TEXT review

‘If the world was just a sock’

review by Mary Pomfret


Dorothy Simmons
Living Like A Kelly
Australian Scholarly Publishing 2015
ISBN 9781925333138
Pb 196pp AUD24.95


As I started to read Living Like A Kelly, I had to wonder what else could possibly be written or debated about Ned Kelly, ‘a widow’s son outlawed’ (39), and the Kelly gang. Living Like A Kelly is, however, a woman’s story which privileges the female point of view and gives value to women’s work and honours female suffering.

The novel begins with a coincidence. Journalist Brian Cookson’s brief is to investigate and write about the possibility of members of the Kelly gang, namely Dan Kelly and his friend Steve Hart, being alive and living in Africa. A thunderstorm forces him to seek shelter in a cottage. And who should this cottage belong to? None other than the Kelly matriarch, the now elderly, Ellen Kelly. Cookson’s taking refuge from the elements bears some similarity to the beginning scenes in Charlotte Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, where Lockwood becomes finds himself trapped in a haunted room after finding refuge from a blizzard. However the fictionalised Brian Cookson is not part of a literary framing device as is the character Lockwood. Cookson’s story appears at intervals through the main plot trajectory and is secondary to the powerful heart of the novel: the dark internal, angst-filled and haunted world of Ellen Kelly and her memories, dreams and trauma.

When Cookson crosses the threshold of Ned Kelly’s mother’s cottage, he surmises that here is a ‘cicada shell: brittle. Used Up’ (13). Ellen Kelly spends much of her time sitting by the fire, ‘Mending and minding, mending and minding’ (26), trying to make sense of her life and her loss. Dorothy Simmons portrays Ellen Kelly’s internal landscape as ‘a place where it’s wild and windy and dark, a banshee hollow with voices calling and re-calling down through the years, across all the empty spaces’ (24). Simmons leads us into Ellen Kelly’s world through the metaphor of women’s work – done inside the home – stitching patchwork quilts, darning socks. But as Ellen knows, ‘the world’s no sock, and no amount of minding, no amount of thinking what if you hadn’t said this, what if you had said that, what if you’d bitten your tongue instead of letting fly … was ever going to mend it’ (18). Nevertheless, Ellen knows the value of work. It was work that helped her survive her three year jail sentence resulting from her attack on Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick who attempted to assault her daughter Kate Kelly. While she was in jail, after they took her baby Alice away from her, Ellen survived her captivity through work, ‘soaping and scrubbing and rinsing till her back ached’ pretending to herself that the sheets going through the mangle were ‘Fitzpatrick or Barry screaming as she squeezed every drop of blood out of them’ (70). At night, alone in her cell, ‘Her hate fogged the walls; curses clung like cobwebs, sticky and white’ (71).

Simmons’ hints that Ellen’s relationship with her daughter Kate was not a simple one; that Ellen’s defence of Kate was not as straightforward as a mother defending her child. In a disagreement, Ellen yells at Kate, ‘Wagging your tail like a bitch in heat! You think I can’t see what’s in front of my own eyes? With a policeman, for chrissake!’ (55). I found this conflict between mother and daughter particularly intriguing, despite the fact that the causes are never really fleshed out, only hinted at. The conflict continues after Ned’s execution until Kate finally dies in what appears to be misadventure. But Ellen Kelly knows what killed her daughter and ‘it wasn’t the drink’ (81). It was ‘The fact of guilt’ (81) that killed Kate, as far her mother is concerned. Did Ellen blame her daughter for Ned’s death and her own jail sentence? In Simmons’ portrayal of the mother daughter relationship, Ellen seems especially disappointed that Kate takes part in ‘The Kelly Show’ (79), a theatrical performance in which Kate Kelly stars, the purpose of which is to raise money for the ‘Revolution’ (79). Ellen’s angry memory of her daughter’s part in this performance is, ‘She had rouge on again’ (79).

 According to historical records, Ellen Kelly was able to read but not write. It is interesting to muse whether Ned Kelly’s mother would have produced her own version of The Jerilderie Letter, the inspiration for Peter Carey’s novel The True History of the Kelly Gang, had she been able to write. Simmons surmises that Ellen wanted to release her trauma through the writing of it. ‘How much safer, though, how much surer, if you could just write it down’ (76) the old woman contemplates. ‘Specially the parts when she wasn’t there’ (76). Trauma haunts Simmon’s fictionalised Ellen Kelly as it may well have haunted the historic character. Disassociation is a well-known symptom of trauma, and in one of Ellen’s graphic dreamscapes in which she recalls the Fitzpatrick incident with Kate, she stands outside of herself and watches herself: ‘I’m standing outside the back window, looking in. I’m looking into the kitchen; that’s me in there, peeling the spuds’ (94).

Dorothy Simmons’ Ellen Kelly has the authentic voice of a woman whose dire circumstances and traumatic memories hold her in captivity. According to Wilson, Ellen Kelly’s final words to her son, Ned, were: ‘Mind you die like a Kelly, son’ (Wilson 2005). Simmons writes with insight and realism. In Living Like a Kelly, Simmons appears to channel the thoughts of a historic character whose only way of coping with overwhelming loss is to mine her memories, over and over, as if by doing so, she can resurrect the past. Ellen Kelly’s son Jim worries about the way she seems to lose herself but, ‘She tells him it’s not losing, it’s finding’ (97).


Works cited


Mary Pomfret completed a PhD in creative writing at La Trobe University in 2015. Her stories and poetry have been published widely in literary journals and Ginninderra Press has published two collections of her short fiction.


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Vol 19 No 2 October 2015
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste