The immortal iron outlaw

Print edition : February 02, 2002

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey; Faber & Faber, London, 2001; pages 352, &pound16.99 (hardback).

ON November 11, 1880, Edward 'Ned' Kelly, Australia's most notorious bushranger (outlaw) with an 8,000 price on his head, was hanged in Melbourne Jail. Following the execution, Kelly's body was decapitated and buried in an unmarked grave inside the prison grounds. But if the authorities had assumed that their unceremonious disposal of the mutilated corpse would similarly bury the Kelly legend, they were gravely mistaken. The years that followed Kelly's demise at the age of 26 would see the young outlaw reach audaciously beyond the grave, ever tightening his grip on the popular imagination. Improbably, inexorably, Ned Kelly would rise to the status of national spokesperson and folk hero, acquiring an immorality that defied his rotting remains, that cocked a snook at establishment values and the ground rules of the rich and the powerful.

Ned Kelly's hold on the imagination of successive generations of Australians can be sourced to a number of factors. At one level, he and his gang - comprising his brother Dan and comrades Steve Hart and Joe Byrne - were seen to embody qualities central to the Australian experience: rugged honesty (if not always within the bounds of the law), courage, plain dealing, an instinctive respect for justice and, by corollary, a refusal to tolerate skulduggery by those in authority. Kelly's convict antecedents - his father, found guilty of stealing pigs, had been transported from Ireland to Tasmania in 1842 - also placed him in the mainstream of a settler society haunted by the jangle of jail irons and memories of brutish prison life.

But what, more than anything, transformed Kelly from simple horse thief, bank robber and killer of policemen into a national icon was the compulsion he felt to tell his tale, to record, contextualise - and justify - his actions. This need to communicate found expression in letters, a few of which survive in the archives (and can now be accessed via the Internet). "I take this opportunity," Ned writes in one, "to declare most positively that we did not kill the policemen in cold blood, as has been stated by the rascal McIntyre. We only fired on them to save ourselves, and we are not the cold-blooded murderers which people presume us to be. Circumstances have forced us to become what we are - outcasts and outlaws - and, bad as we are, we are not so bad as we are supposed to be."

Implicit in such efforts was the assumption that if only Ned could put his case directly to the Australian public, if only he could appeal to their innate sense of justice, he would be vindicated. In the event, his efforts to do so during his lifetime were frustrated by a state apparatus whose power it was difficult for him to fathom. But his impulse to set down his case and his refusal to retreat into silence and obscurity laid the basis for what was to become a potent and enduring mythology. Today, Australia's "Iron Outlaw" (a reference to the famous suit of armour plating Ned wore at the time of his eventual arrest) commands a sprawling empire of books, souvenirs, memoirs and websites, all testimony to his ongoing ability to speak from the grave and cast a spell.

Small wonder, then, that his life should attract a serious literary engagement, an attempt to evoke and depict a life through the prism of historically informed imagination. This in essence is the mission of Peter Carey's latest novel. First published in Australia in 2000, True History of the Kelly Gang won the 2001 Booker Prize, a repeat achievement for its author, who won the award in 1988 with his novel Oscar and Lucinda.

FOR Carey, an Australian now resident in New York, there is no question as to who should tell Ned Kelly's tale: it can only be the outlaw himself. What ensues is a 350-page monologue characterised by accurate spelling but erratic punctuation: full stops occur, but not at the break of every sentence. At first this presentation strikes the reader as problematic, even contrived, as the eye juggles with the text in search of structure and meaning. One begins to question Carey's pursuit of authenticity: the novel's narrative style was reportedly inspired by Kelly's 56-page Jerilderie letter, written to justify one of his bank robberies. But as the story unfolds, as the eye accustoms itself to the vagaries of the text and the ear picks up the cadences of Kelly's speech, the idiosyncratic presentation acquires a power all its own. Quite soon, the strangeness evaporates and one finds oneself in the grip of the compelling narrative every bit as compelling as the most page-turning of thrillers.

Carey builds on Kelly's confessional instincts, as revealed in his surviving letters, by having him set down the events of his life for the benefit of his daughter, who was a baby at the time of his death. There is a factual basis for the existence of such a substantial body of writing: according to an unsigned handwritten record in the collection of the Melbourne Public library, thirteen parcels of "stained and dog-eared papers, every one of them in Ned Kelly's distinctive hand," were taken to Melbourne soon after the outlaw's arrest. What happened to the bundles thereafter is unknown. However with Carey imagining his way into their contents, the thirteen parcels regain their tangible quality and provide the structure for Kelly's piecing together of his life and times.

The Kelly that emerges is an articulate, thoughtful, resourceful man, enraged by the inequality and injustice that permeate his world. His Irish ancestry, a palpable and proud presence reinforced by his mother's memories and delvings into folklore and mythology, provides him with a tradition of suffering and resistance: if his parents had been "ripped from Ireland like teeth from the mouth of their own history," if micks (Irish Catholics) were still regarded by Protestants in Australia as "a notch beneath the cattle," they also came equipped with strategies for communal endurance and survival.

Such strategies are shown to be essential in the class divided reality of late 19th century Australia. As settlers in the outback of Victoria Colony, in the southeast of the country, the Kellys find themselves caught up in the unequal struggle between 'squatters' (rich landowners in a position to make "a game of the law getting the best land for themselves") and 'selectors' (poor farmers, some operating under some form of tenancy). For Ned Kelly's mother, driven by her peasant origins to view land possession as the road out of poverty, the Duffy Land Act of 1862, offering blocks of virgin land to selectors on credit, to be paid for over an eight-year period, promises her the security she seeks. In fact, as Ned's testimony makes clear, the dice are loaded against the selectors at every turn. The rural rich, with the active connivance of the local police, politicians and judiciary, use every trick at their disposal to undermine, and if necessary criminalise, their poor farmer neighbours.

"In a very bad year," recalls Ned in a passage that gives the flavour of his narrative, " even the richest farmers was cutting down saplings to feed their stock they was pressed hard themselves and so harsher than usual to their poor neighbours. Through his connections in government the squatter Whitty had been permitted to rent the common ground and as a result a poor man could no longer find a place to feed his stock in all the drought stricken plains. If you set your horse grazing beside the govt. road it would be taken by Whitty's drones and locked away in the pound. I have known 66 head of horses impounded in one day all of them belonging to poor farmers who was then required to leave their ploughing or harvest and travel to Oxley and when they got there perhaps they didnt have money to release them & so they would have to give a bill of sale or borrow money which is no easy matter." (page 188)

In such a situation, poor families such as the Kellys were obliged to live on their wits, if necessary flouting the law in the process. Ned's progression from headstrong eldest son, seeking to replace his dead father as the 'man' of the family, to notorious outlaw carries an air of inevitability about it: like Ned himself, the reader poses the question of what else - given the available options and the prevailing class reality - he could have done under the circumstances.

By the novel's end, with insurrection in the air, poor farmers rushing to contribute their iron ploughs to the making of the gang's body armour, and oaths of fealty to the rebel cause being sworn on Bibles, Ned Kelly has progressed a stage further. He has graduated from ruthless outlaw to leader of an incipient popular uprising. How this squares with the historical record is not apparent. Nor perhaps does it matter in what is after all a self-declared work of fiction. What can be said, however, is that Carey endows Kelly with a voice that is insistent, compelling and resonant with the music of justice.

One British reviewer, turning aside the more obvious comparisons to Robin Hood, likened Carey's Ned Kelly to Thomas Jefferson. But the voice I heard as I read this majestic, remarkable novel had more in common with the cadences and call to action of Tom Paine.