Thomas Alexander Browne

views updated May 29 2018

Thomas Alexander Browne

Thomas Alexander Browne (1826-1915), who wrote under the pen name of Rolf Boldrewood, was born in England but moved to Australia with his family at the age of five. He was known for his adventure novels set in the Australian bush.

Browne's father, Sylvester Brown (the family did not use the final "e" until about 1864) led a life of adventure worthy of one of the heroes in Browne's novels. After running away to sea from his home in Galway, Ireland, at the age of ten, he eventually rose to be a successful officer in the East India Company and later became the captain of his own ships. He met his wife when she was a passenger on one of his ships; they married in Mauritius and then settled briefly in London, where Browne was born on August 6, 1826. Five years later, Captain Browne took a shipload of convicts to Australia and moved to Sydney with his family. In Sydney, he became a whaler and built a large villa, named Enmore, for which the suburb of Enmore was later named. He was a large landowner in and around Melbourne and also founded the first ferry between Melbourne and Williamstown. Eventually the couple settled in Heidelberg, Australia, where they had nine more children. Browne was educated at Sydney College, largely in the classics. He completed his education at Melbourne in 1843.

Several Disastrous Ventures

In 1841, Browne's father was financially ruined by an economic depression. Browne did his part to support the family; he traveled to the Western District of Victoria, where he took over 32,000 acres of land, farming potatoes and keeping cattle and horses. He later described his experiences in this hard-working but pastoral setting in Old Melbourne Memories (1884). Later, during the Australian gold rush, he traveled to Ballarat to sell meat to the miners. After about fifteen years of raising cattle and horses, he decided to raise sheep instead and moved near Swan Hill to do so. Shortly before moving he visited England, Ireland, and Scotland, later writing about his travels in Incidents and Adventures of My Run Home (1874). He married Margaret Maria Riley in 1861, six months after the trip.

The sheep farming venture ended disastrously as a result of drought, and he sold the property at a tremendous loss in 1863. The following year he leased Bundidgaree station in Narrandera, but because of his financial difficulties, he needed the help of his two brothers-in-law to do so. Although he claimed to own the property, it is likely that the official owners were his brothers-in-law, and that he managed the property in return for the loan. Like his sheep farming business, this venture would end in disaster when four years of drought forced him to leave. He decided to move to Sydney with his wife and four children. In Sydney his wife gave birth to twins. Desperate to make some money, Browne herded cattle for a while until he discovered that he could sell his stories. His pen name, Rolf Boldrewood, is from a character in the novel Marmion by Sir Walter Scott. Scott's work also provided inspiration for much of Browne's fiction.

Browne's first published work was a story about a kangaroo hunt, which he sold to the English Cornhill Magazine in 1866. In 1871, the periodical published another of his stories. He also sold several articles on bush life to the Australian Town and Country Journal.

In 1871, he was appointed police magistrate and clerk of petty sessions for the gold rush town of Gulgong, despite his lack of experience in such a field, and in 1872, he was appointed goldrush commissioner at Gulgong. However, Browne was still in debt because he now owed money to a third brother-in-law who had paid off some of his other debts. The debt to his brother-in-law gave Browne a great incentive to write. According to Alan Brissenden in The Portable Rolf Boldrewood, he once said: " … my best work was done when I was half-drowned in debt."

By 1881, when he was appointed police magistrate in Dubbo, Browne had written seven serial novels for the Town and Country Journal. Four were romances about life in the bush, one was based on his trip to the British Isles, one was a novel set in England, and one was set in the goldfields.

Robbery Under Arms

In 1882, Browne began to write his most well-known work, Robbery Under Arms. The first two chapters of the series were rejected by both The Australasian and Town and Country Journal. Their editors claimed that the tale was more gloomy than anything else he had written, and they did not believe the story would get any better. However, Browne finally sold Robbery Under Arms to The Sydney Mail, which published the first chapter on July 1, 1882, and continued publishing the rest of the chapters over a period of a year. During this time, Browne's fame grew, as his Old Melbourne Memories were also appearing in serial form in The Australasian. Browne's stories, told in what Brissenden called a "freely running vernacular style," emphasized adventure and starred outlaws, goldrush miners, and other daring men.

Robbery Under Arms was first published in book form by Remington of London in 1888. Macmillan, a larger publisher, bought the rights to the book and published a shorter version of it in 1889. This version quickly became successful and was reissued two more times in 1889, four more times in 1890, and has never been out of print since. It has been adapted for the stage and radio and has been made into at least three films.

The novel stars Dick Marston, who narrates a tale of cattle-herding, bushranging, horse thievery, convicts, and aborigines. As the story opens, Marston is in jail, waiting to be executed for bushranging or banditry. He tells the story of his life, including twelve years in prison, his release from prison, and his love for and marriage to the faithful Gracey Storefield, his childhood sweetheart. Many of the book's events star the criminal Captain Starlight, who encounters Marston after he has been shot in the shoulder by another character, Sergeant Goring. Starlight is described in romantic style: "Starlight, with the blood dripping on to his horse's shoulder, and the half-caste [Warrigal], with his hawk's eye and glittering teeth, supporting him."

When Starlight takes his final stand, he kills Goring, and with his last breath engages in polite chat with his old clubmate and enemy, Sir Ferdinand Morringer, Inspector of Police. He also names his beloved, Aileen Marston. Warrigal, his sidekick, rides up and laments for him at his death. In A History of Australian Literature, Ken Goodrich wrote that the energy of the narrative is somewhat slowed by Marston's rambling, although his common Australian way of speaking "has its own interest. Nothing is to be taken too seriously in this romantic entertainment, just as the local and Sydney papers do not take too seriously the exploits of Starlight and the efforts of the police to track him down. There is an air of the school practical joke about it all."

In the novel, Browne's attitude toward Australia is ambiguous; he refers to England as "home" and "the mother country" and views Australia as "that other England growing up in the South." Although this was quite different from the nationalism and pride in Australia that was then developing among many Australians, it did not seem to hurt the novel's success. Some critics, according to Brissenden, claimed that Browne wrote for English readers and presented a version of Australia that fit with English prejudices and expectations. Brissenden, however, wrote that certain scenes in the novel indicate that Browne was not entirely sure about his own attitude toward Australia. For instance, although Browne believed in the worth of the English class system, which many other Australians viewed as repressive, characters in the novel speak up against it.

War to the Knife

Between 1884 and 1890, Browne wrote three more serials, notably The Sealskin Mantle, which was a romance written in a florid style. It appeared in the Mail beginning in February of 1884. In 1889, he wrote War to the Knife, set in the North Island of New Zealand, among the Maori people. War to the Knife describes the hero's fascination with the Maoris coupled with his revulsion for their communal system of land tenure. Roland Massinger, at age 28, is looking for a wife and an heir for his family's grandest possession, his ancestral home, Massinger Court. However, he is jilted by the aristocratic but feminist Hypatia Tolemache, who is more interested in her career than in marriage. Spurned, Massinger emigrates to New Zealand, where he becomes fascinated with a Maori woman, Erena Mannering. She is beautiful and innately aristocratic, but Mannering worries about the fact that he and she are of different races. Browne, like most Europeans of his age, found the idea of mixed-race unions titillating but shocking. Meanwhile, other tensions are building as Maoris clash with settlers, and eventually Erena is killed while trying to save Mannering's life. As Robert F. Dixon wrote in Authority and Influence: Australian Literary Criticism 1950-2000, "These details have a fictional source in James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826), to which Boldrewood refers many times in War to the Knife."

Dixon also commented that the novel was "a formulaic tale of frontier adventure," and that "its sources are palpable, its characters and events predictable." However, readers loved it, as they loved Browne's other tales. By 1890, Browne was famous as an author. He moved with his family to Albury, where he lived until he retired from public service in 1895 and then moved back to Melbourne.

After retiring, Browne still enjoyed an active social life, engaging in Shakespearean readings, political discussions, and visits with aristocratic friends. In 1901, he published Bad Company, a short story collection set in the sheep-shearers' strike of the early 1890s. Browne's sympathies were against the strikers. This showed a change in his attitudes over time because more than two decades before, he had written "Shearing in Riverina, New South Wales," a story that was much more sympathetic to the workers' grievances. Browne's last published work was "The Truth About Aboriginal Outrages" (1906), in which he claimed aboriginal people were inherently violent and untrustworthy. Browne died on August 1, 1915, in Melbourne.

Over the course of Browne's prolific career, he wrote sixteen novels, three story and essay collections, and two handbooks for immigrants to Australia. Brissenden wrote that Browne's "prolific pen, supported by an unusually wide range of experience, excellent health and optimistic confidence, produced a great deal that is deservedly forgotten. Yet, little known parts of his writing can still give enjoyment by their readability and by the insight they provide into aspects of Australian life as the country was about to emerge from the colonial stage." Dixon commented that Browne was "a popular writer of limited understanding whose novels are nevertheless deeply significant portraits of Australian society in the years before Federation."


Brissenden, Alan, "Introduction," in The Portable Rolf Boldrewood, University of Queensland Press, 1979.

Dixon, Robert, "Narrative Form and Ideology," in Authority and Influence: Australian Literary Criticism 1950-2000, University of Queensland Press, 2001.

Goodwin, Ken, A History of Australian Literature, St. Martin's Press, 1986.

Pierre, Peter, Oxford Literary Guide to Australia, Oxford University Press, 1993. □