My ‘secret’ (reading) pleasures – Georgette Heyer, Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Guy Crouchback novels, even Gilmore Girls – are stories of the upper classes at play. So it should be no surprise I also enjoy the works of Martin Boyd (1893- 1972), having first read his A Difficult Young Man (1955) in my matriculation year. The book being reviewed here, Day of My Delight (1965) is an autobiography, his second. The first, A Single Flame (1939), was necessarily part-fiction owing to so many of the people he wished to discuss still being alive, and was subsumed into this later work.
Boyd says of his frequent novelisations of the extensive Boyd and à Beckett (his mother’s) families that:
As far as I know I am the only one to put on record the kind of life led by these people, even if I have done it with a touch of levity. In the last century they were the “ruling class” in Victoria, and so have historical interest. Up to 1914 they still held the pre-eminence this had given them… I did not question that I was entitled to exercise this privilege. Our sort were soon overshadowed by rich squatters, who in turn have been overshadowed by rich business people.
He is at pains to point out that his family, his ‘sort’, were comfortable with their noblesse and also with their oblige, in fact he says, during the Depression his mother gave so much of her money away that she regarded herself as a socialist, and contrasts this with the crassness of the working rich, without titles in their backgrounds, the self-styled upper middle class. In fact a great deal of his writing, not just this autobiography, can be read as documenting and maybe even justifying class distinction.
Boyd’s father Arthur Merric Boyd, an artist with independent means, was the offshoot of Irish Protestant and, more distantly, Scottish aristocracy. Emma Minnie, his wife and also an artist (they exhibited together at the Royal Academy in London in 1891) was the granddaughter of Sir William à Beckett, first Chief Justice of Victoria (having replaced Resident Judge Willis in 1845). More importantly for their finances, Emma’s wealthy mother was the daughter of the founder of the Melbourne Brewery. For many years the Boyds and their relatives and in-laws, like artist John Perceval and author Joan Lindsay, were at the centre of artistic life in Melbourne, and a great deal of Martin’s social life both in Victoria and subsequently in England revolves around his extended family.
Boyd says of himself (in the early 1960s) that “I was recognised in England, if not in Australia, as one of the two major novelists of the latter country.” Kerryn Goldsworthy, who allows him half a page in the Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature (2000), writes:
Boyd has fallen out of favour in recent years, his novels seen as little more than an expression of nostalgia for a vanished way of life and his technical skills less valued than twenty years ago, but there is much in his fiction and in his biography to engage contemporary critics in the fields of postcolonial theory, gender studies and Queer theory.
A quarter of a century earlier Geoffrey Dutton (editor) in his The Literature of Australia allowed Boyd his own chapter. There Dorothy Green rated him as “one of the easiest to read of the principal Australian novelists” but also credits him with raising, and attempting to answer, serious moral questions, especially around individual responsibility during war.
Briefly, in the 1890s the Boyds were living at their English property, Penleigh House, Wiltshire. The Melbourne bank failures of the 1890s greatly reduced their wealth and in 1893 they sold up in England and, largely bankrolled by Emma’s mother, were returning home slowly via Europe when Martin, their fourth son, was born in Switzerland. Back in Victoria they live at the Grange, the à Beckett family property near Berwick southeast of Melbourne. Then, describing what are now crowded, bayside suburbs:
For about eight years, until I was thirteen, we lived at Sandringham, near Melbourne. Apart from a few shops around the railway station, there were then only half a dozen scattered houses. We had the undisturbed use of a mile of golden beach, and tea-tree covered cliffs. …
My mother’s parents lived at Brighton, about three miles away, while my grandmother Boyd lived in St Kilda, in a grey, gabled house set in a large garden and surrounded by fields. We were always conscious of living against the background of our relatives.
The Grange is “Westhill”, the Langton family home in The Cardboard Crown series of novels, novels based to some extent he on the diaries of his grandmother à Beckett from which, he says, he quoted whole passages verbatim. Throughout the autobiography he matches real people and places with the novels he has ‘used’ them in.
After Sandringham the Boyds, having come into their Boyd and à Beckett inheritances, purchased a farm at Yarra Glen, on the banks of the Yarra, northwest of Melbourne. “Beyond the vineyards was Madame Melba’s [opera singer, Dame Nellie Melba’s] house, where she came back regularly from the homage of Europe to help her native land”. By this time Martin was a weekly boarder at Trinity Grammar. He did not do well enough to get into university and instead, considering a vocation in the Church, attended St John’s Theological College in St Kilda. Boyd belonged at the High or Catholic end of the Anglican spectrum, which he discusses at tedious length and in fact although he is off and on agnostic, and sometimes very angry with the Church for their support of killing during both World Wars, in his last few days he converted to Roman Catholicism (but is nevertheless buried in a C of E cemetery).
After a year at St John’s his vocation is lost. His parents refuse to let him ‘laze around the farm’ – though they and their parents all had independent means and never a regular job in their lives – and is articled to a firm of architects in the city. Saved by the outbreak of war, he attempts to enlist with the AIF but, due to his being born in Switzerland, is not immediately accepted and so, accepts an uncle’s advice that he should go to England and get a commission (an option not available in the Australian army) among people “of my own class”.
Late in 1915 he enlists and begins training. Recruits were able to choose a regiment if they could persuade the colonel to take them. Boyd is accepted into the Buffs (Royal East Kent) on the basis that a cousin of his mother’s had married a daughter of the second Earl Kitchener and was a friend of the colonel’s. Boyd also has to tell us that the colonel’s grandson was Anthony Armstrong-Jones, who was, much later, the husband of Princess Margaret.
Boyd is passionately anti-war on the quite reasonable basis that politicians seek power and businessmen grow rich by persuading young men to kill each other, and increasingly civilians as well, on their behalfs. He believes the Germans were willing to sue for peace as early as 1916 but Lloyd George thought that if there were an armistice “it might be difficult to get the nations fighting again”. In the end he was in the trenches in Flanders for most of 1917, surviving by the merest chance as men were blown up all around him. “I was the only officer who had survived neither killed nor wounded since the day I joined the battalion.” At the end of the year he transfers to the Royal Flying Corp, whose losses were, proportionally, even higher than the army’s, but again he survives.
After the war he spends time in an Anglican monastery then, finally, he begins to write. He is not happy with his first three novels, which he publishes under the pen name Martin Mills (His brewer grandfather was John Mills). The second, Brangane (1926), is meant to be based on Australian author Barbara Baynton who by her third marriage was Baroness Headley, but sadly for us, except for one brief mention of an eccentric Irish peeress, he says nothing about having met her. The third was The Montforts (1928). Miles Franklin whose own career had finally got back on track with Up the Country, wrote late in 1928 to her friend Alice Henry:
Of course [Katherine Sussanah Prichard’s] Working Bullocks is the best book we’ve had for a long while. I was astonished when I was handed a 1928 book The Monforts… A book showing possibilities but so curiously put together. It covers eighty years and eighty years in Melbourne means a good deal…
Quite often, especially during the war, Boyd is invited by his companions to join them in their visits to prostitutes, invitations he always manages to refuse. Later when he is living in Cambridge he gets quite excited about the famous King’s College choir and it slowly becomes clear that he is often in the company of young men. This is as much as he says about his sexuality.
During the 30s, living between Sussex and Italy, he writes social comedies of little consequence. His first important novel is Lucinda Brayford (1946) with its Australian-born heroine and this leads into the four ‘Langton’ novels—The Cardboard Crown (1952), A Difficult Young Man (1955) , Outbreak of Love (1957) and When Blackbirds Sing (1962). A fifth was planned but Boyd says he refused to write it when his publisher demanded more sex. Boyd is probably proudest of When Blackbirds Sing which he considers a passionate argument against the evils of war.
In the 1950s Boyd tries to live back in Australia, buying and doing up the old à Beckett family home, but this doesn’t work out and he retires to Rome where in his final years, he is a supporter of the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Martin Boyd, Day of My Delight, Lansdowne, Melbourne, 1965 (Reprinted 1974)
Kerryn Goldsworthy, Fiction from 1900-1970, in Elizabeth Webby (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature, CUP, Cambridge, 2000
Dorothy Green, Martin Boyd, in Geoffry Dutton (ed.), The Literature of Australia, Penguin, Melbourne, 1964, Revised 1976
Brenda Niall, The Boyds, A Family Biography reviewed here by The Resident Judge