[This entry was written by playwright Gabriel Bergmoser, creator of the musical Moonlite. Gabriel’s passion for bushranger tales is evident in his work and I am very glad to present this personal account to you. ~ AP]
It’s impossible to write this without giving a bit of personal context, so please bear with me.
I went to primary school in Mansfield, about a hundred metres from where Sergeant Kennedy, Constable Scanlon and Constable Lonigan were buried after being shot by Ned Kelly at Stringybark Creek. With its relative proximity to the creek itself, Mansfield is a major Kelly Country location, and there is a reasonable thread of fascination with the events in the town.
I was totally Kelly obsessed from the moment I was old enough to have any kind of understanding of the story, and as such I was thrilled when, in primary school, my class spent a few weeks studying bushrangers. To tie in with this theme, every lunch our teacher read us a little bit of the only novel she had on the topic – a book from the 1920s called The Girl Who Helped Ned Kelly. At the time, being around ten, I was utterly transfixed by the book, looking forward to the next instalment every lunch, outraged when the book was snapped shut and we had to go and play.
We never finished the book, much to my consternation, and as my teacher’s copy was an antique she wasn’t about to lend it to me, so I resolved to find my own. Every weekend trip to Melbourne I would beg my parents to let me scour second hand bookstores to try and find it. But it didn’t matter how many places I searched (a lot); I never saw the book.
Over the years I kept looking. Not super seriously, eventually more just out of habit. But as more and more time passed, a strange kind of fervour grew. It had to be somewhere, right?
Apparently it didn’t. Even online searches yielded nothing. The book evidently existed, it was just very, very rare.
It wasn’t even like I was driven by genuine memories of how good it was. If you’d asked in the past couple of years, I doubt I could recount any of the book with any accuracy. But the fact that I couldn’t find it was maddening.
Then, a few weeks ago, I was walking through Adelaide when a second hand bookstore caught my eye. I wandered in and set about trying to find the book. No luck. But there were a couple of other gems in the bushranger section and as I took them up to the counter the lady who owned the shop commented on an evident obsession. I mentioned my ongoing search for The Girl Who Helped Ned Kelly and the response was immediate; “oh, it’s in that cabinet over there.”
That book was first read to me in 2002. It took sixteen years to finally get my hands on it.
Honestly, after all of that I wasn’t sure if I would even read it. Carrying it out of the store with immense reverence, the idea that the book wouldn’t be worth it was a bit of a concern. But upon flicking through it became evident that I wouldn’t be able to help myself.
Beyond that, I was fascinated by what the book might represent. Originally serialised in the 1920s, a disclaimer in the front of the book says that the names of many of the supporting characters had been changed “for obvious reasons”: the book was written within the life spans of people who knew the Kellys. Ellen Kelly died only a few years before it was published. With that in mind, does this book represent one of, if not the earliest romanticised fiction of Ned Kelly? If so, what, if any, was its role in his growing canonisation? And aside from anything else, is it actually a good book?
Told largely from the perspective of fictional drifter Jack Briant, The Girl Who Helped Ned Kelly chronicles his tangential involvement with the gang during the last year of their lives, and… well, actually that’s about it.
The character of Briant, despite some early intrigue regarding his backstory that is resolved in the most toothless, predictable way possible, feels very much like a not particularly subtle stand in for the author. It’s hard to state this with much veracity; I couldn’t find much information on writer Charles E. Taylor, but the character of a wealthy man from Melbourne who wins Ned’s trust, confounds the police and flirts with Kate Kelly seems very much like a way for an author brought up in the aftermath of the Kellys’ time to play out a kind of wish fulfillment. By extension, this makes him an audience surrogate and, perhaps, indicates why the book had such an impact on ten year old, bushranger obsessed me.
As a character however? Briant is kind of annoying. He stands out badly due to the fact that he never existed and yet in the book he is at least tangentially present for much of the gang’s doings. But the fact that he has no real place in the history also means that he’s largely inactive as a protagonist; his contributions to the plot essentially extend to teaching the gang how to conceal their campfires (because that’s exactly the kind of thing a rich bloke from Melbourne would know rather than Ned) and distracting the police once or twice.
Adding to the character’s artificiality is an occasional propensity to remind the audience, via his inner monologue, that Ned is bound for a sticky end and that the police are just doing their jobs and plenty of them are noble. This doesn’t really track with his actions and as such feels like the work of a nervous editor ensuring the book doesn’t glorify the Kellys too much. Even the foreword insists that ‘no attempt has been made to canonise these young criminals’ despite the fact that, well, that’s exactly what the book does.
Make no mistake; this novel exists squarely in the tradition of Ned as a romantic, Robin Hood like figure. He’s presented in the text pretty much exactly how you’d expect; noble, imperious, wily with occasional flashes of larrikin charm. The rest of the gang get essentially one note personalities, with Dan being The Angry One, Joe being The Sad One and Steve being The Other One.
Beyond the gang, Hare and an almost pantomime villain version of Aaron Sherritt, most of the characters are either loose analogues for people like Wild Wright or Tom Lloyd or, like Briant, made up entirely. Weirdly, some of those characters are actually among the book’s most endearing, from crotchety old Kelly sympathiser Sam Jackson to Briant’s love interest, mercurial farmer’s daughter Nita. Even some of the fictional policeman show moments of surprising depth, like one particularly evangelical trap standing silently side by side with sworn enemy Ned at a funeral out of respect for the deceased.
And then there’s the titular ‘girl’. Jim Kelly was apparently outraged by this fabrication in particular, vehemently claiming that Ned ‘had no girl’. As it stands, the character is barely there, a fictional lover of Ned who only appears in the second half of the book and barely warrants supporting character status, let alone the title. The relationship is so thinly sketched that it’s hard to see why it was included at all.
It’s honestly difficult to say what the book is really about. Jack’s fledgling romance with Nita gets the bulk of the attention, but neither of them are the title characters or, y’know, real people. Their will they-won’t they thing is surprisingly engaging, but it ends up being far more dominant than major events like the death of Aaron Sherritt, which happens within a page of Joe discovering he’s a traitor, or the siege of Glenrowan which gets maybe two pages at the end. As it stands, it reads more than anything like the author just really wanted to hang out with these characters.
Except, of course, they’re not characters, they’re real people. The changed names are the most telling aspect; this book was written at a time where the events were not so long in the past as to rightly be considered legend yet. Given those circumstances, it’s hard to see the book as one written in particularly good taste, and it’s even harder to understand why it makes some of its more egregious diversions from history; namely the Siege of Glenrowan occurring several weeks after Sherritt’s murder and Dan dying well before Joe and Steve at the siege itself. You could chalk this up to ignorance, were it not for the afterward that includes many of the correct dates and details.
But look, accuracy is not what makes this book fascinating and nor, realistically, is narrative. What makes it worthy of discussion is the fact that it represents a blithe fictionalisation of the Kelly story written at a time when the events were still very much within living memory. And despite Jim Kelly’s consternation, it would be far from the last. From Our Sunshine to True History of the Kelly Gang; the literary class might have evolved, but the fundamental ethos certainly hasn’t; this story is our defining cultural myth, so writers and artists will always be drawn to create their own version.
I don’t know whether I would attribute much if any of the history’s ongoing romanticisation to this book. The process of consolidating the facts into legend had long since started, but to my knowledge The Girl Who Helped Ned Kelly represents the first in a long tradition, the moment when writers started to feel comfortable twisting the story to suit their own ends, in the process creating new versions of the legend that would ensure it was kept alive for generations to come. Whatever your opinion on the practice, that fact alone gives it a place in the canon.
It’s hard, in the end, to know how to feel about this book. I didn’t remember enough of it to be especially nostalgic in reading it. It was certainly entertaining and rarely less than fascinating. But it is very much of its time and as a novel, isn’t much more than mediocre. A forgotten classic this absolutely is not.
Of course, my stake in the whole endeavour always went deeper than simply reviewing a piece of Kelly esoterica. After a sixteen year search, am I glad I finally found and read the thing? Yeah, I’d say so. I would have been immensely surprised if it was anywhere near as good as my 2002 self remembered it so its overall quality didn’t count as much of a disappointment. More than anything, having and holding an original copy of the book dating from the 1920s is really special, and a piece of Kelly history I’m proud to own. But in terms of whether you should embark on your own multi year hunt to track down and read it? Unless you’re a hardcore collector, there are probably better uses of your time.