A Difficult Young Man | Martin Boyd #AUSfiction

When I told Julian that I would write this book, the first intention was that it should be about my grandparents, but we agreed that it should also be an exploration of Dominic’s immediate forebears to discover what influences had made him what he was, and above all to discover what in fact he was.

A Difficult Young Man is the second book in Martin Boyds ‘Langton Tetralogy’ (which comprisesThe Cardboard CrownA Difficult Young ManOutbreak of Love and When Blackbirds Sing). Nearly three years ago, I read The Cardboard Crown and enjoyed it so much I vowed to read book two as soon as possible!

As you can see that wasn’t quite the case. It took Bill @The Australian Legend making a recent comment that he was planning on (re)reading a couple of Langton books in February to see if they were as good as he remembered. That was all the prompting I needed to return to pre-WWI Melbourne and England with Martin Boyd.

I had hoped to read more about Boyd and his extraordinary family before embarking on the next three books, but that didn’t happen either. It’s not necessary to have this background information, but for someone like me, it is. In books that are described as auto-fiction or fiction based on real life people, I tend to get a little caught up in trying to work out which bits really happened and which bits are made up. It’s obviously one of those quirks in my personality that I cannot let this go. The family tree of characters in my book is now over-written with the real names of the various grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles and siblings plus relevant dates.

Sonya Hartnett’s Introduction in my edition cleared up some of the facts and fictions. A number of the early childhood events described really happened, and Boyd’s descriptions of his brother reflected his attitude and feelings towards his brother, subject to all the biases and childhood prejudices that this encompassed. However, many of the thoughts and beliefs ascribed to the brother character, were more likely a closer match to Boyd’s own perspective.

…much of his entire existence – was spent trying to unite the past with the present, the old world with the new, himself with the man he might have been….he never shirked from using friends and relatives as material for his novels, as well as real-life experiences of himself and others.

…he wrote of the place that entranced him: the small, rich, finely coloured world of his family’s past.

…It was written in England in 1953; experience had taught Boyd that with distance came freedom, that the further he was from Australia, the better he could write of those nearest to him.

…The lonely destiny of Dominic was one Boyd long foresaw for himself. The difficulties, in the end, were all his.

Dominic’s young life, as described by his younger brother Guy, was one full of disgrace, disaster and drama. As a narrator, Guy is conscious of his own faults, asking us to accept that his adult knowledge often glazes over keen youthful memories. Were Dominic’s misdemenours as awful as he claimed, or was their impact heightened by the young, impressionable age of our narrator at the time?

I guess that’s what makes this such an interesting story to me.

We all have family fictions. Stories that grow and evolve with the passing of time, with new knoweldge acquired and maturity. Every family member has their own version of events; each one creates their own life narrative that makes sense of their experiences.

A Difficult Young Man is Martin Boyd taking family storytelling to the nth degree. I enjoy the unreliable narrator device; it leaves the interpretation of events wide open to the reader.

In an earlier discussion, as we were both finishing the book, Bill mentioned that, “I identify strongly with Dominic, and I will be interested to see what you say about Helen(a). I think she’s a strong woman but Guy/Martin Boyd isn’t very interested in her.”

Helena is one of the fictions created by Boyd as far as I can ascertain. From Wikipedia, I can see that the real life Dominic, artist Merric Boyd married a fellow student/painter, Doris Gough in 1915 – not his first cousin (although weirdly perhaps, Merric and Martin had a younger sister named Helen. To add further confusion to the naming of his characters, Martin had a nephew called Guy who was Merric and Doris’ son).

So, Helena.

Beware ***spoiler alerts*** below.

The story is completely focused on the character of Dominic as seen through the eyes of Guy. Everyone else is secondary, including Helena. Dominic was a dynamic, charismatic character despite his flaws. Along with his brooding good-looks, it is easy to see why women would find him attractive and exciting to hang with. There is something about him that needed saving or taming. Or understanding.

That’s where Helena comes in.

First cousins falling in love and getting married was not an uncommon practice at this time given the much smaller pool of possible contenders if you wished to marry within your (aristocratic) class. Royal families around Europe were prone to it, although that is probably not a selling point in favour of cousinly love!

Cousinship aside, Helena is referred to as being fearless and along with Sarah (Dominic & Guy’s mother) one of the few family members not hostile towards Dominic (according to the hostile Guy). It was understood by everyone that she would not only side with Dominic during family disputes but that she actually had some influence over him.

He worshipped her and from the very beginning of our childhood we spoke of Helena and Dominic together.

But it wasn’t until the annual family summer holiday to Tasmania, organised by Grandma Alice, where a deeper attraction developed between the teenaged cousins. Various family tensions were simmering away during the entire holiday, but a driving accident that resulted in Helena being flung out of the drag carriage changed everything. Dominic immediately ‘went‘ after her into the gully, where ‘he crashed heroically and uselessly into the thicket below.’ Helena was fine, displaying the ‘glowing and cheerful courage which she radiated throughout the whole of her life.‘ They both incurred some minor injuries, scratches and bruising, but the shock to the family ran deep. Especially for Sarah, who briefly relived the death of her eldest son after he fell from a pony aged nine (this event was recounted in The Cardboard Crown).

This particular accident though, resulted in a family conspiracy to keep Dominic and Helena apart.

At the next family gathering by Beaumanoir beach (which I assume is a fictionalised Beaumaris), Dominic was discovered by his uncle in the girl’s bathing shed with Helena, ‘worshipping‘ her, as the other cousins called it. Guy believed it was a relatively innocent reverance, although it did seem to require Helena to be without the top half of her bathing dress. To separate the cousins properly this time, Guy’s family decide to return to England.

A couple of years go by and Dominic becomes engaged to the neighbour’s daughter. Helena and her parents eventually visit England with a plan of travelling to Spain. The family now consider it safe for the cousins to meet. They were wrong.

Helena is clearly attracted to the dangerous, daring nature of Dominic and despite his engagement elsewhere, an understanding appears to be arrived at between them. Naturally her family rush her back home to Melbourne where they convince her that she is really in love with the very wealthy Wentworth McLeish. An engagement is announced.

When Guy’s family also return to Melbourne, Dominic is sent to stay in the country ‘as far away as possible from Helena and Toorak.’ But a blundering, interfering, malicious aunt decides the matter when she reveals to Helena how she had been ‘manoeuvred‘ into an engagement that would remove her from ‘the tides of povery encroaching on the family.’ Helena is naturally outraged and runs away to Sydney with Dominic where they are promptly married.

Although, Helena only appears in the novel a handful of times, each occasion is profoundly significant to Dominic. It is clear with each meeting, that the attraction runs deep for both of them. He excites her and she anchors him. She understands, he exalts. Putting your spouse up on a pedestal of ‘reverence’ as Dominic so obviously does is bound to end badly, but for now we can imagine them living happily, if chaotically, ever after.

Helena is a strong character who knows her own mind – perhaps Guy/Martin’s inability to see this or champion this reflects his own ambivalence towards women and heterosexual love? Or maybe any woman who loved Dominic was doomed to be misunderstood by Guy? Given that Helena is a fictional construct though, maybe we should give Boyd more credit. Helena is a convincing female character created so that Dominic has a chance at love, romance and happiness.

Hopefully it won’t take me another three years to read the final two books in the Langton Quartet. The first two have proven to be a delightful, often witty, peek inside the snobbish, pretentious, bourgeois world of pre-WWI Melbourne.

I can’t wait to see what Bill’s reread revealed to him!


Favourite Quote:

I loved human noses, pointed witty noses, turned-up friendly noses, bold arched noses, and even the inquisitive noses of dogs and the soft noses of horses, with which they try to speak to us.

Favourite Character: Helena


Books in Books:

Title: A Difficult Young Man
Author: Martin Boyd
ISBN: 9781921922121
Imprint: Text Classics
Published: 26 April 2012 (originally published 1955)
Format: Paperback
Pages: 325
Dates Read: 26 January 2023 - 8 February 2023
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.

11 thoughts on “A Difficult Young Man | Martin Boyd #AUSfiction

  1. I’m glad I inspired you to join in. I’m posting my review overnight, though I’m not sure it properly catches either the spirit of the book nor my reasons for emphasizing so strongly with Dominic.
    In my mind Boyd (or at least Guy) only shows Helen as being acted on, but I get the impression she is much more strong minded than Guy allows. I wonder if Boyd intended us to see this (though I think he did not).


    1. I would like to know why or what it is about Dominic that you identify with. The misunderstood black sheep of the family? The strong, moody romantic lead? Trying to live up to the expectations of one’s family and society, yet feeling like you never get it right? These are just some of the ways I think about Dominic.

      And now I know why you insist upon Helen. It’s funny the tricks our memory can play on us!


      1. It’s a good question, and I’m not sure I fit very well into any of those categories. I was and am romantic but I could only wish I had an Helena! And I was often the black sheep, which Milly might say rested more heavily on my shoulders than I’m willing to admit. Hopefully we’ll have dinner tomorrow and I can ask her.


  2. As you know I read this – and at the time I said I’d move The cardboard crown up on my TBR pile. That was 2010, and it’s still on the TBR pile. What a shame. I didn’t discuss the characters much at all – but I so loved the writing.


  3. I know what you mean about knowing the bio. I’d read some of Boyd’s novels ages ago, but after I read Brenda Niall’s bio of the Boyd Family, I read When Blackbirds Sing and really, really enjoyed it.


  4. Thanks for the link back to mine.

    Glad to see you enjoyed this one. I thought it was quite fun. He paints such a vivid portrait of his brother… would love to see things through his eyes though… wouldn’t that be a treat!

    The scene where Helena is flung out of the carriage made me laugh out loud… just something about the comedy of Boyd’s description, although I’m sure something like that in real life would be terrifying. Any wonder Dominic is seen as reckless and a bit irresponsible!


    1. I saw him as impulsive, letting his emotions rule his actions. I wonder he would get an ADHD diagnosis these days?
      This book has made me even more kken to read Brenda Niall’s bio on the Boyd family – I would hope that her view of all the family members was more considered and less biased than Guy/Martin’s.

      Liked by 1 person

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