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The Author Speaks: On Understanding Historical Figures

“It was that moment that I realised how important it is to understand people from history, just as we do with people in the present, based on contextual factors and free of prejudices. That is to say that they deserve to be looked at based upon demonstrable qualities rather than trying to pigeon hole them based on perceptions or preconceived ideas. People are nuanced, multifaceted beings. They have virtues and flaws, regardless of which is more dominant, and these often paradoxical elements coalesce into what we define as a personality. It’s all very Yin/Yang, but this is the reality.”

Anyone with knowledge of Ned Kelly will have come across the “hero or villain” debate. At its most oversimplified core, it is an argument about whether an outlaw is worthy of being lauded as a hero or whether he should be condemned as a villain. Such discussion usually hinges on the values of the people arguing for a particular side and has little to do with understanding history or human nature. For myself, I find it frustratingly simplistic to consider a person as wholly one thing or another, as if they were a comic book character. In writing Glenrowan I had one particular goal where this debate is concerned, which was to portray Ned Kelly as a human being rather than a symbol of someone’s political leanings ā€“ I was only interested in who he was, not what he was. In referring to what we know of his words and actions, I queried, surely we can come up with an understanding of the man that goes beyond childish ideas of “goodies and baddies”? Real life is not so clearly defined into binaries.

Though he was found guilty of murder in 1880, Ned Kelly has been on trial in the court of public opinion continuously since 1870. The jury is still out.

When I first came upon the Kelly story as a 12 year-old, it was presented to me as an adventure with Ned as the champion fighting against bullying police. In fact, my first experience of the story was Bob Hempel’s animated theatre in Glenrowan. I didn’t quite figure out what was going on but I knew that there was something alluring about the figure of Ned Kelly. Then I began to read up on him and predominantly it was presented in the texts I read that Ned was a victim of societal oppression, and the cops back in the old days were harsh, overbearing and many were corrupt. What other conclusion was a lad to come to from this, other than to see Ned as a hero for standing up against bullies (especially given I was dealing with being bullied myself at the time)?

As I got older and read more widely I encountered writings, such as those of Edgar Penzig in particular, that depicted Ned as a thug and a maniac. Naturally, I railed against such polar opposite ideas that flew in the face of everything I had read up to that point. One thing it really highlighted to me was that those who opposed Ned were just as zealous in pushing their version of “facts” as those who championed him, but it didn’t ring true for me that he was the monster they were trying to make him out to be. Perhaps that was my Dad’s influence, as he was a bit of a rogue himself and had certain attitudes towards authority.

It wasn’t until I read Alex C. Castles’ book Ned Kelly’s Last Days that I found a text that seemed to sit in the middle and look at the history without trying to project ideas onto the figure of Ned. For the first time, I saw a depiction of Ned that showed his unflattering characteristics without feeling the need to exaggerate or vilify any more than his own words and actions would. Of course Ian Jones had many choice words to say about it given his view of Ned as not only heroic but also a sort of peak of masculinity, which was not how Castles portrayed him at all. Ned could be petty, vulgar and offensive, demonstrated not the least in the way he openly mocked Constable McIntyre.

It was at that time that I realised how important it is to understand people from history, just as we do with people in the present, based on contextual factors and free from prejudices if possible. That is to say that they deserve to be looked at based upon their demonstrable qualities and without us trying to assess their actions with a modern day morality. People are nuanced, multifaceted beings; they have virtues and flaws, regardless of which is more dominant, and it is all molded by the current knowledge and values of the time they exist in. These often contradictory elements coalesce into what we define as a personality. It’s all very Yin/Yang, but this is the reality and it is importantto remember when looking at historical characters.

Naturally, this way of thinking extends to everyone in the story. I refuse to believe all police were bullies, or incompetent, or crooked ā€” such a view has no basis in fact. Indeed, the more research I have done the more I have found examples of officers who were compassionate, professional and dedicated to protecting people from harm. Sadly, I also discovered that men like this did not always have an easy time in the job, and more often than not were severely bullied by their colleagues until they left the force entirely. Examples of this are found in the cases of constables McIntyre and Bracken. At the same time you have police like Constable Fitzpatrick who were kicked out of the force for their bad behaviour (in Fitzpatrick’s case being a “liar and a larrikin”), but having strong community support, which indicates there must have been some redeeming qualities to them as policemen. Again, nothing is clear cut.

Constable Bracken was bullied mercilessly for intervening when Sergeant Steele was about to shoot Ned Kelly after his capture. This bullying contributed to the nervous breakdown that led to his dismissal from the police force, and also to his subsequent suicide.

Additionally, I had to try and conceptualise these historical figures in the same way an author of fiction would. That meant reverse engineering their actions to find the motivations and thought processes that led them to make the decisions they did. The conclusions I made about the way certain things occurred were based in this approach. When things were out of character or lacked internal logic I had to concede that it would have been unlikely to have occurred in such a manner, and it is reflected in the book. A prime example is the story that George Metcalf was shot in the eye by Ned Kelly, not injured by a police bullet striking the fireplace he was hiding behind. The notion that a) Ned Kelly would have been fiddling with a loaded and primed pistol, b) have accidentally shot someone through carelessness, and c) nobody would have noted someone walking around all day having been shot in the eye seems to me, frankly, absurd. Why was this not discussed until after Sadleir sent a detective out to gather testimony to disprove Metcalf’s claim that he was injured as a result of police actions? Is it not just a bit on the nose that the detective was sent out straight after the police were found culpable in the death of Martin Cherry and were in damage control mode and looking for a way to shift blame back onto Ned? These sorts of questions defined how I utilised my research in the process of writing the story.

If there’s one thing I hope that people get from the book, it’s that every person featured in the book, every historical figure, is a human being. They had friends and family, loves and hates. They all had their favourite meal, or a favourite colour. They were passionate about topics that were close to their heart, even if those passions resulted in terrible suffering for others. The moment we think about Sergeant Steele only in terms of his reprehensible actions at Glenrowan, without considering his military background or his love of botany, then we lose sight of the man and are left with a cartoon villain. If we only consider Ned Kelly in terms of being either the greatest man or the most evil, we are looking at an idea and not a human being. Everyone deserves to be remembered for who they were, not who we want them to be.

By AJFPhelan56

Father, writer, artist and bushranging historian residing in Melbourne, Australia. Author of 'Glenrowan' and the popular website A Guide to Australian Bushranging.

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