- True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
Faber, 352 pp, £16.99, January 2001, ISBN 0 571 20987 4
In the penultimate chapter of David Copperfield, David and Agnes, after ten years of uneventful but blissful marriage – ‘I had advanced in fame and fortune, my domestic joy was perfect’ – are sitting by the fire in their house in London, one night in spring, when they receive a visit from an elderly stranger. This man turns out to be Mr Peggotty, who emigrated to Australia with what remained of his family ten years previously, together with the Micawbers. And they have all ‘thrived’: Em’ly has recovered her virtue; Martha has married; even Mrs Gummidge has received a proposal; and Mr Micawber has not only paid off all his debts but been appointed District Magistrate. It’s quite a paradise, Australia: ‘What with sheep-farming, and what with stock-farming, and what with one thing and what with t’other, we are as well to do, as well could be’; when a traveller comes along, ‘we took him in, and giv him to eat and drink, and made him welcome. We all do that, all the colony over.’ It is in pursuit of such myths that Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda set out for the promised land; they learn the realities of life in the colony the hard way.
Carey set himself against Dickens more explicitly nine years later, in Jack Maggs (1997), an imaginative reworking of Great Expectations. Maggs, a thief transported to Australia, has since made a fortune, a substantial part of which he has been paying to a young man in England, called Phipps, whom he encountered briefly as a child (sound familiar yet?). The novel opens as Maggs returns to England in spring 1837 to seek Phipps out. Among the characters he meets is a certain Tobias Oates, the author of a hugely successful comic novel and a sketch writer for the Morning Chronicle (he must occasionally bump into Dickens in the paper’s offices) whose new project is a study of the criminal mind – Dickens, meanwhile, would have been writing Oliver Twist. While Oates has a very nasty time, largely self-inflicted, Maggs is rescued by a serving girl who brings him to his senses: Maggs should give up on the worthless Phipps and go straight back to his real children in Australia; and he does, taking her with him – not for him Magwitch’s ignominious death in an English prison cell. Anxiety of influence is taken to a national level: Carey deliberately misreads Dickens, unshouldering the colonial burden, to create a contemporary, independent Australian novel. True History of the Kelly Gang investigates the paradox of independence that depends on opposition to an established power.
Ned Kelly was executed in Melbourne jail on 11 November 1880. His last words are supposed to have been ‘Ah well, I suppose it has come to this,’ though he may have said, as he does, ‘in a low tone’, on the last page of Carey’s novel: ‘Such is life.’ To his supporters, either would have been evidence of the sang-froid of a martyr; to the judge who sentenced him, proof of the cold blood of an unrepentant killer. As is so often the case, he was simultaneously neither of these things and both of them – human, in other words – and Carey’s novel reclaims Kelly from myth to reconstruct him as a man by telling the story of his brief life in the outlaw’s own voice. And to read the story is to see why he isn’t surprised that it should end in hanging: ‘I were but 14 1/2 yr. old … but … I were already travelling full tilt towards the man I would become.’