This remarkable novel, first published to a chorus of acclaim in 1952, is one of the lost classics of Australian literature. Martin Boyd is a deeply humane novelist, a writer of family sagas without peer.
Set in Australia and England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, The Cardboard Crown presents an unforgettable portrait of an upper middle-class family who love both countries but are not quite at home in either.
At the centre of this scintillating and immensely readable novel is Alice Verso, whose unexpected marriage to Austin Langton not only brings financial stability to the Langtons but founds an Anglo-Australian dynasty. But when her grandson finds her diaries and begins to uncover her story he chances on an intricate web of deception and reveals the complex fate of his family over three generations.
I don’t often start with a blurb about the book I’ve just read, but I figured that many of my readers may never have heard of The Cardboard Crown or Martin Boyd.
The Langton Quartet (there are three more books in the series) have been compared to the Forsyte Saga, and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time as an Australian example of a family epic across time and place.
Boyd (10th June 1893 – 3rd June 1972 – how frustrating to get so close to one’s 80th birthday and just miss out!) was part of the well-known à Beckett-Boyd family of Melbourne. Various members of the family made their names in the judiciary, art, literary and publishing worlds. To name a few of this creative extended family we have Merric Boyd, Helen à Beckett Read, Arthur Boyd, Guy Boyd, David Boyd, Mary Nolan, Robin Boyd and Joan Lindsay.
Martin actually spent most of his adult life in Europe, but The Cardboard Crown and it’s follow up books A Difficult Young Man (1955), Outbreak of Love (1957) and When Blackbirds Sing (1962) were written thanks to a brief period of his life when he returned to Australia with a dream to restore the old family home.
During this time (1948-1951), he rediscovered his grandmother’s diaries where he read about her previously unknown convict heritage. Her father, John Mills, the founder of Melbourne Brewery, was an ex-convict. It was his money that had funded the extended family for several generations. In 1950’s Australia though, a convict past was decidedly frowned upon. So Boyd changed the family scandal in his books to that of an adulterous affair, or as Brenda Niall says in her Introduction, he ‘reinterpreted a century of family history‘.
Boyd had a brief stint in a seminary (followed by a lifelong search for the place of religion in his life) before enlisting in the Royal East Kent Regiment during WWI. After the war, he returned to Melbourne, but no longer felt like he fitted in there. He returned to Europe, wandering around from place to place. After his final stay in Australia, he moved to Rome to write. He converted to Catholicism in his dying days and is buried in the Rome Protestant English Cemetery near Keats and Shelley.
Like the characters in his semi-biographical quartet, Boyd never felt at home in Australia or England. Throughout The Cardboard Crown the tension between being English and being Australian is a constant pull. As is the sad and slow decline of a once well-off, well-connected family moving down the social ladder.
It did not occur to anyone until after the 1914 war that there was any obligation to work unless it was necessary.
I can see why this book may have fallen out of favour for a while. Aristocrats, inherited money and gentlemen of leisure don’t really hold much truck with the average Australian. Ignoring our convict heritage may have been de rigueur in the early part of the nineteenth century, but by the 1970’s, with its sudden surge in family history research, having a convict or two in your past, became not only acceptable but something to be proud of, especially if you could claim a First Fleeter on your tree. It’s a shame that Boyd didn’t feel that he could tell that story.
They had brought out with them their English style of living, but it was tempered by a pleasant colonial informality. They had to satisfy no one but themselves. They did not follow the social pattern, they set it.
The story of Alice Langton, is told by her grandson Guy de Teba Langton. We see her as he remembers her, but we also get a more first hand, personal account of her life through her own diaries. Boyd/Langton enjoys the disparity between the two and spends many musing moments comparing these two women, these two images of the same woman.
It did not seem only to contain the ghosts of the dead from whom we spring, but also the ghosts of the living, of the child I was.
She was quite an extraordinary woman – self-made, strong and capable. She spent her life searching for home and for love, constantly juggling and handing over money to prevent the entire family from going under.
Alice only wanted to fill properly the position in which circumstances had placed her, and to see that her children had and used all the opportunities available to people of their kind.
But Guy/Martin also explored class consciousness and the workings of democracy. He compares the two countries, he compares East St Kilda and Toorak, he compares town and country and he compares Europe and England. There’s a snobbish attitude towards the middle class, but a curious link is made between the landed gentry and the rural working classes,
The aristocracy lives from the land, the peasant lives from the land – they are akin. Their blood is nourished red from nature, and the flesh and the spirit are one.
The colonial emigrant experience is a big part of this story. The disconnect and confusion about belonging and home reflected the reality of many nineteenth century Australians who still called England ‘home’. It was an odd situation to be in. In England, where their hearts lay, they were small fish in a very old pond. In Australia they had the opportunity to be big fish with a lot of political and social clout, but it was only in Australia, on the other side of the world from where all the important stuff was actually happening. It almost felt like play-acting at being important. Living in the now, and being happy where you are, was not something that these Australians found easy to do. Their eyes were always on the horizon and they were constantly trying to superimpose an English way of life onto this alien Australian environment.
Needless to say, the story was filled with a curious mix of nostalgia, pride and divided loyalties.
My one difficulty with this book was the large paragraphs written in French. I spent one Sunday afternoon typing them all into my google translate app, to only discover that most of the sentiment within these paragraphs was conveyed, by Boyd, in the sections around them. But I needed to know for sure. Once upon a time, Boyd’s readers would have been schooled in basic French, but no longer. All I could do was pick out random words I knew.
I was thoroughly engaged with this multi-generational story, seeing an older Melbourne through nostalgic eyes and a Europe still innocent of two world wars. When I finished I wasn’t sure if I would continue the journey with the other three books. But as time has gone by, between reading and reviewing, I now also feel a sense of nostalgia for this time and this place and this family and I’m very curious to see what happens next.
I guess I’ll be adding A Difficult Young Man to my next CC Spin!