[Editor: A short look at the life of the writer Thomas Alexander Browne, who wrote as “Rolf Boldrewood”.]
‘Robbery Under Arms’
If one were asked what is the best known Australian novel, the answer would most probably be Rolf Boldrewood’s “Robbery Under Arms.”
Written first as a serial for the Sydney Mail, it did not attract more than the spasmodic attention usually awarded to the “continued-in-our-next” story; but when the House of Macmillan published it in book form in London in April, 1888 — just fifty years ago — the author’s reputation as a story-teller was established in England, and consequently in Australia. Fifty years ago our critics cautiously awaited the imprimatur of London as the hall mark of literary excellence. It had been so with Kendall’s poems in the “Athenaeum” of 1862, the first recognition of Australian poetry by an English critical journal. It was so with Rolf Boldrewood in the later eighties, for it was not till the romantic nineties that our poets and novelists were first honoured in their own country.
Thomas Alexander Browne, apart from the accident of his birth in London, was essentially an Australian, arriving with his parents, in 1830, at the age of four. His father, Sylvester John Browne, an old officer of the East India Company, had the adventurous spirit which, more than anything else, drew settlers to Australia before the discovery of gold. His first venture was to bring out 300 convicts to Van Diemen’s Land in his barque, the Proteus. After that risky contract he made his home in Sydney, where his good ship, true to its classical character, turned whaler and coaster. Meanwhile our Australian Tom Browne was spending his schooldays at the Sydney College of good Thomas Cape, and had for playmates lads who were soon to help build New South Wales — James Martin, William Foster, James Dowling, and several Broughtons, Stephens, and Mitchells. Young Tom, however, soon moved with his parents to Port Phillip and the primeval Melbourne, and hence to the Campaspe River behind what is now Bendigo.
At the age of 17 he turned squatter, taking up land at Squatterlesea Mere, in the Port Fairy district, and holding it from 1844 to 1856. The sand dunes kept encroaching on his property, and but for the discovery of gold things would have gone hard with the young pastoralist, who found a ready sale for desert beef and mutton on the diggings. He sold out and bought stations on the Murray, and then on the Murrumbidgee. But the Riverina droughts of ’66 and ’69 hit him disastrously, as the “Squatter’s Dream” realistically portrays. In 1870 he took refuge in the Government service as Police Magistrate and Gold Warden at Gulgong, in New South Wales. In 1887 he went to the pleasant town of Albury. Finally, quitting the magistracy in ’95, he spent the last twenty years of his life in Melbourne. His literary name was now made, and to redress the adverse fortunes of his youth the gold mines of Western Australia gave him a prosperous old age. No man knew the old colonial days better than he, and for this reason some put first among his many books “Old Melbourne Memories,” which vividly recall the early days on the Yarra, when John Fawkner was working his hand press in the village and Paul de Castella was running his cattle in Richmond Park.
The devastating blows of two successive droughts not only turned squatter Browne into a gold warden, but made him Rolf Boldrewood, the novelist. He had, however, to wait 18 years for fame, and when this was attained by “Robbery Under Arms” he was able to send to London a number of earlier tales, dug out of old magazines. As pictures of the squatter’s life before the gold days “The Squatter’s Dream” and “A Colonial Reformer” are said by good judges to be the best extant, as “Robbery Under Arms” and “The Miner’s Right” (1890) are undoubtedly the unrivalled novels of the gold days. The best of Rolf Boldrewood’s work lies in this quaternion, and it is by these that his name will be always remembered. They give us, as no bare history ever can, the very atmosphere of these two periods and a vivid interpretation of these phases of life in Australia.
Marcus Clarke had been morbid, Kendall melancholy, and Gordon pessimistic. But Rolf Boldrewood first reflected the romance and the gaiety, the grit and the generosity of the Australian people. He found it a good land to live in, a land of creeks and scrubs and sapphire-misted mountains, and not altogether a land of ring-barked forests haunted by the doleful mopoke.
“Robbery Under Arms” has the inestimable advantage of a firm historical background. Its bushrangers are not the melodramatic robbers of highly imaginative art like the Doones of Exmoor. The Marstons are true to the life of the period. “Starlight,” the gentleman bushranger, is worthy of Sir Walter Scott. He is a composite portrait from three originals, and though some critics have regarded him as a stage bushranger, bombastic and banal with something in him of the absurdity of the traditional jackeroo, it has to be admitted that several of that confraternity of robbers had in their make-up a considerable amount of self-conscious theatricality. Certainly “Starlight” captures the reader’s imagination for all his high- flown language, and makes a most fascinating desperado. He has in him something of “Midnight,” the daring horse thief, who was eventually run to earth at Cunnamulla and shot while leading his mare Locket. Like “Starlight,” he died refusing to give his real name. But the Marston originals were familiar to the author under a real name, and not very far removed from that of the novel. Jim and Dick were excellent stockriders and superb bushmen, and much liked and respected before they took to roving. The critic was right as well as terse who declared that Old Ben “is deadly earnest and as natural as a bit of ironbark.” Mrs. Marston is drawn from the life, and as for Eileen she “ought to be painted for the Sydney Gallery.”
Browne’s memory was stored with scenes and experiences such as have fallen to the lot of few writers, and his faithful reproduction of those days, now that they have passed away, has the historical value of a faithful portrait of the men and manners of eighty years ago. If Rolf Boldrewood had not the imaginative and fusing powers of Thomas Hardy or the memorable style of Robert Louis Stevenson, Australia may yet be proud of the very real narrative gifts that he possessed. It has to be confessed regarding Browne’s verse what the schoolgirl said of the character of Henry VIII — that “the less said about it the better.” But he was the first to draw Australian men and women and to introduce the touch of romanticism into the Australian bush.
In recent years the art of the novel has been studied more closely in Australia and become more sophisticated. Yet “Robbery Under Arms” will remain the classic of the bush-ranging days and will be eagerly read by young Australians for generations to come. If the popular legend of the Kelly gang tends to make heroes of criminals, the police magistrate in Rolf Boldrewood took very good care to show that lawless men, however much they may brazen it out with the help of liquor, have scarcely one happy hour in their hunted lives. And surely no Australian could perpetrate the blunder recently made in England, that of imagining that “Starlight” was a horse.
The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), Saturday 9 April 1938, page 6