Header overlay

Cold Cure from a Warm Climate

Share this

Snobbery never pays. Certainly not in relation to books: not even in relation to their mere appearance. Have you ever, like me, sneered at those identikit sets of ‘great works’ bound in imitation leather, complete with elaborate mock-gilt lettering? And even so does your household, like this one, contain at least one such set, given by a relative who sweetly and sadly thought it the perfect gift for people who read a lot? And is that set, like ours, hidden on the bottom shelf of the least conspicuous bookcase in the most distant spare bedroom?

A while back, temporarily house- (and effectively bed-) bound by flu and desperately looking for an easy-to-read book I hadn’t already read and reread, I ended up on hands and knees in front of that half-hidden bottom shelf full of ‘Great Novels’. Most of them were of course standard fare (though the inclusion of Fanny Hill might have taken aback the elderly relative who bought them had she ever investigated its contents). Who, though, was Rolf Boldrewood? And how could a book with such a pulp-fiction title as Robbery under Arms possibly be a great novel?

I took it out, read a few pages, and was lost. For the next couple of days I inhabited not a stuffy bedroom but the wide-open spaces and equally wide-open society of mid-nineteenth century Australia, in the company of the book’s narrator, Dick Marston. The great beauty of the book is the voice – energetic, colloquial, earthy – which the author invented for this farm-boy turned bush-ranger. There are slightly awkward opening and closing chapters. (The first establishes the unlikely scenario of Dick writing his reminiscences in his cell while waiting to be hanged, while the last is devoted to an equally unlikely last-minute reprieve.) The remaining 400 of its 450 pages, however, have an uninhibited driving rapidity which is quite different from almost all late Victorian novels from England itself. To read its vivid accounts of hect

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

Snobbery never pays. Certainly not in relation to books: not even in relation to their mere appearance. Have you ever, like me, sneered at those identikit sets of ‘great works’ bound in imitation leather, complete with elaborate mock-gilt lettering? And even so does your household, like this one, contain at least one such set, given by a relative who sweetly and sadly thought it the perfect gift for people who read a lot? And is that set, like ours, hidden on the bottom shelf of the least conspicuous bookcase in the most distant spare bedroom?

A while back, temporarily house- (and effectively bed-) bound by flu and desperately looking for an easy-to-read book I hadn’t already read and reread, I ended up on hands and knees in front of that half-hidden bottom shelf full of ‘Great Novels’. Most of them were of course standard fare (though the inclusion of Fanny Hill might have taken aback the elderly relative who bought them had she ever investigated its contents). Who, though, was Rolf Boldrewood? And how could a book with such a pulp-fiction title as Robbery under Arms possibly be a great novel? I took it out, read a few pages, and was lost. For the next couple of days I inhabited not a stuffy bedroom but the wide-open spaces and equally wide-open society of mid-nineteenth century Australia, in the company of the book’s narrator, Dick Marston. The great beauty of the book is the voice – energetic, colloquial, earthy – which the author invented for this farm-boy turned bush-ranger. There are slightly awkward opening and closing chapters. (The first establishes the unlikely scenario of Dick writing his reminiscences in his cell while waiting to be hanged, while the last is devoted to an equally unlikely last-minute reprieve.) The remaining 400 of its 450 pages, however, have an uninhibited driving rapidity which is quite different from almost all late Victorian novels from England itself. To read its vivid accounts of hectic long-distance chases on horse-back, of horse-stealing, cattle-rustling, bank robbery and gold-mining, of gun-fights, knife-fights, blood and death, is to experience a roller-coaster ride of speed, sweat, dirt, exhaustion and invigoration. But this isn’t just an action-packed adventure story. It is also concerned with action’s consequences – and Dick and his younger brother Jim are given surprisingly subtle and convincing psychologies. Even in the opening paragraph Dick doesn’t just describe his physical appearance(‘twenty-nine years old, six feet in my stocking soles, and thirteen stone weight’), he also adds, with an irony which only becomes obvious much later, that both physically and psychologically, ‘Most things that a man can do I’m up to, and that’s all about it.’ His apparently unaffected, down-to-earth, hearty Australian style is the perfect medium for this account of the transformation of boyish high spirits (the ‘little local difficulty’ of a bit of off-the-cuff horse- and cattle-stealing) into episodes of uncontrolled violence which eventually lead to actual murder. The transformation takes place by infinitesimal degrees as Dick, while attempting to protect the unthinkingly reckless and carefree Jim, is drawn with him into the bush-whacking life of their father, a hardened old reprobate, ‘iron-bark outside and in’, who was originally transported for poaching. This is also the story of a society of scattered small communities with few rules: of hardy individualists, male and female. Many of the women in Robbery under Arms are the antithesis of female characters in most English novels of the period. Take Maddie and Bella Barnes, for example, the daughters of Jonathan Barnes, in whose isolated stables-cum-drinking-house the bush-rangers often take refuge. Fearless, frank, decisive, quick-tongued, quick-witted, ‘always ready for a bit of fun, night or day’, they are also quick to make it clear if they are attracted to a man – or if they aren’t. Above all, though, the beauty of the book lies in the way it conveys the unique atmosphere of the Australian landscape – its great, parched, heat-scorched empty spaces and sudden strange episodes of beauty – as Dick’s words convey with vivid directness its sights, sounds and smells. The irony of ironies is that the man who created this quintessentially Australian world was by birth an Englishman. Rolf Boldrewood was the pen-name of Thomas Alexander Brown, who was born in London in 1826. His father was a ship-master, the description of whose character makes him sound a perfect fit for his son’s novel: ‘a self-made man of imperious temperament and at times rough manners . . . difficult and high-handed, apt to quarrel’. In 1831 Sylvester Brown took his wife and three small children with him when he transported a cargo of convicts to Hobart in his own barque, the Proteus. He then settled the family in Sydney, made a fortune in trade, built himself a mansion, over-reached himself, was ruined, and suffered a breakdown. So from his early twenties Thomas was supporting not only himself but also his mother and his unmarried sisters – six of them by that stage. Like the Marstons in Robbery under Arms, he became a farmer, a ‘pastoralist’, first with a cattle run, then with a sheep run. Like his father, once married he sired children with manic energy: his own final total was four sons and five daughters. And again like his father, he was at first successful but spent prodigally, speculated wildly and by 1869 had lost everything and owed an astonishing £40,000. That was the point at which his life began to take two completely different and unexpected directions. On the one hand, he became – adding a final ‘e’ to his surname at about the same time, as if to signify the change in his life – a salary-earning civil servant. To be precise, a police magistrate and a gold-field commissioner, both of which he remained until he retired in 1895. That’s how he came by his knowledge of the bush-ranging and gold-mining which are central to Robbery under Arms. Indeed, many of the events and characters in the book are based on actual events and characters of the time. On the other hand, he became the writer Rolf Boldrewood. Of Robbery under Arms, one of his earliest books, first published as a serial in the Sydney Mail in 1882–3, he wrote bluntly to a friend, ‘I am also writing rather a sensational novel . . . A man with eight children and a limited income must do all he can to supplement the income.’ Over the next twenty years he churned out many more novels for the same reason: but only Robbery under Arms and its inspired first-person narrative in the voice of Dick Marston brought him real success. Indeed, it gave him an international reputation, and visiting celebrities such as that American nom-de-plumed creator of narrators with their own voices, Mark Twain, eagerly sought out its author. In this case the popular choice was the right choice. Browne’s other books are all essentially potboilers, though many have considerable period interest. But in Robbery under Arms he wrote, for once, better than he knew. Though in Australia it has been dramatized, televised and filmed, and remains reasonably well-known, Britain has largely ignored it after its brief success when first published here in 1888. Snobbery again, perhaps? An Australian novel, a novel of action, one with a title like Robbery under Arms: how could that possibly be worth taking seriously or even reading? Yet worth reading and taking seriously Robbery under Arms certainly is. What’s more, as I know from grateful experience, you will search long and hard before finding as effective a cold-cure.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 26 © Tim Longville 2010


About the contributor

Since he is a typically and defiantly wimpish Englishman, Tim Longville’s own adventures all take place on paper, while his knowledge of Australia is confined to some of its plants encountered in English gardens.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.