Mrs Kelly - The astonishing life of Ned Kelly's Mother
The taglines on the back cover are succinct:
"Ellen Kelly. Wife of a convict. Mother to outlaws. Witness to history".
The book, however, is anything but, a hefty hardback of 616 pages and unless readers have strong wrists, I'd recommend waiting for the paperback version or read it on a Kindle.
Gather together a group of diverse Australians to discuss whether bushranger Ned Kelly was a folk hero or just a sadistic criminal and you are very likely to end up with a heated argument as most people tend to see him firmly in one light or the other.
Ellen King, formerly Kelly (nee Quinn), the woman who gave him life, also has a prismatic quality about her. She'd come from extreme poverty and violence in Ireland only to face the same, if not worse, in Australia. Said to be a fearless horsewoman who could ride like the wind, she was full of Irish passion and fiercely loyal to her own kith and kin. During her lifetime of 91 years, she was witness to Australia's transition from a collection of convict colonies into a modern nation, living long enough to witness planes flying overhead and motor vehicles hurtling along what would become the Hume Highway, the main road between Melbourne and Sydney.
In spite of its title, this epic work isn't all about Ellen and for most of its length includes an almost day-by-day journalistic account of Ned Kelly's spurious activities from an early age plus those of his extensive relatives, friends and enemies, as well as a sundry assortment of shop-keepers, bank managers, politicians, law-makers and law-breakers. There are passages of fictional dialogue and occasionally some truly spectacular purple prose, e.g. this description of Ned when thwarted in Jerilderie:
"The veins in his head are like angry snakes writhing about. His eyes are the colour of rubies and rolling around liked loaded dice."
Ellen lingers in the background, mostly a conduit for all these comings and goings, with her roughly-built cottage being the transit point for events all while she was busy putting up with drunken husbands or lovers, having babies in rapid succession, trying to scratch a living from stubborn earth, keep food on the table and some semblance of order with the squabbling family, lawlessness and general chaos around her. She was blamed for hitting Alexander Fitzpatrick, a policeman, over the head with a shovel for which she was sent to gaol. This was the trigger for Ned's rage at Stringybark Creek and which led to his eventual downfall in the famous iron-clad shoot-out at Glenrowan.
These latter exploits have been written about so many times before that only a die-hard Kelly enthusiast would want to wallow through them in any depth. I must admit to speed-reading a lot of this, my main interest being in trying to get to grips with Ellen herself if at all possible. There are attempts to show us what Ellen might have been thinking in certain situations, particularly when she was working in the laundry at the Melbourne Gaol as her son swung from the gallows a few feet away, but she remains elusive.
While I am most certainly not of the opinion that only male authors should write about men, female ones about women, sometimes a woman's own personal experiences can help in writing about another woman's journey. I particularly wanted to know how Ellen, already a grandmother at aged 46 and arrested just three days after the difficult birth of her own 12th child, coped with imprisonment and removal from her other children. Those first few days after birth are never easy, let alone the round-the-clock demands of an infant. In a prison where you might be allowed to wash yourself once a week, how did you manage to look after a baby that generates soil daily? Even if Ellen was already used to a spartan life of great hardship, this treatment of her and her little daughter was truly horrific.
Ned, of course, used his mother's imprisonment to excuse his rampages and murder of three policemen and within these pages a lot of Kelly myths are challenged. He wasn't the anti-establishment "Robin Hood" hero that his supporters believe him to be, but a self-serving, nasty piece of work. The fact that the majority of his victims were individuals also of Irish heritage, many just trying to establish peaceful lives in a new and challenging environment and were not the English imperialists he loathed, says a great deal. What he did to the three men at Stringybark Creek - and his attitudes afterwards - seals the answer for me. That said, not all the Kelly genes were bad and there is some irony that Ned's half-brother John King became a policeman.
Perhaps because Ellen didn't write and leave any personal expression behind in the way of memoirs or letters, she must remain a bit of a mystery and in spite of all these many pages, I don't feel I have gained any greater insight into her apart from what I've read previously in much simpler or concise booklets published by local historical histories and museums, so it left me wanting.
There were no winners when it comes to the other women caught in this saga. Bridget Kennedy and Maria Lonigan, wives of two of the policemen killed by Ned Kelly, both lost babies after they discovered their husbands had been murdered. Their lives were just as fraught with difficulties and filled with tragedy as Ellen's and because, like their husbands, their names are not recognised, for me they are the forgotten true heroines of this shambolic history.
Five stars for its research and scholarship, but only three for its perceptions.
For those interested in how the Kelly myth still has the power to divide communities in Australia today, here are links to a couple of articles, including excellent speeches made by the top cop of the State of Victoria and a descendant of Sergeant Kennedy.