Sex, death and Ned Kelly: How love fits into the legend

One from the archives! Yes, an essay. BUT, not full of jargon or padding and I’m posting it because the love for the works shines through it even 14 years after I wrote it. These two paperbacks – first, Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, in which Ned Kelly tells his own story of the man behind the mask, in the idiom of the famous Jerilderie letter; second, Sister Kate, about the girl whose family loyalty would destroy her, have survived every Minimalism Purge since, and remain in pride of place at home. It’s books like this that opened my eyes to what literature can do. If you’ve already read one or both, enjoy this deep-dive revisit; to me, the quoted passages have lost none of their power in the years since they were published. If you haven’t, maybe you’ll be intrigued! I’ll be happy to lend you mine.

So without further ado, on to the sex and death…

In Sister Kate and The True History of the Kelly Gang, women’s experiences of love are represented as inextricably bound with the experience of death: of being part of the Kelly legend itself. Love is intense, physical and fleeting, snatched in the private moments that don’t have a place in the grand Kelly narrative. However, these moments of rare peace and joy seem inevitably overshadowed by the reality of life inside the legend – the Kelly gang, their husbands and lovers, are committed to their internal loves and ties within the family and the gang, and seem fated to a cycle of pride and revenge that causes the destruction and death of both their loves and themselves. The salvation that love represents is ultimately sacrificed.

Love in these two novels is experienced in the background of a high-drama, high-octane story. Moments of peace are snatched and never figure in the Kelly’s grand plan, as Ned says in the Kelly Gang; “I told her I had never imagined marrying anyone but now I could imagine what a peaceful life a man might have”. He can see Mary only rarely and when the police are searching for the gang must come to see her briefly, under cover of darkness and constant threat of discovery. Love becomes a thing as desperate and hunted as the Kellys themselves. “All I could think were to lay with her one last time I were mad as a dog and didnt care the traps was meanwhile humming like a hive of bees not 400yd. away”. Loving encounters are based on the first thrilling days of sexual desire, and this intense physicality also has a desperate quality. The whole tone of the book suggests that love must come in high concentration, as another chance to be close might never come.

There is a similar situation in the love of Kate Kelly and Joe Byrne in Sister Kate. Their relationship exists almost exclusively at night or under cover, over a few occasions, and physical contact has to bear all of the significance because they have neither the time nor the liberty to take things any slower. A sense of hushed urgency pervades every encounter. “He came later when the others were asleep, with his hand on his lips in case he startled me awake…before dawn he slid away…I did not look at Joe but my body sensed his near all day, as it does when you are caught up in that madness of the flesh that we call love”. One of the last times Kate is able to spend alone with him they spend in a lean-to in the bush and this experience is as high-voltage and intense as the first;

“Our bodies clung, and we kissed and kissed until it felt that we drained out of ourselves and into each other. Sometime in the night I woke and he was sitting on the bed watching me, a look of such tenderness on his face that I have never seen before or since on anyone. If I was not already melted that look would have destroyed me”.

Immediately after dawn Kate must be awakened with the news that they have to get up and ride a full day – the show must go on, so to speak, and love must be snatched in the available time. As Kate says before she goes to see the gang in the bush for the first time, “If I had not grabbed my chance at happiness then it would have been too late”. This sense that time is precious characterises all of the love experienced in both books and the moments of stolen intimacy become rarer and more dangerous as the Kelly noose gets tighter. They are offset by long periods of isolation, worry, poverty and hardship for the women when the men are absent, hiding in the bush or horse-stealing, or in prison.

In both books, the descriptions of horses and riding are visual symbols of the freedom of sex and love against an ominous backdrop. The characters feel an exhilaration, peace and joy on horseback that is also found in their rare encounters with each other, and in Sister Kate and the Kelly Gang, Kate and Mary are both associated with horses, symbols of beauty, liberty and also fragility – moments stolen with them are akin to the horse-stealing the men are constantly accused of.

As Ned describes Mary, “She were a foal…she swayed and hummed a little song about a girl who dreamt of great white horses”. They are a symbol of the hope and possibility of flight, of the escape that love represents in their otherwise grim lives. When Ned’s daughter is born, he receives a telegram, encrypted for security from the enclosing police, that simply says “DAM AND FILLY AT PASTURE IN SAN FRANCISCO FEED IS PLENTIFUL”. Ned and his friends and family celebrate with a show of exuberant riding.

“My daughter it were you. You was born…Galloping in a circle round the paddock then a figure 8 I stood astride the mare one legged my pistols in my hands and all the boys stared…Then what a show of riding they put on to welcome you and what a knees up promptly followed”.

In Sister Kate as well, horses represent the happiness, freedom and independence Kate gets from her secret visits to the gang in the bush, where most of her few memories of Joe are made. She calls riding “the only sheer pleasure any of us really ever knew”. Later, after the death of Joe and Ned and she is living at home again after her illness, she cannot face the countryside and the love it represents – “She knew she could not remain where she had ridden with Joe Byrne and her brothers almost everywhere”. The horses Kate remembers are symbols of her lost hopes of happiness. She searches the horizon every morning, “where the brothers often rode across the border with Joe Byrne; watching the first sun lightening the valleys, straining for what I knew I would never see – the growing shapes of four men on their horses”.

Even after her marriage, Kate finds horses still a comfort and associates with them this past happiness. They are still present in her life at the period she recalls where hope is still possible for a complete life without Joe.

“After Freddie was born we took over the livery stables in Rankin Street, and some of that time is still clear in my mind. How I loved that familiar smell of the horses, even our clothing was saturated with it. It was a brief space of great contentment to me, working, riding, grooming, feeding, the baby in his basket beside me, or later toddling around underfoot, him knowing the rhythms of a horse before he could walk, as we all did. But, of course, as my mother always said, the good times do not last and it is only foolishness to think that they will”.

This prediction is proved by Kate’s slow deterioration as the years go by. There is a sense of inevitability about both novels in which the lives and relationships of the Kellys and their loves move inexorably towards destruction. Shadow, once bought her by a man she thought she might be happy with after Joe and kept throughout Kate’s marriage, is sold by Kate in a final gesture of apathy and defeat – a sister and lover of members of the Kelly Gang, her life and identity is touched by them still long after they are gone. “I did not ride myself – I did not seem to have the heart for it – so they used the mare in the livery stables in return for her keep. I have sold her now. I could not bear any longer the reproachful looks she gave when I walked past”.

The legacy of the Kelly family is made clear in both novels; women experience not only love but a family and the “gang”, both of which possess internal loves and loyalties that are inextricably bound up with their men. In the Kelly Gang, Mary cannot love a Kelly without becoming one and dealing with these loyalties – she has to accept and exist alongside Ned’s commitment to both the gang and to his mother – in Ned’s words, him and his mother were “grown together like two branches of an old wisteria”.

Kate struggles to understand and respect the ties between Joe and the other gang members that seem to shut her out, and also the hold that being a Kelly has on her own identity – by name as well as by choice, to Ned and Joe together, she is tied to the legend and this tie cannot be broken by all of her name-changes and wanderings. Her attempts to live a life detached from the memories are defeated at every turn.

There is a certain blurring of the lines usually drawn between love of family, friends and lovers in these novels, and the women must cope with these altered boundaries. It is hinted in the Kelly Gang that Ned’s love for his mother goes beyond the filial – his love for her appears the highest priority, and he attempts to protect her from her wayward husbands with something akin to jealousy. His need to have her released from prison becomes, seemingly, more important than his need to be with Mary. As he is taunted by his own brother Dan, and held up mockingly in comparison to his mother’s husband;

“True said he your ma is your donah as everybody knows.

Shutup.

Hubba hubba Mamma is your girl…you got a grudge against George cause he married your girl.

“The coppers dropped about a chain behind us but that was close enough to hear my brother declare George King a better horse thief than I would ever be”.

This passage, as well as illustrating the complexity of the ties between Ned and his mother, also is another example of the many that forge a continuing connection between love, women, horses and horse-stealing.

There is a similar preoccupation in Sister Kate with the nature of relationships between family members, and also within that limitlessly significant area of love, intimacy and loyalty known as “mateship” to all Australians and embodied by the boys in the gang. It is suggested that being a Kelly means being far above and beyond what human beings are normally called to do to survive, that unusual relationships have grown out of this. Like transvestitism is continually brought up and contested in the Kelly Gang, and remains a site of unresolved conflict, Sister Kate deals with questions of incest and homosexuality, with consideration to how this is significant in terms of the wider concerns of these books – what it was that set the Kellys and their loves apart. As Kate says,

“They loved my brother. They loved him as much as men can love other men without it being the disgusting thing that Aaron Sherritt later suggested. I do not know what physical release men can find together, but I cannot believe it is the mockery Aaron made it out. Not that I think they loved like that – yet, maybe they did…now I hope there were the times when they moaned away their need and their fear in each other’s arms. Love is where you find it, and we cannot always be the ones to choose…”

The issue of choice is an important one – both novels are pervaded by a sense of fate, of the injustice which is a form of fate because they argue that persecution is brought upon them by a name and not by themselves; as Ned is put into prison for the first time, he says “I knew I were finally in that place ordained from the moment of my birth”. All of the characters are thrown into a narrative that seems greater than themselves, that they rail against, but swear to fight, and in doing so complete their own prophecies. The women are exposed to loves outside the ordinary, but there is a sense that this way of life was not chosen but forced upon them, and they have reacted by loving in newer ways, with different loyalties.

This is why Ned resents being made to choose between his mother and Mary; and why he makes the choice that we find strange, even slightly wrong; his mother over his wife. As seen in this argument between him and Mary before Mary leaves to have their baby in safety,

“Is it true do you really love her more than me?

It aint the same…

But you promised to buy our passage once the bank was robbed.

I cannot abandon my mother Mary you know that.

Then what of me?

What of you?”

The tension also shows when Mary travels to the hiding place of the men and tells them the story of Molly’s children; Ned is clearly torn between his friends and Mary as their differences of opinion are raised and Joe is rude to Mary.

A similar situation is seen in Sister Kate; Kate Byrne is forced by this conflict to leave Aaron Sheritt because he is a traitor to the gang. As Kate tells her of what is believed about Aaron, Kate realises the consequences;

“Her face closed. You may love someone more than your own family, but you may never admit it.

“My mother wants me to break with him. She says if I marry a man who betrays my brother I’ll be cast out of the family forever”…We walked back and when we came to our clearing she would not stop for tea but galloped off with her head high and her jaw clenched, straight to Aaron, I think, to tell him she did not want to associate any more with her brother’s enemy”.

 

The blurring of the boundaries between wife and mother are shown too in the confusing in both books of Mary and Ned’s mother, and in the kind of love Kate feels for Joe. In the Kelly Gang, Ned is given to descriptions of his mother, particularly on horseback, as a young and attractive woman, full of spirit, and the observation is often one that could be from any man, rather than from her son. He also mistakes the figure of Mary for his mother – “that crow black hair that white skin and in my confusion imagined that it must be my mother made free. I felt a bolt of joy the worry lifting off me. Ma I shouted…but the woman heard my cry she turned and to my shock it were Mary Hearn”.

In Sister Kate, the lines distinguishing mother and lover are also complex, and faintly disturbing as throughout the book Kate’s love for Joe is linked to her maternal instinct – it appears that when Joe dies, her ability to love her children is also impaired. This link is first made clear early on when Kate remembers her love affair in its earliest days;

“Since I have had children I recognise that urge I had then to crush his face to my breast, to protect him from everything. Why did I not act? I was in limbo myself, holding to him, waiting on his decisions, like a mother letting him come to me. Perhaps I knew, somewhere, that I could do nothing”.

The echoes of the implications formed by these feelings are seen later in the book. Kate is distant from her children. She refuses to breastfeed, in direct contrast to the feelings she describes in the above quotation, and becomes less and less competent at caring for her children. This reflects a shattering of her protective urge and ultimately her belief in love against the forces of life, or fate; unable to form this bond with her children, she chooses to leave them and rejoin her place in the Kelly legend, just as Joe once chose a life other than one with her.

Women’s experiences of love in these two novels centre around this trope of love in spite of everything. Love is what defies the hostile world that relentlessly closes in on the Kellys and everyone they care about. Yet love exists in opposition to it and so only exists in this form because of it; they know they will never lead a quiet life, that they are doomed to persecution and harassment, violence and brutality always, and so in the heart of every person in question there lies the assumption that love, although a beautiful and liberating thing, will not be what endures. Love is something to be snatched in the face of disaster, in the remaining moments before an inevitable catastrophe. This tone is preserved in both novels; from the structure of Sister Kate in which we know throughout that Joe Byrne dies and Kate will go mad with grief, and from the unmistakable, drawn-out beginning of her decline. There is a stony promise in words like;

“It should have been the death of all my hopes then, what I saw by the light of the fire and the dying sun in that clearing, but it would still take many months for the end to be complete, for the hunters to have their kill”.

In the Kelly Gang also, a great deal is made of the issue of fate, and Ned’s reminiscent tone to his daughter is used often to point out to her that a happy memory was the calm before the storm, that a certain mistake was to cost him highly and all the way through that Ned was hunted for who he was and not what he did, and that he was destined to seek revenge for the collected injustice of years. There is an increasing tone of desperation to these asides; and they are worded in powerful and uncompromising ways. He describes his mother’s selection as they ride past: “All them dead and ringbarked trees was the grave of honest hope”.

And in a particularly chilling description of his brother Dan: “Dan were sitting in front of the fire with his back to us but now he stood his bright eyes shining from his dirty face this were a boy no longer but a Kelly burnt and hardened by the fates”.

The path of revenge, not of love, is the one eventually chosen by the gang. The ties between mates and family are the ones that remain until death; love remains impossible. The women internalise the Kelly legend but it in return leaves them out. In Sister Kate Kate puts this conflict and the ultimate choice into words;

“I think they were all relieved to see me go so that they could spring back into their hard, passionate struggle against the earth. Even Joe, though he held me so tight I could not breathe when he left me in the foothills, the tears running down his haggard cheeks. I think now that he fought a battle with what he thought was the soft side of his nature, and somewhere he was happy to be able to relinquish what I offered, though he did not say this. We made and remade our vows, crossing our fingers against the inevitable, always talking of ‘When it is all over’. Well, I truly half believed that soon it might be and that we would be together somewhere. Right up until the end I tried to cling to that hope, and perhaps it would have been better if I’d let it go then, into the mist and the swirling snow, as his form became shadow and disappeared”.

A metaphor for this ultimate choice can be found in the Kelly Gang in Mary’s description of Molly’s Children, as she explains to them why Steve should not be wearing women’s clothes, as it is a mark of loyalty to an Irish group that took their revenge on a Lord they could not confront by torturing and killing his horse.

“They done to the horse what they dare not do to its master. The stick were sharpened to a point then hardened in the fire and the man with the wren mask thrust it in the horse’s belly…she heard grown men blame the horse for taking their common land they said the proof were having Ireland on his head and they demanded of the poor beast why they should not take Ireland back from him. Much horror the girl saw and heard the horse were shrieking horribly”.

As Mary tries to dissuade the gang from the path of violence in the name of an oppression they cannot confront directly the threads of a larger narrative are seen in this story. Eventually, in both novels, horses suffer. The Lord’s horse is tortured to death, Kate goes to work in a circus that pretends to cure horses of ills they have caused by tormenting them before the show. Later Kate sells her Shadow, and in the Kelly Gang the men are reduced, in the final denouement, to eating their beloved horses to survive. The descent of the Kelly gang and their loves in this way is a metaphor for the growing power of their quest for revenge and an impossible justice over all else – they make the choice to injure and leave their women, and horses, and this marks the beginning of the end. Women’s experiences of love are subject to the knowledge that they will be sacrificed in commitment to another ideal.

The writers use powerful symbols throughout to associate these twin heights of emotion, joy and pain. Kate’s wedding flowers are bought from an undertaker and her child, whom she planned to call Joseph in a final blurring of the mother-lover lines, is “born dead after so much pain and blood”.

However, not the least factor in these novels is what we bring to them as readers familiar with the Ned Kelly legend. Whatever is contested or mythologised, every version of this chameleon legend has its common factor; the irrefutable deaths of the Kelly gang. We are hyper-aware of this; death makes the Kelly legend what it is. Any exploration of a woman’s experience of love here must exist alongside the knowledge that this love will be cut short in violence. Love and death are inextricably intertwined, and this is perhaps the most crucial and meaningful part of the representation of love in both Sister Kate and the True History of the Kelly Gang.