Rebecca Wilson – Kate Kelly

Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2021

This fascinating account of the life and death of Kate Kelly, sister of the infamous Ned Kelly, is told with a deep feminine sensitivity. That is to say, unlike many histories, it takes a female (perhaps feminist) view of the subject and the society in which she lived.

The state of Kate’s health around the time of her death, due to possible post-natal depression, general depression, substance use and the stresses of her too brief life as a whole, give the reader much food for thought. It’s also a strongly political work, highlighting the many injustices of the time based on class and wealth.

Barbie talks to Rebecca Wilson about Kate Kelly

A history of Kate Kelly of course must encompass the lives of Ned and other family members, the history as we know it of bushranging and an examination of the police and justice systems of the day. These matters are fulsomely covered, the author’s research drawing on newspapers, records and letters of the time.

What is very clear is the strength of family ties in the Kelly clan and the loyalty shown by Kate towards her brothers as they, at various times, hid out and eluded the law. She was clearly a fine horsewoman and bushwoman. Pregnant (we suppose) at the tender age of 15 to (we think) the reputedly philandering  policeman Fitzpatrick, she leads a life constantly beset by subterfuge, conflict and myriad difficulties.

Immediately after the hanging of Ned, she engages in a series of public performances and attains a movie star like fame. She is intent at this time on telling the Kelly side of the story denied in the law courts.

Later moving away from Victoria and assuming a new name, she takes up positions on station properties as a domestic and then marries Bricky. While her lot as a wife is probably not so unusual for a working class woman of the time, it is indeed hard and lonely and we cannot but sympathise with her, left alone most of the time with the care of her children. Her husband’s jealousy of her skills as a horse-breaker are yet another example of how little valued and loved she may have felt.

It is difficult for an historian to break into the secrets of the past and in this case there apparently remains a reluctance on the part of some to divulge information; secrecy remains. Rebecca Wilson has made use of all the conversations she could have with locals and descendants and certainly adds a keen sense of being present to this story of Kate Kelly and her family.

Kate Kelly is a highly readable history and the characters are brought to vibrant life in the telling. The style is accessible and the slant appealing, adding to the many more masculine retellings of the Kelly stories. The use of conversation as a writing technique where possible adds to the immediacy of this story and enables the reader to interpret what is ‘true’ and what has been hidden for various reasons.

We have a strong sense of the respect felt for Kate by this author and of her determination to get under the skin of this woman, to tease out what might have been as well as telling what may have already been recorded.

The book is a valuable addition to our recorded history, a contemporary and interrogative take on our colonial past. We are encouraged in the reading to question what we may have thought and to re-examine what we have been told. And surely this is a gift for the contemporary reader faced with so much assumed ‘truth’.

More can be found about Rebecca, especially her visual art, at https://rebeccawilsonart.com/

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for the review copy and to Rebecca for such a  pleasant and wide ranging conversation.