Friday, December 18, 2015

Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood

Today I want to review a classic Australian novel, Rolf Boldrewood's Robbery Under Arms.

First, though, a couple of announcements. I omitted to mention it in my last post, but: For those of you champing at the bit for OUTREMER, I've been Tweeting one-and-two-liners most weeks. Click here to see them all!

Second: Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my Annual Epic tradition. I usually keep which epic I'm reading a bit of a surprise--but this year I'm announcing it up front, because some friends wanted to do a read-along! So: this year I'll be re-reading The Song of Roland in the Dorothy Sayers translation, and you're all invited to join me! Grab yourself a copy if you want to be in it (try Sayers, Moncrieff, or O'Hagan), and I'll be back with more details right before Christmas.

Onward to the review...

I've been putting off reading Robbery Under Arms for a shamefully long time. All my brothers read it growing up, some of them multiple times, and raved to me about it. I even picked it up and tried reading it once or twice, but wound up getting distracted. Earlier this year, however, I found myself recommending it to a fellow-writer who planned to set his next book in 19th-century Australia. At the same time I was planning to start a weekly read-aloud time with my sisters. Reminded that only half the family had read it, I chose this one to begin with.

Robbery Under Arms is the classic Australian novel of bushranging--bushranger being the Australian term for an outlaw. The story is narrated from jail on the eve of his execution by Dick Marston, a New South Wales bushman whose father enlists him, along with his brother Jim, to help him in a particularly daring theft of livestock. Taking charge of the heist is the mysterious but gentlemanly Captain Starlight. One misstep, arrest, sentencing, and jailbreak later, Dick and Starlight rejoin the gang spoiling for action and determined to earn the price already on their heads, by trying their hand at robbery under arms.

With every step deeper into crime, the Marston Gang knows they have less and less chance of escaping a life that has itself become a prison. Will any of them make it across the sea to America and the honest life they so desperately wish for?

This was a long, episodic, rambling story, full of escapades and adventures and so it was no surprise to discover that it was originally published as a magazine serial. It roams all over New South Wales and Victoria, providing a vivid picture of the gold rushes, horse-races, and country life of the mid-1800s. Since it was first published in the 1880s, I half-expected the book to be more English-colonial than Australian in tone, but I was surprised by how much hasn't changed in the last 130 years. I was, for instance, particularly amused to discover the word invite used as a noun meaning invitation--"Well, I'll come and dance at your wedding if you'll send me an invite"--(for authentic Strine, pronounce it with the accent on the first syllable: INvite).

Stylistically, I regret to inform you that this book's melodramatic tones of anguish and lament occasionally caused Heartless Laughter amongst self and siblings. The narrator pauses pretty regularly to bewail his lot; and I suppose it's necessary, since these are not Shining Heroes but actually rather heartless murdering rascals. Likewise, Boldrewood goes out of his way to depict them doing good things--rushing off to save a house of ladies from some more authentically villainous bushranging associates, for instance.

Never seen it, but it looks sensational, doesn't it?
Nevertheless, it wasn't the melodrama which bothered me so much as what eventually emerged as the book's repeated theme: that it's a shame society treats criminals so harshly (imprisonment, hanging) since that removes any incentive for them to change their ways and become pillars of society. I was mildly surprised to find this emerging as such a strong theme, given that the Boldrewood himself--or to use his real name, Thomas Alexander Browne--was himself a police magistrate and JP. And I was disappointed by the ending, which seemed less full of repentance than of remorse. Generally, therefore, I found the book's whole concept of justice and forgiveness confused. Justice--in terms of the state's scripturally-defined role as bearer of the sword--is about ensuring that evildoers suffer the consequences of their evil deeds; not (as many modern criminologists assume) rescuing or rehabilitating them from those consequences.This is not to say that a Biblically-constituted commonwealth would never pardon an evil-doer, if he showed evidence of repentance. But the care of souls is the province of the church, not the state.

Despite this reservation, my sisters and I thoroughly enjoyed this story. We already knew of it as one of the great novels of colonial Australia (the other, Marcus Clarke's For the Term of His Natural Life, is another I'm looking forward to reading soon). What I didn't know was that it's been argued that Robbery Under Arms--which made quite a hit in its native Australia--also had an influence on Owen Wister's seminal Western, The Virginian. Does that make the Australian "western" a precursor to, rather than an echo of, the American western? (C'mon, say yes, and we'll let the Kiwis have the pavlova. Deal?)

Find Robbery Under Arms at Amazon, The Book Despository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

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