Sister Kate is about the life of Kate Kelly, sister to the infamous bushranger, Ned Kelly. You’ve heard of Ned Kelly, even if you aren’t from Australia and may not be familiar with other aspects of our culture and history; even if you haven’t heard of Kate Kelly, herself, or any of Ned Kelly’s other gang members like Steve Hart or Joe Byrne. There have been more books published and movies made about Ned Kelly than any other Australian. Even Mick Jagger portrayed Ned Kelly in the 1970 version by Tony Richardson. It was an odd bit of casting. Since then Ned Kelly has been portrayed by Heath Ledger as well as John Jarret (from the Wolf Creek films) and last year Justin Kurzel produced True History of the Kelly Gang based on Peter Carey’s Booker Prize winning novel. The Story of the Kelly Gang, produced in 1906, was the world’s first feature film. Today, Ned, pictured in his armour, beaten into shape from stolen ploughshares, is iconic. The story of the shootings at Stringybark Creek, of the raids on Jerilderie and Euroa, and the siege at Glenrowan, have become the stuff of legend and controversy. Ned Kelly’s enigmatic last words before his hanging:
Such is life adorn the back of many pick-up trucks, as an emblem of independence and rebellion.
Kate Kelly, on the other hand, has largely been background to her brother’s story. Jean Bedford’s Sister Kate lifts her from the scenery. In Ned Kelly’s legend, the focus on Kate has been mostly limited to an incident with a police officer, Constable Fitzpatrick, who went to the Kelly house with a warrant for the arrest of Dan Kelly, Ned’s brother, for horse stealing. Dan wasn’t at home so the constable waited. When Dan returned, Fitzpatrick arrested him but agreed to let him have his dinner before departing. Upon returning home, Ned Kelly shot Fitzpatrick in the wrist. Naturally, there are conflicting stories. Ned Kelly denied being at home during the incident, saying he was two hundred kilometres away at the time. It was further alleged that Fitzpatrick had been drinking and had made a pass at Kate. The accusation became a further reason for the Kelly family’s hatred of the police who often watched them and their property. Sydney Nolan, who produced a famous series of paintings based on Ned Kelly, portrayed Fitzpatrick’s alleged attempt at seduction in these two paintings:
Kate Kelly Pursued by Constable Fitzpatrick (1945) and Constable Fitzpatrick and Kate Kelly (1946) by Sydney Nolan
For these reasons, no matter how much Bedford wishes to tell the story of a woman from history who has received little attention, she can never really make Kate the star of her stage. In later life, after Ned and his gang were killed or executed (Ned Kelly was executed by hanging at Melbourne Gaol) Kate took to stage work. She was an accomplished horse breaker and rider, able to perform stunts on the backs of horses for audiences. But Bedford’s Kate first trades upon her notoriety and later finds it difficult to maintain a career when she seeks anonymity. She becomes a barmaid, a domestic worker and finally a wife.
And this is really the weakness of this novel. There have been many accomplished women in history who have been overlooked, but Kate Kelly wasn’t one of them. Divided into three parts, the novel uses over a third of its length to recount the events that lead to the siege at Glenrowan and the deaths of the Kelly gang. Kate remains a marginal figure. She takes some supplies and messages to the gang hidden away in the bush, but the most fundamental aspect of her character is that she becomes Joe Byrne’s lover. Her critical scene in the history – the alleged attempt at seduction by Fitzpatrick – does not happen. The closest Bedford is willing to go to this story prior to Dan’s arrest is when Kate expresses the belief,
Fitzpatrick was said to have his eye on me. Other than that, the novel engages in character assassination:
Constable Fitzpatrick was the scum of the earth. How people could say there was anything between us I do not know. Furthermore, Kate tells us he was,
a drunk, a liar and a braggart… As in real life, the allegation against Fitzpatrick doesn’t happen until after the arrests, and is phrased in generalities:
I never told Ned how Fitzpatrick would try to take my arm…;
When he let go of me I would run sobbing, nearly choking, into the scrub… Neither time, place nor circumstances are specified. It is a real weakness of the novel that the incident remains ambiguous, given that we are in the hands of a first-person narrator. If we step back for a moment, forgetting that we are dealing with history and Kate Kelly, then it is not hard to draw a conclusion that we are in the hands of an unreliable narrator.
This would normally be fine, but attitudes about the Kellys remain divided in Australia. Some have called for Ned Kelly to receive a pardon. One man claimed to have Kelly’s skull – it has been missing for decades, even though the rest of Kelly’s remains have now been found and identified – saying he would return it if a pardon was granted. On the other hand, others argue Kelly was a vicious killer and was no hero. So, there is no escaping the fact that a novel like this is also political. Bedford's sympathies clearly lie with the Kellys. Yet her treatment of Kate Kelly’s story feels like vacillation. By refusing to categorically commit to a version, she tries to balance credibility against interest. If Kate’s honour is not tried, does she have any relevance to the circumstances that set Ned Kelly and his gang on their fateful path? Furthermore, is her story worthy of our attention?
This is the question with which I struggled most as I read Kate Kelly’s story. The middle section of the novel is a mess. It’s not the kind of narrative anyone would be interested in writing if it weren’t based on someone’s life, and it wasn’t particularly interesting to read. Kate moves aimlessly from one relationship to another, from one friendship and one job to another. Not much comes of it in the way of narrative progression, except to remind us that Kate has a history which she cannot escape. She is still in love with Joe Byrne, and all her relationships will be measured against her romanticising of Joe. Characters come and go, mostly in the space of a few pages. Some betray Kate, some die on her. We never really get to know them so it’s hard to care.
What is clear is that the compelling story at the heart of Sister Kate is still the one that history already knows, the rise and fall of the Kelly gang, rather than Kate's story. The third part of the novel manages to progress Kate’s story. We learn of her marriage to Ben Farmer, and her decline due to alcoholism and drug dependency. This, in itself, could have been the basis for a stronger novel. I think Bedford could have trusted her readers more – that they might know something of Kate’s background – without spending so long recounting the outlaw story in the first part. As it turns out, the most relevant aspects of Kate’s association with Ned Kelly and his gang are recounted in the third section, anyway: their plans for a new life in California; her desire for Joe. But by this stage the novel is almost over. I was left feeling that Bedford needed to imaginatively insert herself into Kate’s story and flesh it out. At its weakest, the book feels like a recount. Her narrative technique is not consistent, either. For instance, there are some distracting changes from first- to third-person narrative which are sometimes jarring in this last section. Yet there are more successful scenes, like when Kate attends an exhibition based on the Kelly gang and then its associated a dramatic performance. When the troupe leader tries to capitalise on Kate’s presence by revealing her identity to the audience, her horror is palpable and her slide back to alcoholism believable. Kate’s growing obsession with the memory of Joe, likewise, is a believable cause for her declining mental state.
Whether you think Kate Kelly’s story is worthy of a novel may depend upon your attitude to feminist revision. Had Kate Kelly not been the sister of a notorious outlaw, she would have been lost to history. Yet, you might reason, that is why stories like Kate’s are relevant. She suffered loss, rejection and pain as many women did in her time, and by telling her story Bedford is also telling us something about the lives of those women, too. It’s tricky, but I have to agree that these kinds of stories should be told. Yet, as much as possible, they should be about the lives of the women. I recently reviewed a non-fiction book about the lives of the victims of Jack the Ripper. The killer is barely mentioned, except in the final pages that cover their deaths. Other than that, we learn about who they were, their backgrounds, their difficulties, their hopes and disappointments. They are brought back to life on their own terms. I guess I was expecting more of that sort of thing from this book. These stories need to be told. But they also need to be more compelling.
This extract from the 1906 The Story of the Kelly Gang, thought to be the world's first feature film, dramatises the moment when Constable Fitzpatrick is meant to have assaulted Kate Kelly
Sister to Ned Kelly, Kate would later perform in Wild West style shows. She was an accomplished horse breaker and rider.
Joe Byrne was a member of Ned Kelly's Gang and Kate Kelly's lover. In Bedford'd novel, Kate is disturbed by images of the Kelly gang, particularly Joe, taken after they were dead.
Kate Kelly's brother
This photo was taken during Ned Kelly's incarceration in Melbourne Gaol
The iconic Ned Kelly, portrayed in a newspaper sketch, at the siege of Glenrowan
The moment of Ned Kelly's capture, as portrayed by this newspaper sketch. Ned Kelly was the only one of the gang not to die during the stand-off with police
This image portrays the moments before Ned Kelly's hanging in Melbourne Gaol. The gaol is now a tourist attraction. This depiction accurately depicts what can still to be seen in the gaol. The door to the left is the entrance to a tiny room, only a couple of feet from the hangman's noose, where Ned Kelly spent his final night.
Ned Kelly's iconic helmet
Ned Kelly's capture site
There is little to see in Glenrowan today. This effigy is all that remains to show the place Ned Kelly was captured by police.
Site of the Glenrowan Inn
Nothing remains of the Glenrowan Inn except this replica sign and a vacant lot. The Inn was burned down during the siege. Steve Hart's and Dan Kelly's burned corpses were later found in the remains of the Inn.
The sign reads: The above signboard is a replica of the original which was erected here in 1874. The front veranda of the inn to which police laid siege on June 28th 1880 extended westward from this place to the corner of Siege Street and Beaconsfield Parade.
The Kelly house at Greta
This chimney is all that remains of the Kelly house at Greta where Constable Fitzpatrick is alleged to have tried to seduce Kate. Evidence for the seduction is slim. Kate didn't make the accusation until ten months after. Ned Kelly dismissed it as
a foolish story.