Martin Boyd | A Difficult Young Man

Australian writer, Martin à Beckett Boyd, was born on 10 June, 1893, in Lucerne, Switzerland, into the à Beckett-Boyd family. He was the youngest son of Arthur Merric Boyd and Emma Minnie (nee à Beckett) Boyd, who were both established Australian artists. Martin Boyd’s siblings included the potter William Merric Boyd, and painters Theodore Penleigh Boyd; and, Helen à Beckett Read (née Boyd). In 1893, the family was travelling through Europe, using a family inheritance from the à Beckett family. Martin regarded his birthplace in Europe, as one of the reasons for his lifelong inability to feel at home, anywhere.

  • On return to Melbourne, the Boyd family lived in Sandringham, and later at the family farm at Yarra Glen, Victoria. Martin attended Trinity Grammar School, in the Melbourne eastern suburb of Kew, where he developed a passion for English poetry and edited the school magazine, The Mitre. After completing school in 1912, Martin was undecided on a career path and commenced study for a religious vocation, at St John’s College, St Kilda. He did not see out the year, so by suggestion of his mother, Martin began training as an architect for Purchas and Teague in Melbourne.

Martin travelled to England, and in 1916, became a commissioned officer in the Royal East Kent Regiment, known as the “Buffs“. After fighting in the trenches in France, during World War One (WWI), in 1916, Martin requested a transfer; and was accepted into the Royal Flying Corps, in 1917; where he stayed until the end of the War.

  • Martin returned to Australia after WWI, but found he no longer fitted in. Listless and directionless, he left Melbourne in 1921, to live in London, where he did some newspaper work and travelled.  Martin was a sensitive, private and complex man, who struggled with his identity as an Anglo-Australian, as an expatriate writer; and, religion. He was a loyal family man and friend, yet never found a lasting romantic relationship of his own. Martin was intensely involved in family life, and took a keen interest in the development of his nephews and nieces, and their families.

After the death of his brother Penleigh, in 1923, Martin again turned to religion, joining an Anglican-Franciscan community in Dorset. This too was a phase, and he left, and continued on as before. For almost 20 years, Martin lived a nomadic life, never staying long in any place, and owning few possessions. He survived financially on one hundred pounds a year from his parents; a short stint as acting editor of The British Australasian; and sporadic payments from his writing.

  • In 1928, Martin won the Australian Literature Society (ALS) Gold Medal for his novel The Montforts. The novel, written under the pseudonym Martin Mills, is based on the history of his à Beckett-Boyd ancestors.

Martin became a novelist, memoirist, and poet and wrote from experience and about what he knew intimately. Throughout his life, he felt like an outsider, whether in Australia or Europe. Often described as a witty author, Martin’s work drew heavily on his life and family, and through his novels, he has been recognised as one of the most important Australian novelists of the 20th century.

His works written under the pseudonym of Martin Mills include:

  • Love Gods (1925), Bangrane: A Memoir (1926), and The Madeleine Heritage (1928). This is the American edition of The Montforts, (1928) [which he later changed authorship from Mills, to his birth name Martin Boyd]

The following series of novels were written in England:

  • Scandal of Spring (1934), The Lemon Farm (1935), The Painted Princess (1936), The Picnic (1937), Night of the Party (1938), Nuns in Jeopardy (1940), Lucinda Brayford (1946) and Such Pleasures (1949)

After the success of Lucinda Brayford, Martin returned to Australia in 1948, intending to remain living in his maternal grandfather à Beckett’s home, ‘The Grange‘, near Berwick. After three years, he left again for England, in 1951, disappointed by his dream of ‘The Grange‘, and the past; ignored by the Australian literary establishment; and out of touch with his younger relatives.

The Langton tetralogy which, though not published as a series during his lifetime, is now referred to as a collective and include:

  • The Cardboard Crown (1952), A Difficult Young Man (1955), Outbreak of Love (1957), and When Blackbirds Sing (1962)
  • In 1957, Martin won another ALS Gold Medal award, this time for A Difficult Young Man. 

Martin suffered from ill health for the last decade of his life. Now living in Rome, Italy; he was astonished to get an official letter from Canberra, a few days before Christmas 1971. The Commonwealth Literary Fund, had awarded him $1000, and a life pension of $30 a week; out of regard for his part in the development of the literature of Australia.

Martin Boyd died from cancer on 3 June, 1972, just days after being received into the Catholic Church. Despite this, he was buried near the poets John Keats and Percy Bysse Shelley in Rome’s Protestant ‘English Cemetery‘.

  • The two images featured: a sketch Athlete’s Head (1963) by Martin Boyd and Rosebud (1939) by Arthur Boyd, feature in Martin’s autobiography Day of My Delight: An Anglo-Australian Memoir

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“Is It Art?”

Source: Boyd, Martin. Day of My Delight: An Anglo-Australian Memoir. Lansdowne Press: Dee Why West, 3rd ed. 1979
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