The Godfather: Peter Corris on Robbery Under Arms
I wonder how many people now read Robbery Under Arms, published by Thomas Alexander Browne under the pseudonym Rolf Boldrewood in 1882. Not many, I suspect. The book was very popular in its day and remained so through the 20th century. It was filmed a number of times and a joint film and television series based on it was produced in 1985. But there has been no paper edition of it from a mainstream Australian publisher since a Penguin version in 2007 and it has so far not been included in the Text Classics series. It deserves to be read, not only because it is a rattling good yarn with an élan comparatively rare in colonial Victorian novels, but because it is an interesting historical document.
One thing to be noted about it is the number of inconsistencies and contradictions that seem to have been overlooked by the author and the publishers. For example, the narrator, Dick Marston, under sentence of death for bushranging offences in which men have been killed, gives a detailed description of Sydney Harbour, which, on the evidence of his account, he has never seen. When imprisoned for the second time, he laments the shame of first wearing leg irons, yet in his earlier incarnation he remarks on them causing sores that ate into his flesh.
After a major cattle-stealing coup is revealed, Marston, his brother Jim and their leader Captain Starlight are named in the Adelaide papers but later Dick says their names are unknown. Dick first worries about the security of the gang’s hideout, the Hollow, because gold prospectors are combing the hills and gullies, but later he asserts it is a safe billet. At certain points the author loses track of the ages of his characters and doesn’t allow enough time for events to occur. These deficiencies might be explained by the fact that the book was first published in serial form, but it would seem that subsequent publishers thought it unnecessary in a popular novel dealing with crime to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.
But of more interest are the social, political and other attitudes that become apparent through the narrative. TA Browne, a former squatter and a long-serving magistrate and official, was a conservative, but with some liberal instincts. The author’s sympathies are clearly with the diggers on the goldfields and he takes pains to paint them in a good light – even to sentimentalise them. Similarly he endorses the view of some of the battlers that many affluent men got their start as cattle duffers. On the other hand, Dick Marston, although due to be hanged himself, is firmly in support of capital punishment. One can almost hear the words from the bench as Dick asserts that execution is the only deterrent and the only sure prevention of reoffending.
Dick, a democrat and incipient republican, does not extend his fellowship to Jews, gypsies or Aboriginals. Warrigal, an Aboriginal factotum of Starlight’s, is slavishly faithful to his masters (there are several comparisons with loyal dogs) but ultimately treacherous.
Dick’s (and it may be implied the author’s) attitude to women is curious. They are prized, almost venerated, but not taken seriously. This comes out most clearly when Dick contemplates the staunch loyalty of a male friend and that of his sweetheart. The woman’s attitude is seen as one completely natural to her sex, whereas the man’s is a sign of a sterling character hard-won in the battle of life.
For me, these unappealing aspects are at least partially offset by the resolute secularity of the book. Again, the women may entertain ideas of supernatural benevolence but men active in the world know better.