Review - Mrs Kelly: The Astonishing life of Ned Kelly's mother, Grantlee Kieza

Review Written By
Karen Chisholm

A sensationalised combination of fact, speculation, assumption and extremely over the top fictionalisation, MRS KELLY by Grantlee Kieza is a grand undertaking that seems to be telegraphing a lot more than it actually delivers.

If it was called a story of the Kelly Family, including some speculation about Ellen herself, then it might be more satisfying, but to flag it as "The Astonishing life of Ned Kelly's mother" and then contribute a lot of conjecture and bizarre fictionalisation to what little there is on her in a massive tome is somewhat misleading and therefore more than a bit irritating. Especially as it doesn't take a genius to figure out there was likely to be a paucity of detailed information about her own life, what with a tendancy for history to concentrate on men's lives and experiences.

Even allowing some leeway in assuming that you really can't write anything about the Kelly family, without revisiting the story of Dan and Ned in particular, there's undoubtedly some benefit in revisiting the family circumstances, perhaps casting some light on the why's behind the families trenchant and violent opposition to authority. And there are hints of Ellen and the boys father's background that give rise to small pockets of understanding on that. Unfortunately though, the style of MRS KELLY is popular history - that sort of mucking about in the facts, filling in gaps with much colourful scenery, assumption and glorified "thought" bubbles. A style that's not without its successes, although it should be tempered always with some pretty clear declaration about what is known and what is assumed surely. Having said that, making the whole thing into a rip-roaring readable sort of a yarn also helps, and somehow that isn't ever quite achieved with MRS KELLY as it just sort of wandered towards the inevitable conclusion, bringing with it more than a sniff of disapproval of the Kelly's, their stance and their life choices.

It's hard not suspect that the author of this undertaking feels more sympathy for the forces of law and order in this story, as opposed to the Kelly's, which after all, had it's roots in some pretty horrendous treatment of people prior to resettlement in Australia and beyond. 

All of which means that MRS KELLY didn't quite ring true on a number of levels for this reader. It's a highly fictionalised version of events, and there's more than a sneaking suspicion that the desired outcome was not to cast light on both sides of the Kelly's situation. Of course, there's no argument that what the Kelly brothers did was appalling, but there's always been much in terms of mitigating circumstances to consider - seen all too fleetingly in MRS KELLY. 

Ultimately though to make Ellen a supporting character in her own biography seems like yet another reason why you'd be very entitled to be more than a bit miffed with the way the world treats you.

Year of Publication

Ellen Kelly was born during the troubles in Ireland. When she arrived in Melbourne in 1841 aged nine, British convict ships were still dumping their unhappy cargo in what was then known as the colony of New South Wales. When she died at the age of 91 in 1923, having outlived seven of her 12 children, motor cars plied the highway near her bush home north of Melbourne, and Australia was a modern sovereign nation.

The wife of a convict, Ellen, like so many Australian pioneering women, led a life of great hardship. She was a mother of seven when her husband died after months in a police lock-up, lived through famine and Australian drought, saw her babies die, listened through the prison wall while her eldest son was hanged and saw the charred remains of another of her children who'd died in a shoot-out with police. One son became Australia's most infamous (and ultimately popular) outlaw. Another became a highly decorated policeman, an honorary member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and a worldwide star on the rodeo circuit.

By bestselling biographer Grantlee Kieza, MRS KELLY is the story of one of Australia's most notorious women, but it is also the story of so many of Australia's pioneering women, who knew only too well the hardships of pioneering life. More than that, it's the story of the making of Australia, from struggling colony and backwater to modern nation.

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