Tuesday 19 July 2016

Peter Careys Ned Kelly Fantasy

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. 


  1. That was a finely crafted review Dee, and perhaps your best yet.

    I'm not tempted to read it though.

    It took years for the pro-Kelly writers to come up with a response to the Babbington letter and attacfhments which showed Ned dobbed in Harry Power. Will there ever be any response to the Macfarlane and Morrissey books one wonders - or even your wonderful blog?

    1. i suppose i better read the bloody thing...

  2. Peter Carey is nearly as good a fiction writer as Ian Jones. Could the fact Carey styled his work on the prose used in the Jerilderie letter mean that Ned should have been a co-recipient of the Booker prize?

  3. Brilliant review Dee. I agree with Cody 'finely crafted'

    Peter ess right the prize belongs to Ned although I eff not yet read the book from cover to cover I likes it a lot. Seems the book was not liked by most Kelly afficionados because Carey somehow up staged their favourite guru and could not be seen jumping with joy in fear of falling out of the tribe.

  4. I read Carey's novel a while ago but had many problems with its pseudo-historical fiction style. The errors of historical fact are endless, but the fact that it is written as a novel does not excuse such a wanton treatment of historical facts. This may sound harsh, but consider Carey's claim to a factual base in his end of book acknowledgements, listing McQuilton, Dean, McMemony and especially Jones as daily sources of reference when writing. Parcel 13 concludes with a section on Ned's execution lifted with only minor changes from the Herald's 1880 report. Unquestionably Carey has presented a tale largely purporting to be true; but it is a highly selective version of the truth, one that conflicts in parts even with Ned's own shifting versions of his own story (e.g. Ned's at least 3 versions of the Fitzpatrick incident). For this reason I think he has done history - or Ned - few favours. Those with little historical knowledge might well concur with the New York Times review by Anthony Quinn, that Carey has "turned a distant myth into warm flesh and blood". Hmmm.

    I am intrigued by Dee's point that "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". I get the point, but as the novel purports to be an autobiographical tale by Ned himself, it should logically have at least followed the story as per Ned's numerous exaggerations. For more elements bordering on plausibility Carey could have thrown in material based on Joseph Ashmead's error-ridden "The Thorns and the Briars" from 1923, or from the many tall stories in newspapers of the day who claimed an acquaintance or direct relationship with Ned and his family and friends. Personally I found the novel becoming tedious after about 150 pages or so; an endless Jerilderie-style "boast and complaint" list written in deliberately bad English that stretched Kelly's 56 page MSS out to some 470 turgid pages in the same style of rant. So if I accept the point that the novel is trying to get a feeling for Ned's emotional truth, I am still not convinced that we are getting that in this novel; perhaps it is more an emotional truth of Ned's modern sympathisers to see in Ned what fiction asks rather than historical reality demands.
    I have just started Hermann Hesse's novel "The Glass Bead Game", and came across the following early lines: "In attempting to trace the course of [a] life we are also attempting to interpret it, and although as historians we must deeply regret the scantiness of authenticated information ... we have taken over [the] legend and adhere to its spirit." Just saying...

    1. Stuart, thats why I said to enjoy the novel one has to suspend disbelief. It can then be enjoyed just as a novel, except that if you know a bit of the ACTUAL story you can enjoy it even more, spotting the misplaced ‘real’ bits and the clever made up bits. Equally, the misplaced ‘real’ bits and the made up bits just infuriate the hell out of some people! No book works for everyone. It will be interesting to hear back from Mark once he gets around to reading it.

    2. The trouble is Stuart you are an historian and can’t read Peter Carey’s novel without picking up on the inaccuracies (although personally I enjoyed finding the errors as much as I enjoyed the read). I think it is just great the way he has structured the whole thing and written in that rhyming way of the Jerilderie letter. That is his construct to give voice to Ned in the first person. How ingenious. Of course a writer like that will take artistic licence to improve upon the tale, and is never going to let facts stand in the way of a good yarn. And anyway, more factual accounts of the Kelly story had already been done, so sticking to the facts would have been just more of the same, and I can imagine him thinking what would be the point of that. Importantly I thought his interpretation of the story really gives off a feel for the times and the Kelly saga as he thinks Ned might have seen it through his own eyes. For my part, I really enjoyed the book and now must read it again. Can’t believe it was published back in 2000.

    3. It was almost published as "The Secret history of the Kelly Gang". Which I think is a better title and maybe would have been perceived more as the novel that it actually is. I know Peter Carey spent several months in Kelly Country with his big green book/original manuscript, visiting sites, pasting vegetation samples into the book, clippings, general experiences. And no doubt spending time with Ian Jones. He also visited Matt Shores original Ned Exhibition at the OMG in 2002. I know Tapsells bookshop in Beechworth were hawking this original for around $50,000 around 10 years ago.

    4. I think both Dee and Peter have a point, that I found it hard to step back and see it purely as a novel and fictional work in its own right because of the historical associations. If I hadn't had that background I might probably have seen it more on its own terms as simply storytelling. Having said that I was a big fiction reader in my teens and twenties, science fiction, Penguin classics and a lot of C20th fiction, and have generally been alert to novels as having some kind of author's opinion or reflection on their book's social or historical context. Still, I have to agree that when a reader doesn't have much knowledge of the real world context, stories are just as much enjoyable in themselves without it.
      I still think the novelty of the endless pages of Jerilderie-style rant would have worn off on me before half way regardless of knowing something of the real history, but then I guess everyone will have their own reactions to how things are written and I would not want to discourage anyone from reading it themselves and enjoying it as much as they like! Go for it...

  5. You are right, Dee, the Carey novel was what help draw me in to the Kelly saga. I knew very little about the Kelly Gang before reading it and had never read the Jerilderie Letter before, either. I imagine that if I were to have been into the Gang before reading it I would be like Stuart and have a real issue with the "errors." When I was reading the book I had such a strong emotional response to it that at times I had to just stop reading and go walk around outside to clear my head. Being a very emotional female and a bit of an empath, it really hit me hard as I could totally feel what these characters were going through as Carey breathed such life into these characters.
    There is supposedly going to be a movie made from the book which should draw new readers to it. Maybe some will read the book first or maybe read it after seeing the film. It is funny, but I first read "Brokeback Mountain" before seeing the film and much more prefer it to the film, but I have a friend that saw the movie first and then read the book and she prefers the film. Same could happen in this instance. (Yeah, I was a big Heath Ledger fan back in the day.) And to Stuart, I haven't read Hesse since the mid-70s but loved all of his work, I still have about a dozen of his titles on my shelves even now. I once had someone tell me I was reading too much Hesse, Goethe, Kosinki, etc as it was giving me such a bleak outlook on life! But I digress...
    I didn't do a review of the book since I read it in 2002 and only started my own blog many years later. While on the subject, if you want to read a great Kelly related novel, there is one that I did a review on called "Undead Kelly" written by Timothy Bowden. It blew me away it was so well done. I pointed out the "errors" in that but it did not take away from the terrific story of Ned Kelly being a zombie hunter. Only rarely do certain books give me such a thrill, and these by Carey and Bowden certainly did.


    1. What about "Our Sunshine" by Robert Drewe Sharon? This one I found very readable and atmospheric.

    2. I agree Mark, I liked the film a lot (based on the book).
      Its going to be hard to re do any film on Ned in the near future with all the troubles in this world.
      We cannot compare old colonial times with today and feel its no use trying. As much as I admire Dee's persistence in showing how bad Ned was, the history of those times resonates with us now just as Rob Roy would have to previous generations, but we hear nothing more of that.

    3. "True History of the Kelly Gang" is the book that drew me to the Kelly world, but it was "Our Sunshine" which in a sense helped open the gate and gain me entrance. I was wondering where I could find a copy of it and wrote in to ironoutlaw feedback and was replied to by someone which begun an association that led me to eventually contributing/researching/writing about the gang. As to the book, it was a good read, not as captivating as Carey's but it definitely had a certain feel to it. "Atmospheric" seems to be the best word to describe it. It has been over a decade since I read these and there has been a lot of water under the bridge since then!

  6. Sharon, I am a huge fan of Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig who drew the cover picture for this version of the book. If you haven’t heard of him Sharon, look him up. Wonderful humour combined with deep sympathy for the little guy.

  7. Marian Matta sent me a little book of Michael Luenig's poetry and illustration a while back. Leunig is definitely a unique talent. There have been lots of different book covers for "True History of the Kelly Gang" for some reason. Looking under google images I saw over a dozen different ones. That in itself is almost worth a bit of study!

    I am trying to remember, in the book did a trap get up on the roof like in the illustration?

    1. There has indeed been multiple cover art. The original is still the best though I think. A birds eye view of Benalla.

  8. Peter Carey is a great writer, but undone with his underdone, fake Kelly history. Peter Fitzsimons was another author casualty (of many) who will be forever remembered for failing to address the myriad issues raised in The Kelly Gang Unmasked book. Avoiding it, apparently at Ian Jones's behest, was nonacademic and foolish. Pete's many other books are not free of criticisms, but his Ned Kelly was a dud.

  9. So-called factual novels are usually highly misleading.

    Carey's true history was hardly that.

    His efforts just romanticized the whole rotten legend again.

    He may have toured Kelly country with his pens and notebooks. But so far as I know he never researched at PROV or SLV or Uni Melbourne archives where the Kelly records are.

    Without that, how much of what he wrote is even remotely true?

  10. Ned Kelly Is Just Another Idol WorShiping Criminal e LI te Fabal Like God and Jesus Christ.


1. Moderation is back on. I haven’t got time to be constantly monitoring what comments are made and deleting the mindless rubbish that Kelly sympathisers have been posting lately. Please post polite sensible comments, avoid personal abuse and please use the same name whenever you Post, even if its a made-up name.