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Down Under

George O’Brien

True History of the Kelly Gang was published by the University of Queensland Press in 2000 and by Faber and Faber in 2001.

In the Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda (1988), the high point of the eponymous couple’s life together is the transportation of a glass cathedral across the Australian outback. That rather tall tale was preceded by the yarns of conman Herbert Badgery, aged 139, in Illywhacker (1985); and was followed by books with such titles as My Life as a Fake (2003) and His Illegal Self (2003). In Jack Maggs (1997), the impeccable prototype of Great Expectations is turned inside out.

In all of these novels, Carey shows himself to be a connoisseur of tricksters, of artful as well as artless dodgers. His aesthetic domain is the circus ring of circumstance’s whimsical cruelties and extravagant performances, of outsize claims on the world and energies that try to see them through. So, when such an author presents a “true history”, it’s likely that the result will not be anything like as stable a narrative as those words suggest. The words are familiar from the titles and subtitles of eighteenth and nineteenth century personal narratives. But more than the surface values of pastiche are probably in store; truth and history, which in their earlier usage are implied to be cooperatively aligned, are now almost bound to have difficulty speaking to each other. As well as that, discursive categories are bound to show a few stretch marks when the narrative material in question has been told and retold many times in many different forms, and when from at least the culmination of his wild career, if not before, Ned Kelly is a figure possessing legendary status.

Carey faces these formal issues in two ways. In the first place, the Kelly story is said to have been preserved in its original state, consisting of thirteen parcels of papers, each of which is authenticated by bibliographical, or more accurately auction house, annotations. These parcels are supposedly housed in Melbourne Public Library, complete with catalogue number (a search yields nothing). The writings are in Kelly’s own hand, or more importantly, voice. Such a Borgesian act of mimicry immediately raises questions about true histories; the evidence seems fabricated, and in any case historical truth is not entrusted to first person narratives. On the contrary, history is a public narrative and intends to arrive at some version of consensual truth; it’s a form of cultural collaboration. It is this notion of reception that impels and at the same time vitiates Kelly’s transmission of his story. His manuscript is addressed to the daughter he has never seen in the hope that she will understand and accept both her paternity and her patrimony. But at the same time Ned also wishes that what he has to say will receive wider currency. In the course of the narrative, as his bushranger’s career becomes increasingly untenable and his situation more and more embattled, his desire for a hearing grows exponentially in urgency. It is when his notoriety is at its height that he wishes to come out of hiding, as it were, through publication. And indeed Ned Kelly actually did protest his case in print with his celebrated “Jerilderie Letter”, though at the time that piece of writing was treated more as a testamentary artifact than as a legitimate basis for consensus.

A kind of informal form is achieved by the arrangement of the True History as thirteen parcels of original material. Carey binds these bundles together not by the unities of time and space (chronology is not a particularly strong structuring element; events seem to follow, rather than lead to, one another: and space is going to be dispersed because the most obvious feature of a bushranger’s life is that it’s unsettled – in this latter regard, True History is in some ways the antithesis of that saga of Australian settlement Patrick White’s The Tree of Man).

Instead, the current of the Kelly voice, its persistence, its colour, its vitality, its unorthodoxy, is the indispensable thread that ensures each parcel is in one piece and that their effect is cumulative. This effect also loosely formalises the informal, combining subjective practice and object impact to substantiate a sense of Ned’s off-beat though undeniable distinctiveness. The invention of a Ned Kelly voice not only allows the protagonist to have his say, but allows it to have it in its own way, so that he retains his maverick personality while also addressing other discourses that beset him. The unpredictability of events makes this communication mostly tacit, at least until the end. Those other discourses – manners, class, economy, sexuality and money – are implicit, taken for granted. They articulate social orthodoxies whose righteousness and rectitude relies, in effect, on being in conflict with how Ned Kelly is positioned in the world. The nature and consequences of this conflict becomes clear when Ned comes into contact with the law. On these occasions he finds that this supposed agency of truth, equality and the like is entirely capable of producing narratives that distort and misrepresent who he is and what he has done; of giving him, in effect, a false history. The Ned Kelly story can only be completed – can only entertain the notion of a true history—if his side of it is acknowledged for what it’s worth.

The Ned Kelly voice is the novel’s greatest invention, and the impersonation that it facilitates puts the protagonist at the centre of his existence, thereby counteracting his outsider status by documenting it. Somebody whose schooling would have been perfunctory on account of family demands, even if he didn’t have to endure belittlement by teachers, is not going to communicate with the syntax, grammar and the general usages of the well-trained. Not that the voice is just a facile flood of run-on sentences:

I were 17 yr. old when I come out of prison 6 ft. 2 in. broad of shoulder my hands as hard as hammers we had swung inside the walls of Beechworth Gaol. I had a mighty beard and was a child no more although in truth I do not know what childhood or youth I ever had. What remained if any were finally taken away inside that gaol boiled off me like fat and marrow is rendered within the tallow pot.

Simple adjustments (no commas, subject-verb disagreements) produce not only a vivid and expressive interplay between voice and script but put in grammatical form ‑ in the form of its own distinct sense of order ‑ a presence that by breaking the rules gets a hearing. In the long run, his mistakes pile up to convey Ned’s urgency to get his story told. But they also gloss his sense of self and the nature of his presence, serve his urgency to get the story told. And in the short term, they gloss his sense of self, the nature of his presence, and even his male awareness. In addition, the errors underwrite the passage’s odd sense of thriving through loss (I had no childhood but I grew; prison made a man of me). The voice reverses expectations syntactically and conceptually, and by doing so puts the speaker in command. The novel is loaded with manoeuvres of this kind, so that the record’s verbal fabric is the template for larger issues of right and wrong; insiders and outsiders, men of propriety and men of no property have their say. Seen simply at this level, True History of the Kelly Gang is a formidable piece of writing.

From his early years, Ned Kelly (1854-1880) made his way by being on the run. His family did as well, though in a less spectacular way, the exception being Dan, a younger brother and member of Ned’s gang. His parents belonged to the settler class, recipients of fairly small government grants of land – in Australia, oddly, it’s the squatters who are the land magnates, so-called because of their initial, legally dubious, method of land acquisition. The Kellys lived in northeastern Victoria, a kind of frontier at the time, a fringe area, wild and uncultivated, though without any of the American frontier’s mythical trappings. What kind of life could be made there? The Kelly family did not seem especially well-equipped to answer this question. John, the father, had been transported from Tipperary, and did not take very readily to the kind of freedom that came with being a settler. He died when Ned was twelve, and is memorable mainly for his penchant for cross-dressing. What this practice is intended to signify isn’t clear. Later it turns out to be a habit of Steve Hart, another Kelly gang member, and in his case seems to be connected with the Molly Maguires. But this connection isn’t very reliable, as Australian-born Hart shows at best a garbled sense of his Irish heritage. Carey doesn’t make much of it, so that it remains a peculiarly unexceptional attribute of misfits. In any case, Ned’s mother is a far more powerful presence, and his attachment to her is a recurring expression of a desire to belong, to have a home, to believe in that possibility as a truth. In a book that doesn’t do the emotional dimension very well, whose landscapes and scenarios are of a rough-and-ready physicality, Ned has to rely on his many arduous treks back to the homestead and his fondness for all of his siblings to testify to that belief.

Here again, though, the tale is twisted. Ned’s mother Ellen, a member of the Quinn family – “and the police would never leave the Quinns alone” – is a law-breaker in her own right because she keeps a shebeen, and more to the point, repeatedly shows herself to be undeserving of Ned’s faith. She’s glad to take fifteen quid to apprentice him to her paramour, the bushranger Harry Power (isn’t it usually the apprentice’s people who pay for his training?); she takes two other long-term lovers, neither of whom is any great shakes; and in general her house is not a home for her wayward Ned. And ultimately his loyalty to her costs him dearly. When given the opportunity to escape the law and sail to California with Mary Hearn, mother of the daughter who is the narrative’s addressee, he finds himself unable to leave while his mother is being held in Melbourne jail. (With due respect to Ned’s fondness for her, Mary is colourless; present for essentially technical reasons. The attempt to give her a story – an illegitimate son by Ellen Quinn’s lover George King – feels tacked on. She is the one character for whom there is no historical warrant.) Mrs Quinn and her newborn baby have been taken into custody in hopes of inciting Ned into a foolhardy attempt to free her; no habeas corpus for the Kellys. And it’s in his mother’s house that things take an irreversible downward turn for Ned, when the supposedly trustworthy “trap” (that is, policeman) Fitzpatrick is shot in the hand, having come to ask the hand of one of Ned’s sisters. This relatively minor incident leads to a manhunt that is a textbook case of overkill, and which results in the Kelly gang killing three policemen at Stringybark Creek (which is also overkill). Strangely, these deaths don’t seem at the time to be the beginning of the end. In fact, following them the gang becomes larger than life in the minds of the people and the authorities alike, not only by carrying out bank robberies but by evading arrest and sharing the robberies’ proceeds with the needy.

Prior to Stringybark, Ned’s activities had been largely confined to horse-stealing, a pursuit that chimes very well not only with his own coltish temperament but with his destiny and reputation as one who was essentially unbroken. All the world conspired against him, not only the squatters and the police, but people like himself, such as the settler Aaron Sherritt, bosom pal of Joe Byrne, the most interesting of the other three gang members, an opium addict troubled by divided loyalties. But Ned seems to be at his most resolved, most adventurous, and most engaged with his public standing when the odds are steepest. His last days, culminating in the Glenrowan shoot-out, are in various ways his most articulate, in view of which his refusal to sail with Mary Hearn is less an act of abandonment than an expression of fidelity to the whole gang. And by this time it is possible to regard the gang as not just the four bushrangers, but Ned’s mother and other siblings, and even the whole loosely arranged, socially subsidiary, politically incoherent and culturally inchoate tribe or band that comprises the settler community, those whose characteristic is displacement and whose watchword is struggle.

According to Eric Hobsbawm’s criteria, Ned Kelly is neither a bandit nor a primitive rebel. But he undoubtedly does stand for, or has been made to stand for, qualities that seem otherwise difficult to harness to or incorporate in the texture of Australian national life. His own consciousness of what this quality might be is somewhat undeveloped, which in turn is an aspect of the apparent lack of intention in his actions, an indifference to being systematic and to the pursuit of power that would be consistent with operating a system. But he’s not just a congeries of glad animal spirits, either. He does have an idea of what is at stake in his own case:

And here is the thing about them men they was Australians they knew full well the terror of the unyielding law the historic memory of UNFAIRNESS were in their blood and a man might be a bank clerk or an overseer he might never have been lagged for nothing but still he knew in his heart what it were to be forced to wear the white hood in prison he knew what it were to be lashed for looking a warder in the eye and even a posh fellow… had breathed that air so the knowledge of unfairness were deep in his bone and marrow.

Tonally, this statement might initially seem a bit off. But when one recalls the incident from Ned’s boyhood when he rescued a local shopkeeper’s son from drowning and was rewarded with a sash proclaiming his courage, never mind the later abuses from all sides, it’s hard to deny him the right to preach. The state of Ned’s childhood home would suggest to anyone with an eye to see that a few bob would have been a more apt reward. But even at that early stage, contending narratives are at play, authentic action overridden by a falsifying response, the spirit of the rescue submerged in the thin disguise of a useless adornment.

The idea of an indomitable Kelly, a figure who outlives Ned’s death on the scaffold at the age of twenty-six, is ultimately his own creation –literally – originating in his appearance in a suit of armour at that final Glenrowan engagement, the get-up inspired by pictures of the Monitor, an ironclad warship used in the American civil war. Ned is taken by the vessel’s revolutionary novelty; there aren’t any clear historical resonances in his prototype’s name or in his domestication of the technology to his own purposes. His aim, however, turns out to be not just self-preservation. He also made something of himself, an image of obduracy, defiance, inventiveness and naivete. He created his own monument, one whose contrast with a shopkeeper’s sash could hardly be more explicit.

Something of how this image resonates can be seen in the celebrated paintings by Sidney Nolan. In the one on the cover of the catalogue of the current Royal Academy Australian art exhibition, the figure is on a horse with his back to us. Its head is just a window framing a rectangle of the cloud and sky above the dusty scene. The construction of irregular black steel leaves not a vestige of the human form visible. And Ned also seems welded to his mount. A centaur? Carey nods towards such an iconographic option (“Moonlight shone on the centaurs Dan Kelly & Joe Byrne”). The figure cradles his rifle, although a line of fire is being directed at him. Is he a Quixote? But such a finally singular or elevated or even static figure as Nolan portrays does not sit well here. Carey’s conception of Kelly in his element has a necessary elasticity and an irregular rhythm in it, as (to labour the point) his prose suggests. His view is from inside the armour as well as from outside it. And his Kelly is a man in motion, somebody moved to action, somebody who finds himself as obliged to explore continually the broad expanses of his native terrain, which he does in many a nightmarish journey, as he is to discover the rather narrower limits within which that place intends to develop a way of life for itself.

Ned’s journeys and discoveries are all adventitious, as though to suggest that he does not quite know where he is or what best to do, that he is responding to circumstances beyond his control, that he is only in command when his gang becomes an avowed criminal organisation. In a word, he’s a misfit. Or, in another word, he’s Irish. Carey uses Irish details to colour the Kellys; Ned pictures his daughter’s jaw dropping “when you finally comprehend the injustice we poor Irish suffered in this present age”. And of course their suffering in ages past provides some of the colour, as do a mention of the banshee, Steve Hart’s repertoire of ballads, tales of Cuchulain by a childhood fireside, a heritage of agrarian violence, the newspaper attribution of the Stringybark Creek murders to “Irish Madmen”, and so on and so forth. And much as True History contributes to the lineage of bushranger stories, one of the original forms of Anglophone Australian narrative, it also enhances the already prominent and enduring presence of Irish characters in Australian fiction, characters whose ethnicity and historical origins are a basis for the many unofficial perspectives on what Australian experience amounts to.

Obviously, from the standpoint of documentary verisimilitude, the Irish dimension can hardly be overlooked. Ned’s voice has been thought to exhibit Irish nuance and inflection, while its syntactical shortcuts and grammatical deviations have been said to resemble those found in emigrant letters, although Ned combines syntactical uncertainty with a wide and assured vocabulary, suggesting not so much the new arrival as somebody using two verbal registers; an Irish-Australian, say, or a colonial. But such a creature is bound to have a complex destiny, is at best a hybrid or composite, made up of influences divorced from their original distinctive context (Irish) and influences operating in the name of an unfamiliar and, it seems, naturally coercive set of expectations, obligations and institutional impositions. It is as though Ned is the son of two fathers, both of whom he must murder (his ties to his mother are very strongly oedipal, and he has literally murderous thoughts regarding the two major consorts of her widowhood, English Bill Frost and American George King). Both sets of influences enshrine realities that can’t help but be problematical. But this is what attracts Carey, I think; a character who’s interstitial, exists within the cracks, whose path is through unmarked valleys and over mountains surfaced with slippery shale and across racing flooded rivers, a character who shouldn’t survive but because of that, it seems, does, somebody who in his every word traverses the tight-rope between old world and new. Such a character is “Irish” not necessarily by blood or affiliation, much less by choice, but he can fit a classification that, regardless of what it says on the lid, is a metonymy for the citizen-outlier, the alternative history, the exemplary failure, the heroic victim, the road that isn’t just not travelled but is not on the map.

As with other hyphenated identities, Irish and Australian are both opposed to and dependent on each other, each side of the hyphen distorting and being distorted by the other. These distortions are realities too, of course, though to acknowledge what kind of realities they are (abject, brutal; marginal, masterful; exilic, colonising) risks disturbing notions of the collective and the consensual, notions that an irony-free true history could structure and uphold. Having Ned Kelly’s last betrayer ask, “What’s wrong with us? Do we not have a Jefferson? A Disraeli? Might we not find someone better to admire than a horse-thief and a murderer? Must we always be making such an embarrassing spectacle of ourselves?” got Carey into trouble with his Australian readers, exposing among other things a sensitivity to thoughts of founding fathers and the ideal of independence they often embody. Carey, though, is more interested in the Australia he has called “a nation of castoffs”. His works are full of orphans, and in many respects Ned Kelly is another, both in his cultural formation and his social destiny. As an orphan, he brings home an idea of diasporic loss, and his life and times can be read as a version of how to make good that loss, how to say that it too may be turned to account. One can well imagine how thoughts of fairness might enter into a need for rectification, productive purpose, inclusion and belonging. The poet and critic John Kinsella (himself “someone with an Irish background”, as he has said) considers that, when all is said and done, True History of the Kelly Gang “doesn’t create anything new”. That’s quite true. The wrangle with the ancient problems – race, class, the exasperated body and the constrained mind – are all here. All Carey’s considerable resources can’t get away from them. They really don’t want to – and why should they?

George O’Brien’s The Irish Novel 1960-2010 was recently published in paperback.

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