Updated June 19, 2004

Marian is an enthusiastic amateur historian whose obsession with the Kelly story began on 21st October 1980 - the evening the first episode of "The Last Outlaw" was screened. She has a simple ambition - to know everything about Ned.

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Truth, Lies, and Kelly fiction
by Marian Matta

I used to think I was a purist where the Kelly Gang was concerned. I also used to think that most Kellyphiles would be happy to have the story of Ned and the Gang recognised as legitimate material for serious fiction writers to draw on, but after seeing the response to various works of Kelly fiction over the last few years, I'm not so sure. For many people, it seems, it has to be the truth, the whole truth and absolutely nothing but the truth.

When an internationally respected author like Peter Carey decided to tackle the subject, it was bound to excite widespread reaction and comment. His mischievously titled 2000 novel, True History Of The Kelly Gang, was carefully clothed in an air of authenticity. Carey had been a longtime student of the Jerilderie Letter and its cadence and rhythm drove the book along, to the delight or distraction of readers. Carey claimed his story was 97% fiction but when that fiction pushed through into real history, the author ensured that it more or less matched the facts. The novel's verisimilitude resulted in a large number of readers wondering what happened to Ned's fictional lover, Mary Hearn, and their daughter, and I've no doubt a few readers tried to follow up the documents supposedly held in the Mitchell Library and the "Melbourne Public Library". One real estate agent, in selling the charms of the former Kilmore Gaol, even borrowed Carey's version of Red Kelly's last incarceration to boost his sales pitch. A quick look through websites which publish reviews by ordinary readers, e.g. www.bookcrossing.com, reveals that "True History" has been read by a huge number of people who previously had very little or absolutely no idea who Ned was. Their reactions run the gamut from sympathy through puzzlement to dislike ("Why should I be made to feel sorry for a murderer?") and I don't recall any that are too concerned with the accuracy of the history.

Robert Drewe's 1991 novel, Our Sunshine, caused less confusion, probably because its surreal nature clearly stamped it as a work of fiction. Drewe described his book as "…a chronicle of the imagination. It owes more to folklore and the emotional impact of some photography and painting…than to the bristling contradictions of historians and biographers." Never-the-less, his 'Author's Note' at the back listed Kenneally, Brown and McQuilton as sources, along with the Cameron and Jerilderie Letters. He skimmed lightly over historical details but they are there, sometimes presented with surprising clarity. He interpolated a number of sequences, some of which seemed bizarre but actually had vague bases in fact, for example, the poisoning of waterholes and burning of the bush by police, and the bailing up of a circus at Glenrowan. They were suggestions made into facts. According to Ned, the first two were made by a politician, and the last was a whimsical comment reportedly made by Ned himself. The Gang's drinking of horse blood and Ned's affair with a woman 'above his station' however, were pure fiction!

The Ned of Our Sunshine, was sexy, vibrant, rather immature, visceral, unsure - he wasn't 'my' Ned but Drewe's interpretation caused me to dwell on what it was about Ned's public image that resulted in this view. I liked the book but when I heard it was to be adapted as a film, I had grave doubts!

 

 

According to Kelly bibliographer, Brian McDonald, people began writing fiction about the Gang quite soon after its demise. This followed a well-established tradition. In The Outlaw Legend, Dr Graham Seal writes, "With the rise of the novel as a commercial genre, serious prose writers also turned their attention to outlaw heroes: [Sir Walter] Scott treats Rob Roy; [Dick] Turpin is featured in W.A. Harrison's 'Rookwood: A Romance' (1834); Robin Hood is a continual subject for writers of all kinds." The Kelly saga was perfect, ready-made material with all the requisite elements - death, betrayal, family loyalty, class conflict, heroism, cowardice, mateship, a hint of romance, you name it, it's there - plus a leading character of Shakespearean proportions who, like all tragic heroes, sowed the seeds of his own destruction (and you can bet that if Shakespeare had tackled the tale, the resulting play wouldn't have been historically accurate!)

Early authors drawing on the Kelly saga used a variety of approaches. One was to base a story loosely on the activities of the Gang but change the names and thus avoid any complaints that it wasn't accurate or that it was glorifying villains, such as in Nat Gould's 1894 novel, Stuck Up. Another way was to add a bit of fire to an otherwise possibly dull autobiography or travelogue by interpolating some outlaw action. In an era when real facts were hard to come by and you were likely to sell a few copies before someone bothered to challenge your accuracy, it was probably a pretty harmless technique. One of my favourites is A Jew Went Roaming, by Alfred Goldberg. Alfred, a small businessman who clearly had a reasonable knowledge of North-East Victoria and who may even have met Ned, judging by the rather kindly attitude he displays, described how he came across the Kelly Gang when the four of them were, as Alfred's version had it, merely cattle-duffers, working in partnership with the Kelly brothers-in-law and living at home in Greta with the "old woman" looking after them. He lost his good meerschaum pipe to Ned who "held out a large hairy hand" to take it! Later, young Alfred just happened to come across the bodies of Scanlon and Lonigan at Stringybark Creek. He had been camped close by overnight but, oddly enough, had failed to hear the gunbattle the previous evening. Goldberg's section on the Gang concludes with a passage that displays the ambivalent attitude felt by many people of the time - "As I sat in the Melbourne Court and watched Ned Kelly led below to await his execution, I could not help but feel that, vile and unjustifiable as his career had been, somehow there was a touch about the whole affair, the effrontery of one man defying the united efforts of those whose job it is to preserve law and order, that would thrill every man with any devil in him."

A third method was to incorporate the real historical people into a truly fictional story. In 1929 Charles Taylor published his highly successful novel, The Girl Who Helped Ned Kelly, the cliff-hanger chapter endings clearly showing its origin as a serial in Table Talk magazine the previous year. Apparently there had been fierce competition for the publishing rights and Table Talk increased its weekly sales by 10 000 during the novel's run. The book is a rather melodramatic tale of a mysterious young man from Melbourne who manages to work his way into the inner Kelly circle, gets the jump on Ned at their first meeting, and even teaches these outlaws a thing or two about bushcraft! While it seems daggy and unrealistic now, I think the book was quite an important one. Taylor had visited Kelly Country to do a little research and had even spoken to Jim Kelly who had shown him the old house on the Eleven Mile Creek and told him a story or two about Ned. Taylor was the first person to mention that Lorna Doone was a favourite book of Ned's, he stated that circular saw blades were tried as armour material but proved too brittle and, more significantly, he hinted at the presence of a sympathiser army waiting in the background at Glenrowan for Ned to give them the word.

Perhaps the novel's most important feature, however, was that it enabled a wide reading public to see the Gang in a sympathetic light for the first time. Taylor gave them real feelings, real emotions, doubts and fears. He even wrote up Steve Hart's character (Steve is the last man standing at Glenrowan and is shown in a splendid illustration, waiting for the fatal shot and muttering, "Damn you for lousy shots!" When he is finally hit, he falls "laughing softly"). In True History, Peter Carey also treated Steve kindly, turning him into a quirky, bright, loyal and brave young man rather than his usual role as "the one who isn't Ned, Dan or Joe."

This humanising of men who had been vilified during their lifetimes is also echoed in Carey's book; at the beginning Ned lurches out of the dawn mist at Glenrowan, half robot half monster, described as "the creature", "the fiend", which "mechanically" moves its head - he is always referred to as "it"; by the end of the novel, when the same scene is described, presumably by Thomas Curnow's child, Ned has become "a man of skin and shattered bone".

 

 

From the distance of the 21st century it's very difficult for us to fully understand just how concerted and ferocious the authorities' attack on the Kellys was. Max Brown described it as "the fiercest campaign of calumny the young colony had witnessed." If they'd had fridges back then, there might well have been an officially-issued anti-Kelly Gang magnet mail-out. It's hardly surprising that tales were handed down through families about how "Great grandad was terrified of the Gang and Great grandma feared for her virtue" even when the family had lived nowhere near North East Victoria. Facts were liberally laced with lies, half-truths, disinformation and misinterpretations right from the start and this whole festering mess continued to poison public attitudes for decades. Just a few years ago, ABC-TV's Arts reporter, Anne Maria Nicholson, solemnly stared into a camera and wondered out loud why so many of us are still fascinated by a "murderer and mutilator". The mutilation tag was repeated and magnified recently by travel writer, Bill Bryson, in his book Down Under. This story sprang from the Mansfield Guardian's first fevered report of the police deaths at Stringybark Creek, and despite attempts at the time by Dr Samuel Reynolds to refute it, it has continued to run to the present day. Similar stories abound; in his Ned Kelly Encyclopaedia, Justin Corfield mentions an early Kelly film which depicts the gang shooting police at Aaron Sherritt's hut, then forcing Anton Wick to dance for them before they murder him in cold blood. I know that when I first learned the truth of the Gang's history, I was amazed at how little they had actually done, how youthful they were and how out of proportion the vitriolic public reaction had been. These days it is hard to believe just how misled the public has been.

Recently I was talking about Ned to a well-educated pair of Australians whose views neatly demonstrated some old and new misconceptions. He, university-educated and from an Irish Catholic background, asked me how I justified Ned's actions in gathering up hostages at Glenrowan and then shooting them. When I informed him that it was, in fact, members of the police force who shot at, injured and killed hostages, he gave me a very disbelieving look. She had "done a term" about the Kelly outbreak at school, including a field trip to Glenrowan, and she informed me that Ned was well-known for having a number of love affairs!

It may be that the current batch of Kelly fiction further leads readers astray but I would prefer that the general public mistakenly believes Ned was a bit of a ladies' man than thinks him to have been a heartless mutilator and unfeeling killer. Anyway, I believe that anyone who is really gripped by Ned's story will want to find out more and will soon separate fact from fiction.

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First Published 19th June, 2004

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