This summer I have travelled after a fashion through the Australian outback, in the Solway borderlands, and along the road that leads from the City of Destruction to the river where, when authorised, all the trumpets may sound on the other side. To put it more simply, I have reread three neglected classics, so different in style and setting that I defy readers to discover why I link them, and find some contemporary relevance in the connection, unless they persevere to my closing paragraphs. It is not just that they all, in different ways, pose difficulties for readers brought up on more recent authors.
I assume that two of the titles (and the names of their authors) remain familiar to anyone enlightened enough to encounter the Scottish Review, even if they may not have read the books and may regard the writers as beyond the modern literary pale. They are Sir Walter Scott's 'Redgauntlet' and John Bunyan's 'Pilgrim's Progress'. But I am unsure how much modern Britain knows of 'Robbery under Arms' and Rolf Boldrewood, the Australian pen-name which the London-born T A Browne extracted from Scott's 'Marmion'.
Those claiming only a nodding acquaintance with Boldrewood's novel (perhaps through the 1957 film in which Peter Finch played Captain Starlight) probably think of it as an Australian western. But it is closer to Anthony Trollope than to Louis L'Amour. It has the merits of John Buchan or Rider Haggard as an adventure story but in the style and format of a Victorian three-volume novel, with some signs of the padding which (as Dickens also shows) went with magazine instalment serialisation.
It is a great British colonial classic, of obvious importance in Australian literary and social history, and much more readable (and better written) than its main rival as a literary monument to the 'white settlers' of empire, Olive Schreiner's 'Story of an African Farm.' In an age when much of Britain is unreasonably ashamed or just forgetful of its imperial past, Olive Schreiner remains in fashion because of her feminism and her rather confused radicalism and 'free thought', as well as her undoubted significance in South Africa's tangled history. But while South Africa's troubles forced its past, present, and future problems on our attention, and Kipling's quality remains recognised long after imperial India has gone, we have happily left Australians to their own devices. We recognise them as a vibrant young nation but are not much interested in the complex processes by which they created it from such different strands of British and Irish settlement. In doing so we have neglected an important part of our own social and even literary history, among them the most successful of Boldrewood's many books
'Robbery under Arms' has one thing in common with Scott's more languorous adventure story 'Redgauntlet'. Both authors broke off their narratives to exploit their experience of law courts. Scott makes gentle sport with the Court of Session and the Scots law lords and Boldrewood, who was an up-country magistrate and official gold-field commissioner, allowed his bushrangers time off while he inserted a vivid sketch-book in print of the first Australian gold-rush and the way law, order, and the jury system worked (more or less) in the courts and emerging democracy of rural New South Wales. He handled such matters more briskly than Scott, who not only invented the historical novel but developed it in his own style, with digressions, notes and appendices, posing problems for his modern readers and even admirers.
My own advice to those in difficulty with Scott is to skip the first 100 pages, source a summary of the opening chapters, and then read on and be carried away by the writing and the plot (which in 'Redgauntlet' is about the last gasp of Jacobite conspiracies). When the end comes while you're still eager for more, go back to page one and enjoy the extended preliminaries – which in 'Redgauntlet' include not only the legal humour but 'Wandering Willie's Tale', sometimes now found on its own in anthologies of Scotland's best short stories.
'The Pilgrim's Progress' has little in common with the other two books except the difficulty it may present for the modern reader, acerbated by the way many later editions cling to Bunyan's 17th-century typography. Both Boldrewood and Scott have their intermittent inclinations to moralise, but they are gentle preachers from their literary pulpits. Bunyan is a Billy Graham in print who also turns into a brilliant satirist and master of allegory matched (or nearly matched) in modern English prose only by George Orwell.
Today the revolutionary mire of 'Animal Farm' may seem a bad dream, but we visit 'Vanity Fair' every day and encounter it on a hundred TV channels. In our politics and media, even in our pulpits, we often have the company of modern versions of Bunyan's unwary, indifferent, and malicious characters, though in deference to modern enlightenment I have contrived a little gender reassignment. We have our worldly wisemen and fainthearts, in cross-party and ecumenical alliance with Mrs Lightmind, Lord Timeserver, Lady Facing Bothways, Mr Smoothman and Ms Implacable (both now Guardian columnists) and 'Mr Twotongues, parson at Fairspeech,' with Mr and Mrs Pliable in his congregation.
These are three apparently ill-assorted books. They may all seem difficult to get into. But my experience of them has one great thing in common. I came to them through serial versions on radio – or as we mostly called it then, the wireless. I still hear the thundering of hooves by the Solway, the crack of shots and rumble of stage-coaches in the outback, and the audio-portraits the BBC created of Apollyon and Giant Despair. Memory probably plays false when it suggests I heard all three serials on Children's Hour, though I am sure Scott and Bunyan were specifically aimed at young audiences and Boldrewood may have been. That is why they came back to mind when the BBC sought some goodwill by announcing a £34m boost for children's programmes just before it was hit by a barrage of ill-will for by doling out licence revenue on lavish salaries, some of them to people whom John Reith would not have allowed to sweep the studio floors of Broadcasting House.
Time and tastes change. I am not naïve enough to hope that the BBC will devote much of the £34m to promoting the Waverley novels or the most influential of all Scottish writers – perhaps of all Scots. I also guess that the modern BBC would recoil from Boldrewood once they realised that his many sympathetic mentions of 'natives' refer to Sydneysiders as distinct from new chums just out from the British Isles. Inevitably he reflects the assumptions of his time, even among the more benevolent white Australians, about the aboriginals. And I doubt if Bunyan will get a mention. Such scant evidence as I can find of contemporary BBC religious broadcasting for children seems based on the idea of a supermarket displaying different faiths with no great urge or obligation to buy and no enthusiasm for the literary, never mind the spiritual inheritance of English-speaking Christianity.
But I hope that those with this tranche of licence-payers' money to spend will realise the power of good broadcasting inspired by books of real worth and cultural importance. For what it's worth, I record my gratitude to producers and actors of long ago who gave me excitement in sound that lasted a lifetime and led me towards lasting values in literature.