Critics on the trail of Ned Kelly

14th July 1995 at 01:00
NED KELLY RECONSTRUCTED. By Wendy Morgan. Cambridge University Press Pounds 12.95. - 0 521 43783 0. Age range 14 plus.

In modern British history the nearest equivalent of the legendary Australian outlaw Ned Kelly is probably the Great Train Robbers. For some reason this particular crime and group of criminals caught the national imagination. Although the robbers were condemned by some as violent lawbreakers, others saw them as a band of romantic desperadoes, and a fiction of heroic brigandry was born. Many kinds of "truth" were constructed for the tale, and readers and audiences for the subsequent newspaper stories, books and film brought their own values and feelings to the "reading" of them. A valuable text-book for GCSE, or for A-level English language courses, could be centred on constructions and interpretations of this one sensational event.

The story of Ned Kelly has a central place in Australian popular history. Kelly's gang, like the train robbers writ large, enjoyed a brief career of glamorous banditry which ended with a famous shoot-out at Glenrowan and the hanging of Ned Kelly in 1880. Every significant episode in the gang's career is short on some conclusive facts and open to interpretation, and over the years the historians, poets, balladeers and film-makers have given Kelly every possible identity from brutal killer to patriotic hero and victim.

Wendy Morgan's book, designed for senior students in Australian secondary schools, takes a broadly narrative format, giving one chapter to each major event in Kelly's progress. Using a wide range of documents, she interrogates their various constructions of the Kelly story, and asks students to identify the values that they in turn bring to the "reading" of them. The documentation of a legend forms the basis for a practical training in post-structuralist theory, and the book is an adroit and sophisticated teaching aid which opens up many of the insights which modern theory has provided into the construction of texts and the nature of reading.

Ned Kelly's story is not universally known in Britain, though it certainly should be. The book is explicitly addressed to a domestic Australian readership, and reflects internal perceptions of the Australian national consciousness. In seeking a wider market the publishers are taking a risk, which is presumably reflected in the price. Not many class sets of Ned Kelly Reconstructed will be bought in Britain.

However, the enterprise deserves success. Used as a teacher's resource, or with enough copies available to equip small groups, it will enrich sixth-form work in both literature and language by de-mystifying theory and providing an admirable springboard for socially critical reading. And in the process it tells a riveting story which even the poms deserve to share.

Peter Hollindale is senior lecturer in English and Educational Studies at the University of York.

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