HarperCollins Publishers (ABC Books), 2017, 624 pp., ISBN: 9780733331572, h/bk, AUS$39.99
Bestselling author Grantlee Kieza’s latest work, Mrs Kelly: The Astonishing Life of Ned Kelly’s Mother, is a biography of Ellen Kelly (c1832-1923). Although ostensibly documenting the life of Mrs Ellen Kelly, this book is the latest addition to the corpus of materials on one of Australia’s most controversial criminals: Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly.
There is an obvious tension within this work. The idea of an independent and very feisty woman – one who was prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to support herself and her family – conflicts with the inescapable fact that Mrs Kelly is a woman defined by the men in her immediate circle, even as some of the more difficult experiences of her life see those men absent. One example of the isolation often felt by Ellen Kelly is presented, poignantly, when Kieza describes her situation in 1878: “Ellen begins to make a new home for herself and baby Alice in the cold stone confines of Melbourne Gaol and resolves to cause no trouble, so as to make life for both of them as bearable as she can” (p.274). Meanwhile, her son continues to write a bloody chapter in Australian history. So, the woman presented on the cover – a striking photograph of Ellen Kelly dominates the work’s dust jacket – is at once the central protagonist and a secondary character. Ellen’s image appears confident and forthright but is offered, on the front panel, with a framed portrait of her son behind her. Indeed, in this work Ned Kelly is never far from the reader’s line of vision.
Kieza has fleshed out this biography with copious amounts of creative content. For instance, in telling the tale of Ned Kelly’s last stand, he describes “Ned’s eyes [as] blazing red. His voice booms from inside his helmet with a metallic echo” (p. 407). Similarly, there is a great deal of dialogue that has been generated to drive the action of this story forward. Some readers might find this distracting. They are compensated, however, by some rigorous endnotes that make it easy to differentiate between the historical record and Kieza’s extrapolations.
It’s a hefty effort, coming in at 624 pages, supplemented by 16 pages of glossy photographs that are, today, obligatory for the genres of biography and true crime. There are also pictures throughout the text, supplementing the twin stories of Ellen Kelly and her son Ned.
The history of Ned Kelly and the Kelly Gang is complicated by decades of debate resulting from numerous large-scale emotional and intellectual investments made into this, the most famous bushranger narrative, of the colonial era. Venturing into such a contested space is a tough task: anyone taking on the challenge of adding to bookshelves already groaning under the weight of the ‘Kelly Legend’ is to be applauded. To be able to take one of the women from this history, and place her (as far as possible) centre stage, is especially praiseworthy. This book is essential for any collector of Kellyana. This book would appeal too to anyone interested in the way some women lived, and survived, in areas far from major metropolises in a period when Australia changed dramatically. As Kieza notes on the dust jacket’s back panel, Ellen Kelly was: “Wife of a convict. Mother to outlaws. Witness to history.” Having stood so close to heart of the bushranger story, Mrs Kelly lived long enough to see the bushranging era brought to an, almost clinical, end with the hanging of her oldest son. She also lived long enough to see her son become a part of the national narrative; it is only right that her story is also told.
Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, November 2017
For a preview of the book or to purchase online, visit the HarperCollins Australia website here