In my early years in Australia in the late 1960s I read widely in Australian literature for the first time. Then, as now, my first authorial preference in the world of fiction was Martin Boyd. Although I loved all of his works, my favourites were the four Langton novels starting with The Cardboard Crown. This remarkably appealing book, critically recognised as thinly disguised autobiography, was soon followed by A Difficult Young Man. Because the Boyd family was so artistically gifted, including among its distinguished members the painter Arthur and the sculptor Guy, Martin’s revelations in the Langton series commanded unusual interest among literati in Australia and England. What particularly struck me were his dramatisations of chivalry.
Yet even a half-century ago other novelists, especially Patrick White, received more sustained international attention. I’m still puzzled by this-especially because, having recently re-read the second Langton novel, I’ve been forcibly struck by its high intelligence and readability, the range of its allusions to cultural events dating back to ancient Greece and Rome, and its sensitivity to significant differences in Australian and European daily life. Over decades Martin Boyd’s family juggled their time between both continents, and he himself died in Italy after living there for many years. It is well known that he did not marry or have children of his own, though he was deeply attached to nieces and nephews. Less well known is the fact that he received two ALS medals for his fiction before he died.
The protagonist of A Difficult Young Man, Dominic Langton, is darkly handsome, unfailingly courteous, intense, moody, sensitive, and so unconventional that he causes unintentional suffering to others which he would prefer to endure himself. Endlessly misunderstood, as an adolescent he is unjustly expelled from boarding school. In near despair, he rides his horse Tamburlaine to death without realising that he is pushing his beloved animal beyond endurance. Not long afterwards he fails his army entrance exams. What his admirably civilised father decides to do about these and other distressing effects of Dominic’s character, since severe punishment would be as counterproductive as willful blindness, is encourage his second son to draw. But even though drawing and painting keep him gainfully occupied by utilising his profound giftedness, they do not resolve the personal problems that continue to plague him. At the worst moments in his life he sobs uncontrollably, knowing that he cannot alter his own nature-most painfully, ungovernable rages and mysterious disappearances.
For good reason, young women are deeply attracted to Dominic. A flirtation with two family maids temporarily lands him in disgrace. Subsequently he becomes involved with women in higher social echelons. Since his first great love, Helena Craig, is his cousin, prudent elders succeed for some time in keeping them apart. His second attachment, Sylvia Tunstall, the daughter of a wealthy British peer, readily agrees to their engagement; but after he discovers that she lacks both his own noble sense of honour and his warmth, the relationship fizzles. Near its end Boyd’s narrator, Dominic’s younger brother Guy Langton, calls Sylvia a barbarian. By the time the novel approaches its conclusion, Helena has become engaged to a callow rich gentleman encountered on a sea voyage; but Dominic prevents their wedding shortly before it is to take place and elopes with Helena.
On large moral issues, Dominic’s journey and the lives of those closest to him are instructive. Wise observations about people, sound and unreliable conduct, and worthy long-term aims appear on almost every page of the novel. From the pathetic military man, Colonel Rodgers, whose bravery as a Gurkha does not equip him for mature personal life, to the cruel social-climbing Aunt Baba, who won’t agree to a divorce from George Langton even though they are deeply unhappy, and to Guy’s more worldly brother Brian, who is described as valuing paid workers more than those who do better work gratis, Boyd’s portraiture is brilliantly compressed. Nobody escapes his watchful eye. As a result, readers absorbed in a growing up saga seamlessly linked with powerful familial influences garner rewards found only in the most accomplished prose literature
This reflection is the fourth in a seris about Growing Up that describes fiction from different parts of the world. For most of her life, starting in Year 3, Susan Reibel Moore has taught Reading, Writing and literature.