Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 11, 2022

True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey

UQP 1st edition with dustjacket

As regular readers will know, it was this month’s #6Degrees that prompted me to read Peter Carey’s award-winning True History of the Kelly Gang.  For ages I have had two editions of this novel on my TBR in my collection of Booker Prize winners. I bought the US first edition first, but I waited patiently until an affordable true first UQP edition came my way.  It doesn’t have the dustjacket, but as you will see, I like it better the way it is.

The Margaret and Colin Roderick Award, which recognises the best Australian book of the year that deals with any aspect of Australian life, was first to recognise True History of the Kelly Gang in 2000, the year of its publication by UQP.  Prestigious as that award is, it was swamped the following year in 2001 when True History won the Booker, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book Overall, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction, and the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction.  In 2002 it was nominated for the Dublin IMPAC award and it won the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger for Roman in 2003.

UQP 1st edition, (hardcover protected by mylar film)

The reason I prefer my (still pristine) UQP first edition without its dustjacket, is because it feels more authentic.  The novel purports to be thirteen parcels of undated, unsigned, handwritten papers then held in the Melbourne Public Library, and written in the hand of the real life bushranger Ned Kelly (1850-1880).  This unadorned edition looks just the way those uncut papers might have looked had they been bound together in the 19th century when dustjackets were not a thing…

1st US edition (Knopf)

However, reading the jacket blurb of the US first edition published by Knopf in 2000 offers an interesting frisson for the Australian reader.  It goes like this:

Out of nineteenth century Australia rides a hero of his people and a man for all nations, in this masterpiece by the Booker Prize-winning author of Oscar and Lucinda and Jack Maggs.  Exhilarating, hilarious, panoramic, and immediately engrossing, it is also — at a distance of many thousands of miles and more than a century — a Great American Novel.

A Great American Novel?? True, Carey has lived in the US since 1990, but that doesn’t necessarily make him American and True History has nothing to do with America.  (Except that some of the outlaws want to escape to it.)  In fact, it looks as if Carey isn’t much interested in writing ‘American’ novels.  He didn’t set a novel in the US till he’d been there for 20 years (Parrot and Olivier in America, 2010, see my review). After that The Chemistry of Tears (2012) was set in London, (my review here) and then there was A Long Way Home (2017) which brought him back to an Australian setting, see my review). So it seems a bit rich for anyone to claim True History as a Great American Novel… until you read on and see what the Knopf blurber is doing.  It’s an appeal to an American audience using a well-worn trope in US literature and film: the idea of a hero against the authorities, in a novel with all the force of a classic Western.  

But just as it would be a mistake to read this novel as a semi-factual fictionalisation of Ned Kelly’s life, it would also be a mistake to read this as a mere tale of Goodies and Baddies.  Carey is too interesting a novelist to write an apologia – where would be the authorial challenge in that?  Carey’s Ned Kelly is more complex, more slippery than his folkloric image.  He portrays himself as a man trapped into a life of crime by his circumstances almost as if it were inevitable.  He is a man who tells his unborn daughter and purported reader that he is a man more sinned against than sinning, but he’s not a good judge of character at all.  In his justifications for murder and armed robbery he is a poor judge of his own character, and he’s a poor judge of the people around him too. That’s one flaw in his character that causes his downfall, because he never sees betrayal coming.  The other flaw in Carey’s Ned Kelly is that he fails to understand that even amongst people equally desperate and oppressed, murder is unconscionable.  The lives he has taken do not weigh heavily on his conscience.  Sometimes, it is what he does not say in this long, carefully crafted letter to his daughter that is most telling.

Yes, this epistolary novel is written by an ungrammatical hand with a poor grasp of punctuation, but it is crafted to be coherent, sequential and comprehensive. And its most consistent feature is that Ned always blames someone else for his predicament…

Ned doesn’t realise until it’s too late that it was his mother who set him on the path to major crime by apprenticing him to bushranger Harry Power.  He doesn’t learn that she paid Power to take him, a lad of only 15, not until she sends him back to Power’s brutality after he’d made his escape.  He makes one wrong judgment after another about his mother’s lovers, and he’s wrong about the loyalty of other members of his family and his gang members too.  He’s horribly wrong about his lover Mary Hearn as well, but he still trusts her even after she makes off with his money.  It’s not even clear that the unborn child is his.

(In the real life historical record, Kelly did not have a lover or a child.  He was only 26 when he was hung, and had hardly had a life at all, even by the life expectancy standards of his era.)

Most crucial to the Ned Kelly myth is that he avoided capture for so long because he had won the hearts and minds of the poor and oppressed — and this is where close reading shows Carey’s skill in constructing this tale.  Kelly’s quest for redemption in his daughter’s eyes slips up here and there, when he demolishes his own myth because it’s so critical to him that he should blame others for his fate. His narrative shows that early on in his career a member of his own family had claimed a reward for dobbing him in.  And even before there were tempting rewards for his betrayal, he admits that there was resentment against him because the police harassed his family, friends and mere acquaintances on his account.  He says they were gaoled on trumped up charges because of their association with him.

Doubts about the extent and reliability of his support network is suggested by his admission that he’s vulnerable to betrayal when he’s hiding away in the Warby Ranges:

If you will lead men you cannot be away from them no more than from a dairy herd or to put it another way when no rooster is present the cockerels will grow their combs till they’re red and flapping across their beady eyes for once their leader is absent they exercise their own judgement setting plans in course they would never dream of if their Captain were up front. (p.261)

‘Their Captain’?  As the novel reaches its conclusion we see that Kelly’s self-aggrandisement has warped his judgement.   Writing his ‘history’ to denounce police corruption, he valorises his efforts, describing himself as Napoleon writing at his table before going into battle.  Fatally, he fails to see that Curnow, a schoolteacher taken hostage in the Glenrowan Pub, is buttering him up in order to gain his trust and make his escape.  Curnow quotes the St Crispian’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V where Henry rallies the troops just before the Battle of Agincourt when they were outnumbered five to one. Kelly claims in his moment of hubris that even if the meaning were not clear they cd. see a man of learning might compare us to a King.

Kelly’s letter is really more of a memoir, one which suffers from subjectivity more than most.  It is in fact one of a number of attempts to ‘set the record straight’. (In real life, he wrote what is known as the Jerilderie Letter which shares some of the insights into his character with Carey’s novel). Kelly has misinterpreted a newspaper report that the government will hold an enquiry into any reliable allegations into police behaviour: he takes that as a promise that his mother will be released from her gaol cell where she is doing time for Aiding and Abetting Attempted Murder.  He sends his account of things to a newspaper for publication and is outraged that the newspaper publishes only a summary.  His indignation again clouds his judgement, and there is a ludicrous and risky attempt to get his allegations printed in Jerilderie.

It’s not until near the end of the book that Mary is involved in writing this splashed and speckled history.  In Parcel 10 we see in Ned’s account that Mary Hearn was an active conspirator in plans for robbing the Euroa Bank — or alternatively, (unwittingly, or by design if he hasn’t really forgiven her for abandoning him) that Kelly was testifying against her. (That would be a good reason for her to scarper off to America.) But her additions to Ned’s account offer a hint that she might have been wanting to take credit for the planning.  Mary keeps a scrapbook of press clippings about all the gang’s exploits, and Ned mentions her annotations about the robbery in a clipping from The Morning Chronicle of December 11, 1878…

Dear daughter you know I never had no proper education at Avenel I would have to be there with my sixpence each Monday morning except when my father were in the lockup and then my mother must be granted a CERTIFICATE OF DESTITUTION. From the time we went to Greta I had no school at all so there are much better educated men than me to write the story of our robbery and you may study this account as a fair example.  Yet not one of those scribes was sufficient for your mother’s taste as you will note from her comments on the sides.  Heres my cutting and theres your ma she sits watch on these sentences like a steel nibbed kookaburra on the fences in the morning sun. (p.290)

Kelly’s other ‘editor’ was Curnow.  The novel is bookended by introductory and concluding explanations of its provenance.  At the beginning we are told that the informant responsible for the final shootout did not take part in looting souvenirs afterwards and yet had in his possession a keepsake of the Kelly Outrage, and on the evening of the 28th, thirteen parcels of stained and dog-eared papers, every one of them in Ned Kelly’s distinctive hand, were transported to Melbourne.  

But at the end of the novel in a (purported) pamphlet tells a different story:

If this lack of lasting recognition disappointed him, he never revealed it directly, although the continuing, ever-growing adoration of the Kelly Gang could always engage his passions.

What is it about we Australians, eh? he demanded.  What is 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 make such an embarrassing spectacle of ourselves?

In private, his relationship with Kelly was more complicated, and the souvenir he carried from Glenrowan seems ot have made its own private demands on his sympathy.  The evidence provided by the manuscript suggests that in the years after the Siege of Glenrowan he continued to labour obsessively over the construction of the dead man’s sentences, and it was he who made those small grey pencil marks with which the original manuscript is decorated.  (p.350)

Carey’s Ned Kelly is a complicated man who defies both demonisation and folk hero status. This is a very fine novel indeed, and it was a worthy winner of all its awards!

Update, later the same day: I did wonder how readers not from Australia would react to True History so it’s a pleasure to link to Marianne’s blog for her review.  Marianne lives in Germany but has also lived Belgium, England and the Netherlands!

PS Further Thoughts since Cathy’s comment (below)…

Cathy’s comment triggered the thought that despite his infamy not much is really known about Kelly the man which left Carey free to create an entirely new character.  The character that he crafts — aspects of which can be deduced from the real life Jerilderie letter and which I’ve already noted above — is an example of the amoral self-aggrandisement which can lead any man to believe that he can achieve great things… Thus we see Kelly claiming that the police are in a drama writ by me. 

But the novel also shows that (as in real life) Kelly was not representing a great cause.  His cause was always all about him and his resentments; it was not about making substantive reforms to benefit his society.  Kelly’s allegations in real life and in the novel were that his actions were in self-defence and that the police and judiciary were corrupt, part of British oppression of the Irish transplanted to the colony.  But Carey’s Kelly is no Garibaldi, gathering support for a great cause from common people across the country and creating an army willing to die for that cause. He was no Peter Lalor either.  Carey’s Kelly alludes scornfully to the Eureka Rebellion in 1854, (when he and the real life Kelly were four).  He says that it achieved nothing — which is simply not true since the Eureka miners achieved adult male suffrage with no property qualification and the eventual election to Parliament of their leader Peter Lalor.  The real life Kelly had the vote. So did all the other adult males in his company.  And that must be so for Carey’s characters as well.

Yet in his last days at Glenrowan Carey’s Kelly believes he’s gathering an army of supporters, sharing his resentments and led by him in the persona of Napoleon and revered as a Shakespearean King. These delusions of grandeur make him think that this ‘army’ is forging his (in)famous armour when in fact there were only the four of them in the Kelly Gang, and these other men refused to wear the armour because they couldn’t see or move freely to shoot.

Nevertheless, in the 21st century, when we have had a federal government steadfastly refusing to legislate for a corruption commission, we can perhaps hear the plaintive cry of a man who did not know that his quest should have been for legislative reform that created a mechanism to report on police and judicial corruption.

Author: Peter Carey
Title: True History of the Kelly Gang
Jacket design by Chip Kidd, jacket painting: Landscape (detail) 1947 by Sidney Nolan
Maps and other images not credited.
Publisher: Borzoi Books, Knopf, 2000
ISBN: 9780375410840, hbk 1st edition, 352 pages
Source: Personal library.


Responses

  1. Such a brilliant review. It was almost like reading the novel again.

    You are right, this is in no way an American work, I never would have had that idea. But I’m not surprised. LOL

    Anyway, it is great to see your point of view, it makes the story even more interesting than it was. I have read three books by Peter Carey so far, this one, The Long Way Home and Oscar and Lucinda, I liked them all. He is a good author.

    Will you allow me to include a link to your review in mine (here or maybe you would even like to do it yourself? I think anyone interested in this book should read your review.

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    • Oh thank you Marianne, I have spent two days writing this one so your kind words have made it all worthwhile.
      By all means link to mine from yours, and I will do the same!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m not surprised it took you two days, well, I’m surprised it took you ONLY two days. In any case, I’ll link your review to mine then, I am sure it will be interesting for more people.

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        • Ah well, the two days were days when I didn’t have to do anything else. I’m back to being a hermit because the Covid cases are so high and the deaths are really quite alarming. I’ve had my Winter booster but it hasn’t had time to take effect yet, and anyway, it doesn’t stop you catching it, it just makes it less virulent. So I’m leading a quiet life, which is good because that’s more time for reading and writing.

          Liked by 1 person

          • That does make sense, I am sure you needed two whole days. So sorry to hear about your Covid cases. I know your winter starts. I have some good friends living in Australia and hear from them that things have been taking a turn to the worse again. We are approaching summer and hope to have a somewhat normal life though I doubt that will last longer than the summer.

            We’ve had three shots so far and will get a fourth as soon as they let the over sixties have it. Not taking any chances.

            Liked by 1 person

          • The covid numbers are alarming Lisa, and we hear hardly anything about them and hardly anyone here is wearing a mask.. I’m laying fairly low as well.
            I feel guilty that I’ve never read this, so thanks for the excellent review.

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  2. Wonderful review! What a legend! Book dust jackets existed in the 19th century. My family own a 1891 prayer book with a yellowing dust jacket. I guess the value of the book dictated the amount of exterior protection.

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    • I did not know that about C19th bookjackets!
      But still, do you think that when loose papers were being bound together for safekeeping, rather than as a book for sale, they might just have had hardcover boards?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, you are right, it would have been more basic. I own the 1921 edition of King Anne by Ethel Turner and it is stitched and cotton fabric glued on the cardboard cover. It has stood the test of time but nothing fancy by today’s standards :)

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  4. Ethel Turner wrote about 30 books but was best known for Seven Little Australians which I think is still in print today – probably in paperback format!

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    • I used to show my Y5&6 students an episode from the ABC TV series with Leonard Teale, they were very impressed.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Believe it or not, I used to know Peter Carey while we were both campaigning against the Vietnam War, and before his first published novel.

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    • That was Bliss, and it won the Miles Franklin Award in 1981.
      I wonder if any of his novels deal with the Vietnam War and how it divided Australians…

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  6. I thought this was an excellent novel, but it’s so long since I read it – which was about the time it came out – that I really can’t contribute anything meaningful. But, I can remember being impressed by how Carey captured the language and sustained it in a way that was accessible to us readers. At the time, I was also impressed by Carey’s versatility, in that no novel was like the previous one he’d written.

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    • IMO The only other author who has done an uneducated (Australian) voice as well as this is Alex Miller in Coal Creek.

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      • I still have to read that one (and am keen to because it keeps popping up), but I feel I’ve read a few good ones though my mind is blank blank blank!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post, Lisa! I think I may have read True HIstory twice. ??? I remember when I first read it. I think it was one of the first Australian novels I ever read and then I became enamored of them and eventually read quite a number over the years. I don’t think I ever confused it for an American book (and certainly not some Great American one) but I can see where an unsuspecting American reader might. We do tend to appropriate anything we like or that sounds like us. The US and Australia have a lot in common geographically and historically with an English gloss on so much. I did love the book though.

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    • It’s really nice to think that this is the book that set you on the path to reading OzLit:)
      I can’t really account for not having read it before. I’d been Carey since his first novel Bliss, but then when he wrote Jack Maggs I didn’t like it much. I just stopped reading his books.
      But I went on buying them, so I have Theft, My Life as a Fake, His Illegal Self, Amnesia, and Illywhacker on the TBR. So now I realise I’ve got some catch-up reading to do!

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  8. Like Sue, I read this when it first came out, and all I can now remember is how much I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the voice, the flirting between fact, fiction and myth-making. But I didn’t know about the first edition copy – that is rather special.

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    • I didn’t dare take it to read in bed. I sat at the dining table well away from my coffee cup and in no danger of a stray muffin crumb making its way between the pages!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I was forced to write up True History for my degree. I loathed it then and I loathe it now. I can’t stand Carey’s attempt at authentic language, nor Ned Kelly’s totally unnecessary wife. The only thing it has going for it is it’s depiction of the Irish as an underclass.

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    • Oh Bill, that’s disappointing.
      Actually, I think it’s a more-than-reasonable assumption that a healthy and handsome young man like NK was having his way with young women, and one or other of them was bound to have had a child even if she kept it dark that it was his.

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  10. A Great American Novel??? That’s a preposterous idea but yet another example of how a certain kind of American sees everything from a US perspective.
    Your reviews are always insightful but I think you’ve surpassed yourself with this one Lisa. I really enjoyed about three quarters of this book. Then I started to find it tiresome. Carey’s control of the narrative voice was brilliant though.

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    • Well, as you see, I thought it was absurd too. But then, look at the marketer’s task: it’s to muster interest in a novel set in a place most Americans couldn’t find on a map, in a country whose history they don’t know. Linking it to a Clint Eastwood sort of western is, I agree, daft, but from a marketing PoV, it’s sheer genius.

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  11. A very comprehensive review here! All told, I don’t think I’ll be reading this. I truly dislike characters (and people) who blame all their wrong doings and troubles on everyone except themselves. Sure, sometimes we do get shafted, but that doesn’t excuse a life of crime and murder.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, but you see, that is what I think is so clever about what Carey has done here. Readers with a sneaking admiration for Kelly would pick it up thinking that it’s going to confirm their ideas about their ‘hero’. And then Carey carefully, subtly, sabotages that view, and not in a heavy-handed way or those admirers would cast the book aside.
      In the beginning those readers get what they were expecting in Kelly’s own ‘voice’ but then gradually a picture begins to build up to show more of the ruthless, brutal, violent man he must have been.
      At the same time, by showing Kelly as a man with all his flaws Carey humanises him, not to make excuses for him, but to show what a tragic waste the whole sorry saga is.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Great book, I also loved Jack Maggs

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    • TBH I’m wondering if I should read that one again. I wasn’t keen on it, but I’m a different sort of reader now…

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    • Yes, I loved Jack Maggs too. A lot of people say they don’t,Lisa, and I often wonder why.

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  13. It’s not high on my reading list, largely because I’m appalled at treating a thief and murderer as a folk hero. I realise that this is not what Peter Carey is trying to do, but I just find the Ned Kelly myth distasteful in general.

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    • Well, that’s why I like the novel, because it tackles that myth. No one who reads it will ever forget those murders.

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  14. I read this over twenty years ago but remember being really impressed. I also think it kick started my love of fictional novels about real people.

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    • I’m not usually too keen on those, too often they too slavishly follow the life, and often they are offshoots of family history or a PhD. But for all that he was so (in)famous not much is really known about Kelly and Carey was free to create his own story.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. This is such a brilliant review, Lisa, you may have actually convinced me to give this one another try. I tried to read it when it first came out in hardcover but after multiple attempts, I abandoned it. I was a different reader then and think I’d now probably appreciate it a bit better. This was one of those books featured in The Books That Made US TV series and I’m sure Carey said he used the Jerilderie letter as inspiration for the grammatical style and tone of voice employed throughout the novel. Unfortunately, that series is no longer on iView so I can’t check exactly what he said but I remember thinking that if only I’d known that at the time of my attempted reading I might have been more forgiving… I always like it when authors do things like that.

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    • I guess you weren’t in Australia at the time kimbofo? Because the Jerilderie letter inspiration was in all the local interviews and articles. Readers here would have been hard put to miss it. I can see how not knowing that would have made the whole thing a bit mystifying.

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      • I was in the UK and was given it as a Christmas present.

        Liked by 1 person

    • LOL Kim, the book of that series is available now and you could sneak a peek at the relevant page in the bookshop *wink*

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      • I think the book is vastly different to the TV series, but you’re right, I could take a peek. I actually keep meaning to buy a copy but other things keep catching my eye instead.

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