I acquired a copy of this book when it was published in a new edition in 2015 following Colleen McCullough’s death that year. For some reason, despite loving The Thorn Birds (which I read long before I started blogging so have no review to link to here), I had never read any of her other books and was looking forward to this one. Then I read that there had been accusations of plagiarism when the book was originally published in 1987 due to it apparently being so similar to LM Montgomery’s 1926 novel, The Blue Castle, and that put me off for a while. However, I was looking for something to read for Aus Reading Month (hosted by Brona of This Reading Life and thought I would give it a try. I was unsure whether I could also count it towards Novellas in November as there were 224 pages in my edition (more than the upper limit of 200 for a novella) but several of those pages turned out to be an excerpt from another McCullough book, so I think it counts!
The Ladies of Missalonghi is set in the early 1900s in the small town of Byron in Australia’s Blue Mountains. For generations the Hurlingford family, descendants of the town’s founder, the first Sir William Hurlingford, have held all the power in Byron, owning most of the land and running almost all of the businesses. Only the male Hurlingfords are able to inherit financially, so any unmarried or widowed women find themselves impoverished and relying on the charity of their relatives. Thirty-three-year-old Missy Wright is one of these women; she has never married and lives with her widowed mother, Drusilla Wright (formerly Hurlingford), and spinster aunt, Octavia, in a house known as Missalonghi after the Greek town where the poet Lord Byron died in 1824.
Plain and dark-haired in a clan of tall, blonde Hurlingfords and always dressed in brown to save money, it is now looking likely that Missy will remain single, but she has never given up hope of one day owning a red dress and escaping from her humdrum existence. The romance novels provided by her librarian friend Una are her ‘only solace and sole luxury’ – until one day a stranger arrives in Byron. His name is John Smith and he has bought land in the valley nearby. Has Missy found a way to escape at last?
The Ladies of Missalonghi is in many ways a typical romance novel but it’s an enjoyable one and has a few elements that I found particularly interesting. First, there’s the portrayal of the fate of unmarried women in the years just before World War I, women like Missy, Drusilla and Octavia who lack financial independence and have limited options for improving their position in life. The women of Missalonghi have been treated badly by the men they are forced to rely on for support and scorned by the wealthier, more privileged Hurlingford women. Missy is determined to see these people get their comeuppance, but I won’t tell you how she goes about it as that’s part of the fun of the story!
There’s also a supernatural element that I wasn’t expecting – quite a subtle one, but it’s there and I’m not really sure that it was necessary, particularly as it only emerges at the end and there weren’t any clues to suggest that it was going to happen. On the other hand, it fits with the whole fairy-tale feel of the plot (with Missy as Cinderella). It was actually the romantic thread of the novel that I found least interesting as there didn’t appear to be any chemistry between hero and heroine and their relationship seemed to be based on lies and deceit.
As for the plagiarism issue, I have never read The Blue Castle so can’t comment. McCullough denied the allegations, saying the similarities were unintentional – she had read the book as a child and the details must have stayed with her subconsciously. Whether that’s the truth or not, I can’t see why an already successful author would do something like that deliberately, knowing she would be found out. I’ll have to read The Blue Castle one day to see what I think.