Title: The Ladies of Missalonghi
Author: Colleen McCullough
Publication date: 1987
Length: 192 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Sometimes fairy tales can come true–even for plain, shy spinsters like Missy Wright. Neither as pretty as cousin Alicia nor as domineering as mother Drusilla, she seems doomed to a quiet life of near poverty at Missalonghi, her family’s pitifully small homestead in Australia’s Blue Mountains. But it’s a brand new century–the twentieth–a time for new thoughts and bold new actions. And Missy Wright is about to set every self-righteous tongue in the town of Byron wagging. Because she has just set her sights on a mysterious, mistrusted, and unsuspecting stranger… who just might be Prince Charming in disguise.
After coming across a mention of The Ladies of Missalonghi online, I decided to give it a try once I saw the audiobook available via my library. This short book is enjoyable in many ways, but it also shows its age a bit, and has a troubling reputation as well. (See my quibbles section below…)
Set in the early 1900s in a small town in Australia, The Ladies of Missalonghi focuses on the sad little family living in a run-down house named Missalonghi on the shabby side of town. The town of Byron is dominated by the Hurlingford family, who own pretty much all of the desirable land and every local business. The nasty truth of the family is that thanks to an edict from its founding father who first established Byron, only males in the family inherit financially, while women descendents get a house and five acres of land. However, the houses and land have become worse and worse over the generations, and Hurlingford women who don’t marry well, become widowed, or (gasp) remain spinsters are doomed to a life of poverty and dependence.
Main character Missy Wright lives with her widowed mother Drusilla and her elderly aunt Octavia, and the three eke out the barest of livings. Missy is considered plain and unmarriageable, long past whatever youthful prime she might have had. To economize, the women dress in brown (appropriate for any occasion, and it doesn’t show dirt), have a very fixed routine of household chores, and rely on the condescending patronage of their richer relatives for meager treats and hand-outs.
When Missy meets a rough-hewn stranger and learns that he’s bought land in the adjacent valley, her imagination takes off — especially thanks to the romantic novels the town’s new librarian has been sharing with her. After a mild health scare, Missy decides to take matters into her own hands, throw off the burden of obedience and family deference, and pursue a life of adventure and love… even if she has to scheme and lie to get it.
While engaging in many ways, I do need to point out a few quibbles:
As I mentioned earlier, the book’s age shows in some of the depictions and dialogue. I don’t have a problem with historical fiction portraying an era’s inherent sexual inequalities, hang-ups, class issues, etc, but I actually feel that this book smacks a little too heavily of the 1980s. Published in 1987, The Ladies of Missalonghi has a love interest who’s the stereotypical bad boy in many ways, coming out with statements and attitudes that just wouldn’t fly today… and in historical fiction written now, I think authors tend to make their heroes a little less sexist/asshole-ish. If that makes any sense.
BIG SPOILER: There’s a weird supernatural element that’s revealed toward the end that makes no sense at all, bringing a ghost into the mix in the strangest way possible, then using that ghost as the explanation for Missy’s pursuit of freedom. Seriously, I don’t get it at all. The ghost in question appears as a real person to Missy, and provides Missy with books, legal documents, a new dress and hat, and even comes to tea at Missalonghi, where she interacts with Drusilla and Octavia. Again… I don’t get it.
Finally, I need to point out the plagiarism allegations that plague this book, specifically, that Colleen McCullough basically took the plot of The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery, tweaked it a bit and moved it to Australia, and published it as her own. Colleen McCullough denied the allegations, but suggested that “subconscious recollection” was at play — that she must have read the book at some point and inadvertently incorporated elements without realizing where they’d come from. The stories track so closely (with key differences being that Missy’s mother is kind and loving, and that Missy knows that her health crisis isn’t real and lies to her love interest) that it’s impossible to believe that the similarities are purely accidental.
Having read The Blue Castle recently, the shared plot elements are very obvious — and I have to say, if I had to choose between the two books, The Blue Castle wins hands-down.
END OF SPOILERY QUIBBLES
All that aside, there’s plenty to like about The Ladies of Missalonghi. There are some clever twists as Missy begins to assert herself, including her scheming to undermine the terrible male relatives who neglect and cheat the vulnerable women of the family. The descriptions of the setting are lovely, and there are moments of clever dialogue and sly social digs that make it fun.
The audiobook is narrated by Davina Porter, known to Outlander fans as the wonderful narrator of all Outlander series audiobooks, and she’s always a treat to listen to.
Overall, I’m not sorry to have read The Ladies of Missalonghi and I enjoyed listening to it, but the troublesome aspects make it a hard book to truly love.
And I have to say, the whole “marriage due to a medical crisis that turns out to be false” plot is handled much better in The Blue Castle, as is so much else about the basics of the plot.