Rolf Boldrewood’s War to the Knife: Narrative Form and Ideology in the Historical Novel
In The Historical Novel, Georg Lukacs suggested that Sir Walter Scott's limited understanding of the historical present did not prevent him, as a writer, from laying bare the significant forces of social change. Scott's Australian disciple, Rolf Boldrewood, was a similar case: a popular writer of limited understanding whose novels are nonetheless deeply significant portraits of Australian society in the years before Federation. Boldrewood's diaries of the 1890s, for example, rarely acknowledge the tumultuous events of this period: the maritime, coal miners' and shearers' strikes, the rise of the labour and women's movements, and Australia's increasing military involvement in South Africa. But in War to the Knife, the novel he wrote in 1898, these conflicts were displaced into history. War to the Knife has the classic structure of the historical novel, bringing two representative groups into conflict during the Waikato War in New Zealand during the 1860s: the Maori and the Pakeha, the one a noble aristocratic race doomed to pass into history, the other powerful, pragmatic, and destined to transform the waste places of the world through commerce. At the centre of these two contending forces is the Waitara Block, a parcel of land held communally according to Maori tradition, but claimed by British commercial enterprise.
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Published 1 May 1986 in Volume 12 No. 3. Subjects: Australian culture, Historical fiction, Literary conventions, Literary influences, Literary techniques, structures & modes, Political ideologies, Writer's research & sources, Rolf Boldrewood.