“Such is life” – an understatement
The laconicism of Ned Kelly’s reputed last words—“Such is life”—hardly signifies the avalanche of song, dance, poetry, history, fiction, art, and film that has raised the Kelly story to a central legend in Australian history and culture.
At one extreme, the Kellies are seen as murderous outlaws whose brutal actions eclipsed any moral justifications they promulgated. At the other, they are celebrated as social bandits.
Historian Eric Hobsbawm showed that social banditry was a recurring and primitive form of class struggle and class resistance in usually pre-industrial and frontier societies. In the case of the Kelly myth, the social banditry becomes associated with the Australian ethos through key expressions of mateship, egalitarianism, anti-authoritarianism, and so on.
A minor player who looms large
These complexities and ambivalences are well rendered in the opening chapters of Peter Long’s Steve Hart: The Last Kelly Standing. But, thankfully, the focus of this novel is not on the mainstream Kelly story yet again, but on a minor player, Steve Hart, who was inducted into the Kelly gang by Kelly’s younger brother Dan, after the two spent time in Beechworth prison.
In the brutally masculinist world of colonial goals, the adolescent Dan and Steve are drawn together to protect themselves from rape and abuse, forming a life-long bond of practical and emotional support.
Related by Steve Hart with due attention to the established historical facts, the novel’s first 14 chapters deal with the events leading up to the disastrous Glenrowan siege and the capture of Ned Kelly.
The irony: an outlaw and his moral musings
The narrative is compelling and emotionally taut, enhanced by Hart’s musings on the moral and ethical dilemmas he faces as he is drawn ever more deeply into the world of the outlaws.
The author embeds a convincing analysis of how the outlaws arise from their social origins, the social and political oppressions which foster their resistance, and the complicated relations which develop with their families and associates.
The author brings these scenes to life with cinematic clarity and realistically motivated action, as least the equal of other fine accounts in the canon of Kelly literature.
According to the accepted facts, Byrne, Hart, and Dan Kelly all died at Glenrowan in the fire which engulfed the hotel. A clergyman present at the scene, Father Gibney, entered the burning building and claimed to have sighted the bodies of Steve and Dan, lying on their backs side by side, having enacted a mutual suicide, he believed. When the bodies were later brought out of the ruins, they were incinerated beyond recognition, and the forensic technologies of the time precluded definitive identification. The bodies were claimed by relatives and buried on their properties, then ploughed over to prevent discovery of their whereabouts.
Did Steve Hart die? The mystery continues
And that’s where Steve Hart’s tragic life might have ended—but for a persistent body of apocryphal literature which speculates that Steve and Dan escaped out the back door of the Glenrowan pub and fled to safety in the bush.
Over the following decades from time to time individuals appeared claiming to be one of these members of the Kelly gang, but little conclusive proof has come to light. It’s within this aporia in the Kelly story that Peter Long has constructed the post-Glenrowan history of Steve Hart and Dan Kelly, bringing these characters back to fabulous and vivid life as players in the emergence of Australian national identity through the colonial and post-colonial periods.
Having escaped capture and execution, Steve and Dan continue their lives as fugitives, always moving one step ahead of discovery and detainment by the law, and in particular one obsessional individual, a relative of one of the policemen murdered by the Kellies, who is determined to gain vengeance by tracking them down.
This is a powerful plot line in the novel, contributing to ongoing suspense, and ensuring that Steve and Dan can never stay long in any one place, for fear of being identified despite the aliases they assume.
The avoidance of capture, however, is only one of the gripping plot-lines this work has to offer. As they journey from place-to-place Steve and Dan move through a panorama of experiences which together form a narrative of the social, political and cultural formation of Australia.
Steve Hart is a sensitive observer of the contradictions between human aspiration and abjection as manifested in his own life and in the lives of those he encounters. And that intimately conveyed kaleidoscopic life takes us first to Queensland where Steve and Dan join a shearing shed. They then decide to head up to Cooktown to fossick for gold. On their way they pass through the Great Dividing Range, Toowoomba, Murgon, Gympie, Maryborough, Rockhampton, Mackay, Townsville, Charters Towers, Cairns, and Palmerville. All these places are evoked with historical authenticity as they were in the late 1880s as Steve Hart reflects on the life and culture he encounters. The interactions with the Chinese communities on the goldfields is a dramatic highlight.
As their pursuer approaches, they move out west, to Mareeba, where they join a droving team run by the former Captain Starlight. Again, this takes them on a journey through Mount Garnett, Emerald, Roma, and into Dubbo in New South Wales.
The narrator’s observations of the droving industry and the indigenous and other people who work in it, bring history to life. Droving on the Barcoo, Steve and Dan move through landscapes alternately stark and beautiful, happening on mirage-like water holes with the help of their Aboriginal guides. Other dream-like sequences occur when they come across an Afghan camel train, and encounter a kadaicha.
How research asks new questions and sheds new light
The author’s research finds expression in Steve Hart: The Last Kelly Standing, in the authentic imaging of ‘outback’ place and work as the scene of emergent Australian national identity.
There’s a long tradition of this in Australian literature and art but Peter Long brings a contemporary environmentalist sensibility to this, when he shows how Steve begins to appreciate the importance of ‘country’ as revealed to him by the Aboriginals working with the drovers. The workers, the ‘herd’, the country all together come to symbolize a better society which is an alternative to the exploitative imperialist intentions of the colonizers. In one scene all forms of life coexist as in the Edenic garden:
What we witness defies description. It isn’t a bunyip, but a shallow billabong about two football fields in size, surrounded by coolabah trees, completely covered by Brolgas, large grey birds with extended necks. Thousands of them dance as a waving grey mass…. When the horses move closer to drink it doesn’t faze the birds. They don’t fear us because they’ve had little, or no, contact with horses, to know if they’re dangerous. We agree we should avoid using their sanctuary for a cattle camp – to prevent our massive herd destroying it. After an hour in the cool shade, we leave with full water bags to search the shimmering desert. I’m not confident we’ll locate other water but we’ll try. I turn to Dan.
‘That’s a type of paradise, mate.’
He nods his head for a moment or two.
‘Exactly. Oh, to be so secluded, safe and innocent, as those beauties.’
He summed it up. We need to search for our equivalent of a life like this. I wonder if it’s outside our reach.
The emergence of national identity was also interwoven with the experiences of Australians in wars outside the country.
Cashed up with their droving wages, Steve and Dan are in Armidale, where they decide to enlist to fight in the Boer War. Steve’s horsemanship repays him well here, and the whole episode describing warfare, an encounter with Breaker Morant, the British-Australian tensions, is a superbly evoked historical reconstruction, with Steve and Dan as central actors—and there is heart-stopping action aplenty including the scene where Steve rescues Dan from near death. As always, Steve Hart’s reflections are discerning, as when he observes the returning soldiers:
There’s no swagger in their stride. Emaciated, their uniforms flutter over them like ripples on a calm sea. Their heads fail to swivel, seek others for jest, as they did when we departed for war. What waits for us? Will Australia care?
There is hope, even for a fugitive
It’s 1902, and Steve and Dan decide to make a new life for themselves farming and sharecropping. At Murgon, Steve warily but gradually enters into community life and gains acceptance for his skills in riding and breaking horses. After a lifetime as a fugitive living under various pseudonyms, Steve is able to experience a degree of normal social life, enjoying his acceptance by neighbouring families in his community. Not that the demons leave him completely, as conveyed in one episode where he falls into depression and attempts suicide. But his personal emotional re-growth is suggested in his creative skills at plaiting and leatherwork; the scene where he teaches children how to weave leather into strips to make a whip is subtly suggestive of his recovery from years of paranoia and trauma:
We spend the rest of the time on the veranda floor, each child laying out their piece of leather and cutting it into fine strips, ready for plaiting. Some sit closer to watch what I do. One young lad stands beside me with his hand on my shoulder before gathering confidence to do his own. We unconsciously weave into a group. I appear each Wednesday for the next five weeks and all complete their whip, I’m pleased to say. It’s one of the few things in life I’m really proud of.
As he moves through place, history, and community, Steve is reborn, as the nation is reborn through Federation. Indeed, Steve Hart becomes something of an archetype of the Australian male. In the end, he can say:
But now, I’m not an outcast. I belong. Something, except for a few crazy years as a teen, I craved most of my life but was denied. That’s life, I guess.
And this would be more than enough in this panascopic epic of a novel—but at the heart of the narrative is also a poignant love story.
Hart and his attraction to feminine attire
Perhaps in reaction to the homophobic masculinist world Steve encounters as a child and youth, he is secretively drawn to dressing up in women’s clothes. In an early scene in the novel we see how he delights in the softness and scents of feminine attire. Later, as part of the Kelly gang, he is sent as a decoy or spy into town, dressed as a woman and riding side saddle. A famous painting in Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series, “Steve Hart dressed as a girl” depicts this.
As he moves through adolescence Steve comes to realise that the affection he formed for Dan Kelly in prison is also sexually motivated.
The novel portrays the development of Steve’s intensifying caring and desire for Dan into an intense and unwavering romantic love—romantic of necessity perhaps, since Dan appears utterly blasé to Steve’s attentions, and fails to reciprocate Steve’s love. However, Steve’s development into a mature and sensitive individual of complex sexual identity is underpinned by his ability to love, despite, or perhaps even because of, the unattainably of the object of desire. The love never falters, even years after Dan has gone his own way, and Steve is no longer in communication with him.
Historic story with a contemporary flavour
Peter Long is to be commended for bringing this modern, indeed postmodern love-story into the Kelly legend, which for the most part is silent on the subject of love.
This is certainly a Kelly novel for the contemporary reader.
One of the great gifts of the novel to humanistic understanding is its ability to bring characters to vivid psychological life—literally to give life to the individual experience. Steve Hart: The Last Kelly Standing brings both history and character to life through an intricately plaited series of stories which dramatise the nascent Australian national myth. But perhaps the most moving story in this polyphonic multi-faceted work, is how Steve Hart rises like the proverbial Phoenix from the ashes of what might otherwise have been a short and tragic life.
Steve Hart: The Last Kelly Standing is now available via the Hawkeye bookstore.
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