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.’
Kelly was born c.1855, the oldest son of Irish Catholics, his mother a migrant, his father an ex-convict, two of the many ‘ripped from Ireland like teeth from the mouth of their own history’. The parabola that leads to his execution begins before he is even born: he says that his mother, Ellen Quinn, ‘was like a snare laid out by God’ for his father – ‘she were a Quinn and the police would never leave the Quinns alone.’ Ned’s earliest memory is of his mother ‘breaking eggs into a bowl and crying’, as she makes a cake for her 15-year-old brother, who has been imprisoned for ‘duffing a bullock with cancer’. The ‘trap’ – policeman – at the prison insists on searching the cake first, breaking it up so she is left with nothing but crumbs to push under the door of the cell. Ned’s father doesn’t manage to stay out of jail either, and he dies when his son is 12. The boy now has to leave school, and work on his mother’s small plot of land. He’s in and out of prison for the rest of his life. At the age of 15 his mother sells him to Harry Power, a bushranger, and one of her many lovers – as she gets older, so they get younger, and Ned hates each new one more than the last – to be his apprentice. From Power he receives his first pair of boots and an education in surviving in the bush on the run from the law. Until 1878, and the events that lead to the coalescence of the so-called Kelly Gang, the stories Kelly tells are hard to unpick from each other in a coherent order: a turbulent, angry tangle of fights and hard work and theft, struggles against poverty and the hostile forces that go by the name of justice.
Isolated incidents stand out: a heroic 11-year-old Ned rescues a smaller boy (wealthy, Protestant) from drowning – ‘never one to wait I were swimming in the flooded creek before I knew it the water so fast and cold it would take your breath like a pooka steals your very soul’ – and is rewarded by the child’s parents with a ‘7 ft. sash … peacock green embroidered with gold’. He assists at the birth of one of his sisters: ‘she were a little foal a calf her eyes were wide her newborn skin glistening white and bloody nothing bad had ever touched her.’ This has the unfortunate consequence that ‘every child at Avenel School’ gets ‘the false idea I seen my mother’s naked bottom’ – Carey distils the child’s feelings precisely, from his wonder at the baby to his uncertain relationship with his mother to his concern about his playground reputation. He fights and beats a number of older, bigger men: Wild Wright, the Protestant champion, in the rain and mud behind a hotel for the benefit of a wealthy audience; a constable in the Police Commissioner’s billiard room as senior officers look on. Horses are stolen, friendships made and broken, sisters get married, children die (and, in one confusing instance, appear to return from the grave).
The first two-thirds of the novel is driven not by the shape of the narrative – it is too fragmented and disconnected for that – but by the blood pressure of the prose. The language is rich but never cloying; the unpunctuated syntax virtuoso:
The Banshee made no answer my mother had been told from her youngest years that you must not interfere with the Death Messenger and she knew of the man whose hand were burnt and the one held against the wall of his cottage all night long and she knew an hour’s luck never shone on anyone who molested a Banshee but she were in another country far from where the Banshee should have been so when she held up her lantern then the Banshee turned away and give a kind of shiver as you see in them with bad tempered natures.
Carey’s source for Kelly’s energetic voice is the Jerilderie Letter, an eight-thousand-word document that Kelly dictated to Joe Byrne, one of his associates, before the gang raided the town of Jerilderie in 1879. Kelly intended to have the letter printed by the editor of the local paper. The editor had fled, however, and instead a bank clerk took it, promising to get it published. He never did – though the text is now available on the State Library of Victoria’s website. The letter seethes with indignation at the treatment Kelly and his family have endured at the hands of a justice system founded on the proposition that crime is something the poor inflict on the rich.
Next day Williamson and my mother was arrested and Skillion the day after who was not there at all at the time of the row which can be proved by 8 or 9 witnesses And the Police got great credit and praise in the papers for arresting the mother of 12 children one an infant on her breast and those two quiet hard working innocent men who would not know the difference [between] a revolver and a saucepan handle and kept them six months awaiting trial and then convicted them on the evidence of the meanest article that ever the sun shone on it seems that the jury was well chosen by the Police as there was a discharged Sergeant amongst them which is contrary to law they thought it impossible for a Policeman to swear a lie but I can assure them it is by that means and hiring cads they get promoted I have heard from a trooper that he never knew Fitzpatrick to be one night sober and that he sold his sister to a chinaman but he looks a young strapping rather genteel more fit to be a starcher to a laundress than a Policeman.
True History of the Kelly Gang is as much the story of this voice as it is an account of Kelly’s life. The fierceness of Kelly’s desire that his voice be heard is what comes across with most certainty from the Jerilderie Letter: the novel’s claim to be ‘true’ is rooted in its keeping faith with that desire. ‘I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.’ The fact that, historically, Kelly neither had a daughter – the girl’s mother, Mary Hearn, is Carey’s invention, too – nor wrote this book is beside the point.
Kelly’s account is divided into 13 separate ‘parcels’, and it is in Parcel Nine, entitled ‘The Murders at Stringybark Creek’, that a strong narrative line emerges from this (nonetheless compulsive) whirligig. (Carey’s own growth as a novelist, incidentally, shows a similar pattern. His earlier stuff, up to and including Oscar and Lucinda, 1988, makes use of the style he honed in his short stories of the 1970s, and no doubt in his work in advertising as well, to impressive cumulative effect, constructing a novel from a series of vividly realised sketches. The Tax Inspector and Jack Maggs, however, both written in the 1990s, have an internal coherence that was previously lacking in Carey’s novels, though present in his stories. True History of the Kelly Gang makes the most of both techniques.) At the end of Parcel Eight (‘24 Years’) Constable Fitzpatrick, formerly Kelly’s friend, tricks him into persuading his 16-year-old brother Dan to turn himself in – he’s wanted on a false charge of ‘Breaking & Entering & Stealing plus Intent to Rape’ – with the promise that he’ll be found not guilty. He is in fact given three months ‘for Damaging Property’.
When the sentence were pronounced my brother’s eyes sought mine he were but 16 yr. old a grubby boy with dirty fingernails his black hair plastered flat upon his head. Dear God he winked at me it broke my heart to see him taken down. That were the end of my friendship with Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick.
This took place in 1877 the government were in crisis there was no funds for gaols or judges’ pay so when Dan got out of prison in February he were suffering badly his clothes hung off him his eyes was dull his skin had scabby sores from hunger.
On Easter Sunday, Fitzpatrick turns up at the Kellys’ house. ‘I seen Fitzpatrick pull my sister roughly onto his knee that were the last adjectival straw.’ Kate, aged 14, says to the policeman: ‘my brother will be nicer when he hears we’re to be married.’ Kelly tells her they can’t marry: ‘He’s engaged to one tart he’s got another pregnant in Frankston.’ On hearing this, Mrs Kelly ‘clouted Fitzpatrick across the head’ with the bread shovel, and Ned shoots him in the wrist as he’s reaching for his gun. Warrants are drawn up against Ned and Dan for attempted murder, and, in Parcel Nine, they head off into the bush with Ned’s friend Joe Byrne, an opium addict, and Dan’s friend Steve Hart, a transvestite. These four would become the Kelly Gang.
Ellen Kelly is arrested and given a three-year sentence as an accomplice to attempted murder. Meanwhile, Wild Wright comes to inform the Gang, who are making use of Harry Power’s old haunts, that the police are intending to hunt them down and kill them. In a pre-emptive strike, they ambush the patrol at Stringybark Creek, Kelly’s Rubicon, killing all but one of the officers before returning to their hideout with the police guns and horses.
On this day of horror when the shadows of the wattle was gluey with men’s blood I could not imagine what wonder might still lie before me. We lads come down across German’s Creek into Bullock Creek driving the police horses before us we now had 4 rifles & 4 Webleys and Joe rode with the Spencer slung across his back. As for me my skin were sour with death.
A few days later, Dan and Ned pay a midnight visit to their sister Maggie. They pass their mother’s abandoned hut, in which Ned sees ‘a female figure walking back and forth a saucepan in her hand’. He thinks it is his mother, out of jail; it is in fact Mary Hearn, who is pregnant with his child. She asks him to write his own version of events to put right the lies in the newspapers. He imagines she intends it for Donald Cameron, a politician who appears to be, if not sympathetic to the Kellys, at least critical of the police. But:
she took my scabbed hard hand placing it ever so gently on her belly.
And I knew before she said the words I knew that it were you in there I were very pleased I kissed her on the neck and on the mouth I smelled her fine dark hair and kissed her bright black eyes.
And then, just when Kelly has fully mastered the art of storytelling, welding his flashing prose onto a sturdy narrative armature, and now that we know the genesis of what we are reading, his voice begins to disintegrate. The accounts of the Gang’s two bank robberies, in Euroa and Jerilderie, are described not in Kelly’s words but in newspaper cuttings annotated by Mary. Kelly describes the inspiration (ironclad ships in the US Civil War) and manufacture (from ploughshares) of the famous armour that the gang wore in their defeat at the siege at Glenrowan, but for obvious reasons cannot describe the siege itself. Everything has been prepared perfectly: the telegraph wires have been cut; the railway line on which a trainload of policemen is due to arrive has been sabotaged; the gang are holed up in the hotel with the townspeople. Kelly’s downfall is his manuscript. The local schoolteacher, Thomas Curnow, offers to edit it for him, adding that he would need to take it home to do so. Kelly lets him go, and the last words of his account are ‘He waits. No time’ – this is one of at least four ways in which Curnow robs Kelly of his voice. He also alerts the police to the sabotaged railway line. Third, he declaims Henry V’s St Crispin’s Day speech to the assembled company in the hotel before tearing the pages out of his Shakespeare and giving them to Kelly, who inserts them into his own narrative, eclipsing it. Fourth, Kelly’s 13 parcels are framed, front and back, by Curnow’s account of the siege at Glenrowan (the final description of Kelly’s execution is anonymous).
By the end, Kelly has become, if not corrupted, then at least, like Prince Hal, compromised by his new-found power. (There is a wealth of irony in a fictional representation of Ned Kelly, outlaw and Australia’s unofficial national hero, admiring a fictional representation of Henry V, an establishment hero of the imperial power he resists.) As Kelly strides out of the hotel, guns blazing, convinced, in his armour, of his immortality, he shouts: ‘You shoot children, you f-----g dogs. You can’t shoot me.’ But he must bear some responsibility for the fate of the people in the hotel; Joe Byrne says to him: ‘We’ve done these poor b----rs an awful harm.’ Kelly would find it hard to disagree. ‘If you will lead men,’ he says after Stringybark Creek, ‘you cannot be away from them no more than from a dairy herd’ – ten pages earlier, he has described how flood waters ‘had risen higher than before marooning unmilked cows on islands their udders swollen their painful bellows echoing across the dull insistent waters’. Joe, Dan and Steve are all three killed at Glenrowan.
Before Glenrowan, Kelly composes a ‘coffin letter’, copies of which (made by hand) are sent to ‘farmers and others’ in North Eastern Victoria. This is, in effect, a declaration of independence. It begins: ‘Any person residing in the above territory who aids or harbours or assists the police in any way whatever or employs any person whom they know to be a detective or cad also those who would be so depraved as to take blood money will be outlawed and declared unfit to be allowed human burial.’ Curnow, despairing at Kelly’s growing reputation as a hero, asks: ‘Do we not have a Jefferson?’ But that Kelly lost where Jefferson won is perhaps the most important difference between them. Kelly’s defeat is vital to the novel: his voice is forged in opposition, his heroism predicated on failure. Such, as Kelly might have said, is life – it certainly makes for good fiction.