A Conversation with Jean Bedford and the ghost of Kate Kelly

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I’ve always been equal parts curious and enchanted by the mythology around Australia’s bushrangers. As a child, I was particularly enthralled with the story of Ned Kelly and his family and on a family holiday visited a highly surreal reconstruction of the Siege of Glenrowan with robotic-type figures and sound effects to make the siege real. Jean Bedford published Sister Kate in 1982 and has recently been published as an e-book for the first time. Jean kindly had a chat to me about Kate, her family and the power of the story upon her own and the national psyche.

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Sister Kate tells story of Kate Kelly and how her life unravelled after the siege of Glenrowan, where her brother Ned was captured, her brother Dan was killed and her lover, Joe Byrne was shot dead, his body exhibited for photographers.

What sparked your interest in Kate Kelly?

I’d been reading an American book, Desperadoes, by Ron Hansen, which was about the Dalton gang, and I was thinking that so few of our Australian legends had been revisited from a modern consciousness. That got me thinking about the Kelly story, and how interesting it would be to retell it from a female point of view. At first I thought I would do it from Maggie Kelly’s perspective, but as I did more research I realised her story didn’t fit with my own interests – obsession and tragedy – but Kate’s did.

Is the affair portrayed between Joe Byrne and Kate Kelly based on a fact? What sort of research did you do?

The affair is fictitious. As far as I can tell Joe was just a family friend, but I needed a reason (apart from two dead brothers!) for her tragic decline and the photograph of Joe, dead, propped up by the wall, gave me the idea.

I did a lot of research – primary from the archives at the Latrobe Library, Melbourne, and the Mitchell Library, Sydney, as well as the archives at the Old Pentridge Jail; and secondary from newspapers and other books written about the Kellys.

There are echoes of the Cathy/Heathcliff love story in the haunting of Kate by Joe, was this a conscious decision?

Ah – that’s an interesting question. No, not conscious at all. But I’m more than happy to accept it – Wuthering Heights is one of the finest novels in the language, in my opinion.

Sister Kate was the first of a spate of Kelly Gang novels, including Robert Drewe’s Our Sunshine and Peter Carey’s A True History of the Kelly Gang. What do you think it is about the mythic nature of the Kelly Gang that spurs such interest?

Australians have a (largely false) idea of themselves as being anarchic and for the underdog. Ned’s story – the oppression of the squatters and by the police, the strong, brave, charismatic boy who was a fine boxer etc, and who could have been something special if he hadn’t been brought down is potent stuff. I think most of us think he was unfairly treated, and that although he certainly committed murder at Stringybark Creek, he was more sinned against than sinning. He was also an enigmatic man – self-educated, the paterfamilias after his father died, apparently a socialist dreamer and all that. Enigmas always attract interest.

I also have an interest in that period of the Selection Acts, when I think working-class Australians were given an extremely raw deal. But my main interest was in retrieving the women’s stories from the tale of male derring-do. What were the women doing while the blokes were racing around on horses and waving guns? How did they cope?

Joe Byrne himself wrote bush ballads in promotion of the Gang, eg – do you see Kate Kelly as being a continuation of this balladeering?

No, not really. Kate did participate in shows about the Kellys after Ned’s death but I chose to see this as desperation.

Kate Kelly was an unofficial member of the Kelly Gang, as was her sister Maggie, her exploits (of riding to lookout, keeping watch, running food and ammunition) have been mostly erased from the popular mind. Why do you think this is so?

Because most of our history (still) concentrates on the men involved.

To me the Fitzpatrick affair (where Constable Fitzpatrick assaulted Kate Kelly and led to family members coming to her defence –  including Mrs Kelly and her baby being incarcerated for hard labour) was a pivotal moment – what do you think really happened?

I suspect someone did shoot at Fitzpatrick, and that he deserved it. But yes, it was a turning point. It branded the Kellys as criminals and the police as only wanting a convenient public story.

The Kelly descendants are vocally proud of their association with their family’s history? What was their response to the book and in particular her drug and alcoholism as well as the events surrounding her death (rumour has it she was rescuing an aboriginal child swept into the river’s flood waters).

I couldn’t find any Kelly descendants at the time who would talk or who were proud of their association – rather the reverse. Perhaps things have changed in the last thirty years. I heard that rumour but chose not to use it, as it was not backed up at all. There was also an empty gin bottle at the scene, according to the inquest, and she had deliberately left her children with a neighbour, with money, and a message for their father.

Kate Kelly apparently pled for her brother’s life on her knees in front of the Governor of Victoria at the time, raised legal fees for Ned’s defence and joined the Abolition of Capital Punishment organisation which campaigned for a reprieve of the death sentence for Ned. How did you decide on which historical facts to include or reject?

I chose those facts that fitted the story I wanted to tell. I discarded some assumed ‘facts’ – like Kate having had an affair with Fitzpatrick – because I found no evidence to back them up, and because they didn’t fit the character I was creating, and I used some others that suited me. I didn’t distort any facts that were verifiable, except that I made up the love affair between Kate and Joe Byrne.

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There are two particularly famous images in your book, one the cover of the 1987 edition, the famous painting by Nolan of Kate Kelly and Fitzpatrick, the other of Joe Byrne after Glenrowan – how were these pivotal in your writing the book?

The Nolan cover was the publisher’s choice, but I do think the whole Nolan Kelly series was in my mind during the writing. I was pleased with the cover, because Kate seems to be trying to escape Fitzpatrick’s embrace. The image of the dead Joe after Glenrowan was crucial – it steered my whole imagining of him being Kate’s lover and its tragic ending.

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Sister Kate has recently been republished as an ebook: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00UWBMHQW

Painting of Kate Kelly by Gria Shead

Painting of Constable Fitzpatrick and Kate Kelly by Sydney Nolan

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