The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.
§ 5. Henry Kingsley and William Howitt; Marcus Clarke: Rolf Boldrewood
The best literary genius of Australia turns to poetry; but good work has been done in fiction. Henry Kingsley’s Geoffrey Hamlyn, though a story of Australia, founded on the author’s experiences during his brief stay in the colony, can scarcely be considered a novel of Australian origin; and William Howitt’s A Boy’s Adventures in the Wilds of Australia stands in the same category. Perhaps the earliest properly Australian novels were Clara Morison and others by Catherine Helen Spence, who was better known as a political writer; and Charles Rowcroft’s colonial stories showed that Australian fiction was struggling into being. With the fiction of Marcus Clarke a further stage is reached. His novel Heavy Odds is now negligible; but his chief work, His Natural Life, is not only a vivid and carefully substantiated tale of a penal settlement, but a powerful work of fiction. Between its serial publication in The Australian Journal and its issue as a book in 1874, Clarke revised his story, with the assistance, it is said, of Sir Charles Gavan Duffy; and in its final form, though a gloomy and horrible tale, it is one of the best works of fiction that have been produced in Australia. Clarke’s shorter stories of Australian life in the bush and the town, idyllic, humorous or tragic, are also good and sincere pieces of fiction. The next eminent name on the list of Australian novelists is Thomas Alexander Browne, who, under the pseudonym “Rolf Boldrewood,” won wide popularity both in his own country and in Great Britain. Boldrewood was a squatter, a police magistrate and a warder of goldfields; and he knew thoroughly the life that he described. Those who are in a position to speak on the subject say that A Squatter’s Dream and A Colonial Reformer are the best pictures extant of the squatter’s life. To English readers, Boldrewood is best known by Robbery Under Arms, the story of the bushranger, Captain Starlight, which was published as a book in 1888, some years after its serial issue in The Sydney Mail, and The Miner’s Right, published in 1890. In these four novels lies the best of Rolf Boldrewood’s work. The two last mentioned contain plenty of exciting incident; but these tales of bushranging, of gold-digging and of squatting have little in common with the merely sensational fiction of which, it must be admitted, Australia has produced a plentiful crop. They are the work of a keen observer and a man of sound commonsense. If the character-drawing is simple, it is true to nature and to the life described; and, though a finer artist in fiction would have drawn the threads of the stories closer, Boldrewood’s vigour in narrative and breezy fancy give life and interest to these faithful pictures of times that are gone. Compared with Rolf Boldrewood, the many novels of Guy Boothby, though exciting in incident, are poor in conception and slipshod in execution, and the novels of Benjamin Leopold Farjeon will count for little in the development of Australian fiction.