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
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