualistic set of narrative conventions, drawn from what Grenville refers to as ‘the bland nowhere-land of genre writing’, be said to belong to any one author? To what extent can a single enactment of these conventions be plagiarised? My contention is that if we look to the similarities with generic convention in mind, the comparison of The Blue Castle and The Ladies of Missalonghi becomes not a comparison of two original texts, or even one original and one copy, but of two incidences within the masterplot of popular romance.
The fracas over The Ladies of Missalonghi brings to centre stage a number of questions that continue to preoccupy analyses of the limitations and possibilities of popular fiction. The readership of this fiction can no longer be caricatured as passive; they are both discerning and sure in their requirements of this kind of fiction. (Remember that Robinson’s affection for The Blue Castle grows from her admiration for Montgomery’s assertive heroine.) In its own way, Montgomery’s novel both subverts and assimilates dominant values. Yet clearly many readers of the popular romance have an investment in the traditional parameters and elements of the narrative. The rejection of McCullough’s more radically subversive shift in the moral nature of the heroine marks one such boundary. It may well be, as Maureen Garvie has argued, that the change between the two novels is in part produced by context and that McCullough’s ‘1980s perspective is more feminist’.[xv] Yet, as Grenville comments, the book hardly marks feminism coming to romantic fiction, and makes ‘a joke of feminism as well as everything else, because the triumph of the heroine is based on dishonesty and manipulation’. As Ann Rosalind Jones concludes in her recent study ‘Mills and Boon meets feminism’, the popular romance can only to a limited extent be appropriated for feminism. The limits are, as much as anything else, imposed and policed by the readership itself.[xvi] In the case of The Ladies of Missalonghi, neither the traditional constituency for the popular romance nor an alternative feminist market is prepared to recognise McCullough’s heroine as one of their own.
 Colleen McCullough, Melbourne Age, 18 January 1988.
 Carl Klinck, Literary History of Canada, Toronto University Press, Toronto, 1976, p. 138.
 Maureen Garvie, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 January 1988, p. 14.
 Cited in Age, 18 January 1988, p. 3.
 Personal communication, 23 April 1988. I am grateful to Eileen Robinson for her generosity in making her work available to us for this project. Note that The Blue Castle was republished in Australia by Angus & Robertson in 1951.
 Colleen McCullough in Macleans, 15 February 1988, p. 59.
 Age, 18 January 1988, p. 1.
 Ann Snitow, ‘Mass Market Romance’, in Snitow et al. (eds), Powers of Desire. The Politics of Sexuality, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1983, p. 253.
 Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1984, p. 199.
 Radway, p. 93.
 Radway, p. 131.
 Eileen Robinson, personal communication, 23 April 1988.
 Radway, p. 200.
 Kate Grenville, review broadcast on ABC’s Books and Writing, 1987.
 Garvie, 15 January 1988, p. 14.
 Ann Rosalind Jones, ‘Mills and Boon meets feminism’, in Jean Radford (ed.), The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1986, pp. 195, 220.