The Author Speaks: on secondary sources

In creating Glenrowan I knew I had to do a lot of research to get it as close to correct as I could manage. The deeper I delved the more overwhelming it became due to the sheer amount of information to trawl through. At first I tried to limit myself to only referring to interviews with witnesses, the 1881 Royal Commission and contemporary newspaper reports. I figured this would be the most reliable way to build the framework without carrying the baggage of historians who had their own interpretation. I needed to start fresh.

I relied on primary sources as much as possible for the first several versions of the book, combined with my pre-existing knowledge of the siege from having known the story for a couple of decades. The only problem was that I found it increasingly difficult to pin down certain characters and events due to the inconsistent and frequently contradictory evidence I was reading through. It has only been in the last month as I refine my final draft that I have really taken to using books to explore the validity of many of my assumptions based on my own research, and to direct me to sources that I may have overlooked. Below are the texts that I referred to a lot in this process. It should be noted that I already had three full drafts of my novel written by the time I started really using these texts to help me fact check. It was reassuring to know that most of what I had included was correct, but as I continue to polish off this final draft I am still finding myself tweaking the text to reflect my ongoing research.

Judith Douthie: I was at the Kelly Gang roundup – Douthie’s book is the best resource I have found regarding the Glenrowan locals that were caught up in the tragedy. This book helped me to put names to faces and to add little details that I otherwise would not have. The information is presented clearly and without an attempt to lionise or degrade the Kelly Gang or police. All too often the side characters in history become forgotten or obscured and this is a book that preserves a lot of those stories while explaining how they fit into the greater Kelly Saga. This helps to really contextualise a lot of what happened in June 1880 and highlights that this event for many completely change their lives, usually for the worse. It kind of drives home a key point of what I’m attempting to depict with the novel, which is that history isn’t about those figureheads whose decisions become renowned and frequently romanticised, but rather about how those decisions affected the people and the world around them. The Glenrowan story may have Ned at its centre, but we remember it because of how it impacted on the police and the community and what this event represented at that time as much as now.

Ian W. Shaw: Glenrowan – Shaw’s book has a few small errors, but overall it provides a solid overview of the siege that I found useful in checking plot points. The condensed version of the events leading up to the Glenrowan campaign is adequate to set up readers for what unfolds. At times it does seem to slant towards the version of history put forward by historians like John Molony and Ian Jones, but never feels like it takes sides. The overall impartiality of this one is important in understanding the history, and this is very much grounded in the facts as recorded through interviews, witness testimony and the press. Since doing my own research I find that to be no small feat and would say that this book is a great source for people who want a clear and easy introduction to the Kelly story.

Paul Terry: The true story of Ned Kelly’s last stand – Paul Terry is a very solid and respectable author and historian, whose texts are generally very well researched and composed. This book works much the same as Shaw’s but with the added side plot of the archaeological dig at Glenrowan. Though it bounces around between the 2008 dig, the events that unfolded during the weekend of the 26th June 1880, and the events of Ned Kelly’s life at large in no particular order, it provides a good overview of all three strands for casual readers as much as “veteran” Kelly buffs. This came out about the same time as Shaw’s book and I would go so far as to say that it acts as a good combination of what makes Douthie’s book great and what makes Shaw’s book great with a little something extra. I found this one most useful for picking up on moments to re-examine in the novel, the way it explains the siege through the archaeological findings, and also for its concise timelines that I have to say are extremely helpful when trying to work out the sequence of events, which is totally convoluted and almost impossible to work out if you rely on the witness testimonies.

Stuart E. Dawson: Ned Kelly and the myth of a republic of north-eastern Victoria – Dawson is a historian that is quite controversial in the Kelly community for his, shall we say, forthrightness in denouncing not only the Kellys and their associates, but also using his own research to target historians he disagrees with and tear them down. Anyone that has read Edgar Penzig’s books will know the kind of person I’m talking about. This text, which is available for free online, is a perfect illustration of that. Dawson is a solid researcher, despite his controversial opinions, and I found myself having read almost all of the same sources he had, and reaching similar conclusions in many instances where it is hard to come up with anything to disprove them. Of course, the text was designed to tear down the idea of Ned Kelly as a Republican revolutionary and, again, with an absence of documentary evidence to back the assertion it is not really possible to definitively state as fact that his plan was to start a Republic. However, an absence of evidence in the present does not mean some will not emerge later. If the oral tradition states it to be true, there is a chance something will eventually show up to lend it legitimacy. Dawson always cites his sources, as any well-trained academic will, which makes it very easy to see where he gets his information from. I do recommend reading this one, even if only to get an insight into the “other side” of the accepted interpretation of the history.

There are other texts that I’ve read in the past. I’ve been a Kelly enthusiast for more than 20 years, how could I not have? But I wanted to avoid most of those texts because they either portray an inaccurate or incomplete idea of Glenrowan or they’re too wound up in the respective author’s particular dogma to present the information I needed to reach my own conclusions. Even though this is a historical fiction novel, I wanted it to be as close to history as possible and that meant finding it out for myself as much as possible. In many ways this was a rewarding endeavour, but in others it was frequently a demanding chore that only served to heighten my confusion and rekindle doubts. At the end of the day I’m not writing a history book, but because I want to provide a window to the past in an effort to understand it I couldn’t in good conscience simply regurgitate the version of events put forward by others. This had to be my interpretation.

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