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Reviewed by:
  • Robbery Under Arms
  • Peter Pierce
Eggert, Paul, and Elizabeth Webby, eds. Robbery Under Arms, by Rolf Boldrewood. The Academy Editions of Australian Literature. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2006. Pp. 832. ISBN 0702235741 Cased $A175. ISBN 070223575X Paper $A80.

Robbery Under Arms by the pseudonymous Rolf Boldrewood (Thomas Browne in his life as a police magistrate) is—together with Marcus Clarke's For the Term of His Natural Life—one of the two most famous, and distinguished, of nineteenth-century Australian novels. Clarke dealt luridly with the convict era; Boldrewood with bushrangers. Each book was in part an argument that Australian history afforded material rich enough for romance fiction. Each first appeared as a lengthy serial, Robbery Under Arms in the Sydney Mail between 1 July 1882 and 11 August 1883. Since then it has been sold and read in the hundreds of thousands of copies in abridged editions. With its appearance as a volume in the series The Academy Editions of Australian Literature, the text is much fuller.

Proclaiming itself as "the first series of critical editions of major works of the nation's literature", the general editor of the Academy Editions, Paul Eggert, confidently asserts that "the case for full-scale critical editions […] is overwhelming" (viii). Well, he would say that, as might the number—fit though few—of those who still teach Australian literature and the even thinner ranks concerned with the colonial period. Eggert's proposition aside, the test is how well the editors of Robbery Under Arms, which is to say himself and Elizabeth Webby, have managed their reconstruction of the textual history of "one of the few enduring classics of Australian writing" (xxiii). This involved them in many tricky decisions in order to provide an authoritative text, a critical introduction, extensive supplementary material, which includes historical background, a history of stage and screen adaptations, explanatory notes, a mapping of places in the novel, and a glossary. The answer is that they have discharged their duties commendably well.

The editors trace Boldrewood's efforts to publish the moderately successful serial as a novel, as Clarke had done before him. With the support of others, [End Page 157] Boldrewood's book was published as a three decker by Remington in London in 1888. In the following year, Macmillan released a one-volume abridgement, which was based extensively, but not cohesively, on cuts that Boldrewood himself had made to order. But errors necessarily multiplied. The autograph manuscript has never been found. The colonial savour of Boldrewood's language was bowdlerised or corrected for English editions. In consequence, the editors chose the Sydney Mail serial as their copy text, arguing that "the present edition provides the full text of the serial" (xxiv). They have discovered that there were in fact two serials, the second of them in the short-lived Echo (like the Sydney Mail from the Fairfax stable). It was from the Echo that the Remington edition was set. Eggert and Webby have gone back as near as they can to the beginnings of the novel in preferring the Sydney Mail serial version.

Apart from matters of editorial fidelity, of recreating a text as near as possible to what Boldrewood wrote, they justly remind us that "loose-limbed serials work from instalment to instalment". Boldrewood, who wrote his story in varying circumstances and in different places, "had to invent as he went, attracting into the orbit of his accreting text the creative stimulants he found around himself" (lxxxvii). Plot inconsistencies inevitably occurred, but in electing to edit the first serial of Robbery Under Arms Eggert and Webby make their case. By contrast (and notwithstanding a Penguin publication of the full serial text and a later television mini-series based upon it), critical and popular opinion has rightly preferred the abridged text of Clarke's novel, with its tragic ending, rather than the serial's meandering towards the gold fields and restitution of fortune and reputation. It is a tragic ending that is promised in the first pages of Robbery Under Arms, but Boldrewood contrived an eventual redemption for his "Sydney-side native", Dick Marston, whom we first encounter in a condemned cell with a...


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