This book has become part of the modern Kelly story for many people, not just in Australia but throughout the world. Additionally, it also has an important place in the annals of Australian literature, its special qualities earning its author a rare second Booker Prize, and elevating Peter Carey to the status of truly great Australian writer. It is therefore a novel that should appeal to everyone interested in writing and literature, but to Australians especially as its about one of our own, written by one of our own.
Despite this , I had never made reading this book a priority, because it’s a novel, and my interest is in Kelly history not fantasy. However quite recently I saw an aged and sun-browned copy in a second hand bookshop that was a mere $8, so I bought it and now that I have finally finished reading it, I realize it was money well spent.
Peter Carey says it took him three years to research and write this novel, and says in the Acknowledgements, among other things “..it is Ian Jones I am most particularly obliged to. It was to his works I turned to, almost daily when I was lost or bewildered or simply forgetful of the facts” Therefore it is no surprise that Careys vision of Ned Kelly is much the same as Ian Jones : an honest poor and persecuted selector, a devoted son becomes a ‘Police made’ criminal because of the corrupt Police and Judiciary, and at the end, the leader of some sort of failed rebellion.
The title is doubly misleading because the story told is neither especially true nor much about the Kelly Gang, which only comes into existence in the final quarter, when the Police ambush at Stringybark Creek is described. The novel is a mock autobiography, in which Ned Kelly relates his life story for the benefit of a daughter that he never knew. Its chapters are called Parcels, each ‘parcel’ an invention of Careys clever mind purporting to be one of a bunch of ‘13 parcels of stained and dog eared papers, every one of them in Ned Kellys distinctive hand’ that Ned gave Thomas Curnow at the Ann Jones Inn, close to the end of the siege. Needless to say no such parcels exist, Ned Kelly has no known descendants and the girls mother, Mary Hearn never existed.
Carey cited the Jerilderie letter as his inspiration for a style which gives the novel its special charm – its comparative lack of punctuation, its long sentences and colourful at times hilariously witty language, written in the first person as a stream of consciousness from Neds mind onto the paper. The Ned Kelly that emerges has an even greater wit than the Ned of the Jerilderie letter, and in other repects is quite different – this new Ned Kelly has a much greater sense of humour and of fun, he is open hearted and lacks the arrogance, the intense blood thirsty hatred and anger so apparent in the Ned Kelly of the Jerilderie letter, he is long-suffering and polite and tries not to give offence, by referring to things as ‘adjectival’ and by writing swear words as “b…d” and “b…..r”. This Ned Kelly is likeable and accessible as a human being.
“I seen Fitzpatrick pull my sister roughly onto his knee that were the last adjectival straw as far as I were concerned I showed myself plainly at the door”
“I seen Cons Hall descend from the Pub like a glistening old spider gliding down from the centre of its web’
Readers who are really familiar with the Kelly story will get a lot more out of it than most, because historical names places and events appear at unexpected places, language we are familiar with from the Jerilderie letter and elsewhere appears in a different context, and events people and developments we know are invented appear, but they are mostly believable and certainly interesting – the idea that Neds father and Steve Hart were cross dressers is a wild one, but Ned having a permanent girlfriend and becoming a father is believable and humanising, as is the suggestion Ellen had an affair with Harry Power and the place where the inspiration to wear armour came from is cleverly introduced. Mary Hearns relationship to Neds step father is a shock! Anyone unfamiliar with the Kelly story would not notice these clever inventions or smile at the artful way Peter Carey has inserted them into the story.
The overall result for me was a fascinating and enjoyable read that I would commend to everyone who lkes reading and especially to Kelly fans.
Oddly enough though, ‘The True History of the Kelly Gang’ seems to have had little appeal to the sad individuals with a peculiar obsession with Ned Kelly like readers of this Blog and I have. This is suggested by the almost complete absence of any serious discussions about it on Kelly related websites, Blogs and Facebook pages – I fully expected to find a review at the Eleven Mile Creek site, but the search drew a blank. However this book was the original catalyst for Sharons interest in Ned Kelly – and I would imagine that could be true for many people – but apart from a cursory mention on the Iron Outlaw book reviews pages, there was nothing about it on Iron Outlaw or in the Ned Kelly Forum.
However I was pleased to find on the web archive of Bail Up something that I had decided I wasn’t going to do, a catalogue of the ‘fictions’ presented in the book along with the relevant ‘facts’. Heres a couple of examples:
‘Fact– Ellen did have an intimate relationship with Bill Frost, and later had an illegitimate daughter to him. He abandoned her, and she sued him for child support and won (having established in court that he was her only lover).
Fiction– There is no evidence that Ned threatened to shoot Bill.
Fact – The Kelly gang did use the majority of the stolen bank money paying debts and sympathizers.
Fiction – None of it was stolen from the gang (by M.H.), however they did use up the sum quite quickly
I thought about doing something similar myself but decided that such a catalogue, at one level made no sense, because the book, despite its title is NOT a “true” account but an imagining, a fantasy, an emotional creation only loosely attached to the cold facts. The spirit of the novel is only appreciated by a willingness to momentarily suspend disbelief and live in the fantasy, to ignore the places where reality clashed with the narrative, where history contradicted the story and known facts were dismissed. Never-the-less, knowing that Ned Kelly was real and many of the other people and the places mentioned were actually real, I knew there would be people who would wonder exactly where the truth ended and the fantasy began, and how much of what was told was historical and what wasn’t. So at Bail Up, an attempt was made to define the borders between the two (HERE )
This is the perennial problem of the historical novel, a form which simultaneously invites you to accept what you’re reading as true but refuses to take responsibility for any of it as being historical reality. The reader can neither dismiss it all as make-believe, because the historical setting is real, nor can the reader catalogue all of it in their memory as fact because the book identifies itself as a Novel. The truth though is that this book is a novel and it was never meant to be a text about historical truth but rather a story about emotional truth, about the experience of being Ned Kelly as Carey imagined it could have been. But the Bail Up writer has produced a means by which certain fictions and the truths in the story can be separated, and the books true fiction and true history identified for anyone who wanted to know.
The Bail Up analysis however fails to identify the biggest fiction of them all – the likeable witty and friendly character created in this clever novel is called Ned Kelly but he is its greatest fiction. Sadly such a Ned Kelly never existed.
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