The Jerilderie Letter is Ned Kelly’s attempt to justify his actions as Australia’s then most wanted, and these days most legendary, criminal. Dictated to fellow Kelly Gang member Joe Byrne, it is named after the town of Jerilderie, New South Wales, where the Kelly Gang carried out an armed robbery and where Ned tried to have the document published as a pamphlet. It inspired Peter Carey’s excellent reinvention of the Ned Kelly tale, The True History of the Kelly Gang.
It is exciting to read the unadulterated words of a notorious figure from history, whichever side of the ‘Ned Kelly: Robin Hood or Ruffian?’ argument you favour. On one level, one could read some class-consciousness in his support for the poor (‘I wish those men who joined the stock protection society to withdraw their money and give it and as much more to the widows and orphans and poor of Greta district…’) and his anger at what he saw as a class-betraying police force (‘a policeman is a disgrace to his country, not alone to the mother that suckled him…’) and unjust law (‘there never was such a thing as justice in the English laws’), and this does put a different spin on the Kelly legend. It all gets a bit complicated though as this is, after all, a historical source that must be interpreted within the context of the motivation of the person who wrote it, and people say all sorts of things when their arse is on the line.
So, my advice is just to enjoy richness of Kelly’s language. Admittedly, The Letter does read as a stream of consciousness and, even if McDermott claims that this ‘prefigures the ambition of modernist literature to make the written and spoken words indivisible, as exemplified in…Ulysses’, it remains rather difficult to follow at times (just like bloomin’ Ulysses). But within the whirlpool of words, there are some gems, which are particularly prevalent in Kelly’s ‘I’m not violent but I could end those suckers’ hyperbole:
…they knew well I was not there or I would have scattered their blood and brains like rain I would manure the Eleven Mile with their bloated carcasses and yet remember there is not one drop of murderous blood in my veins…
and his creative way with insults:
the brutal and cowardly conduct of a parcel of ugly fat-necked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow hipped splaw-footed sons of Irish baliffs or English landlords which is better known as Officers of Justice or Victorian police..
Reading something as engaging and persuasive as The Letter made me wonder what Kelly might have done with his life if he hadn’t been ‘a widow’s son outlawed’. A freedom fighter for the poor? A writer? A very persuasive salesman? Who knows…