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Martin Boyd: A Life

Brenda Niall


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Martin Boyd was one of the generation whose lives were changed by World War I. He served in a British regiment, survived the trenches in 1916 17 and joined the Royal Flying Corps. The pacifist beliefs which emerged from that war experience are central to his fiction, as they were to his life. Boyd s was a complex personality- witty, generous, sociable yet deeply reserved. He looked for his home of the spirit in many places- an Anglican monastery, London s West End clubland, a Cambridge village, and an old family house in Harkaway, Victoria, and among English expatriates in Rome. In a fine study of a man and his work, Brenda Niall re-creates the Melbourne in which Boyd grew up, just before World War I, and traces his development as a writer during his restless expatriate years.

268 p., [24] p. of plates ; 24 cm. #100122

Boyd, Martin, 1893-1972.  |  Novelists, Australian — 20th century — Biography.

Martin à Beckett Boyd (10 June 1893 – 3 June 1972) was an Australian writer born into the à Beckett–Boyd family, a family synonymous with the establishment, the judiciary, publishing and literature, and the visual arts since the early 19th century in Australia.

Boyd was a novelist, memoirist and poet who spent most of his life after World War I in Europe, primarily Britain. His work drew heavily on his own life and family, with his novels frequently exploring the experiences of the Anglo-Australian upper and middle classes. His writing was also deeply influenced by his experience of serving in World War One.

Boyd’s siblings included the potter Merric Boyd (1888–1959), painters Penleigh Boyd (1890–1923) and Helen à Beckett Read, née Boyd (1903–1999). He was intensely involved in family life and took a keen interest in the development of his nephews and nieces and their families, including potter Lucy Beck (1916-2009), painter Arthur Boyd (1920–1999), sculptor Guy Boyd (1923–1988), painter David Boyd (1924–2011), painter Mary Nolan (1926–2016) – who was married to painters John Perceval and Sidney Nolan – and architect Robin Boyd (1919–1971). His nephew Guy Boyd was his literary executor.

Boyd returned to Australia after World War One but found he no longer fitted in. Because of his decision to join the British Army, he felt that a wedge had developed between him and his friends as their wartime experiences were different. Listless and directionless he left Melbourne in 1921 to live in London, did some newspaper work and travelled.[2] Wearying of that world too and with the death of his brother Penleigh in 1923, Boyd again turned to religion joining an Anglican Franciscan community in Dorset.[4] This too was a phase, however, so he left and continued on as before. For almost twenty years he 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.[1] Joan Lindsay, author of Picnic at Hanging Rock, remembers her cousin Martin as a gentleman. He was a modest, free-spirited bachelor, adept at finding comfortable lodging. She remembers, “…he had always had a nose for odd and unusual pieces of furniture and queer old paintings picked up for a few pounds. During the war he had embellished his dugout in France with a large statue of his favourite Dancing Faun, dragging it from one filthy hole to another until forced to abandon it forever in the oozing mud”.[11]

In 1925 Boyd’s first novel, Love Gods, was published. He had found his vocation and between 1925 and 1949 he published ten novels, a volume of autobiography and a children’s story.[6]

While living in England he is recorded as having an affair with a woman.[1]: 2007: 216  Boyd’s sexuality was, and continues to be, the subject of conjecture. Illicit love, and same-sex desire, are prevailing themes in his work. A 1930s novel, The Shepherd of Admetus was rejected by publishers due to its overt homosexual narrative.[12]

After his father’s death in July 1940, his mother’s inheritance was released, which gave Boyd the financial freedom to live life however he chose.[1] The money originally came from Martin’s grandmother Emma à Beckett (née Mills) and had been secured with the direct intervention of his male relatives.[13]

Boyd delayed a return to Australia in the hope he could return a success.[2] His motivation was not to be a disappointment to his family and he was plagued by doubts about his own achievements.[1] After the success of Lucinda Brayford, he returned to Australia in 1948, intending to remain living in his 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.[4][5]

Boyd moved to Rome in 1957 where he wrote the Langton tetralogy, frequently considered his finest work, the second autobiography, Day of My Delight, the travel story Much else in Italy and a light novel The Tea-Time of Love.[6] Despite his literary successes, Boyd’s medical expenses in the year before his death were paid by his nephews Arthur, Guy, and David Boyd. His loyalty to his family and friends was being generously repaid. Brenda Niall recounts, “A few days before Christmas 1971, Boyd was astonished to get an official letter from Canberra. The Commonwealth Literary Fund had awarded him $1000 and a life pension of $30 a week “out of regard for the part you have played in the development of the literature of Australia”. This had come about because a number of his Australian friends had heard of his illness and financial difficulties; and stirred others to do something about it. Thelma Herring, Barrie ReidPatrick White and Gough Whitlam (then Leader of the Federal Opposition and a member of the Commonwealth Literary Fund committee) were among those responsible.”[4]: 212 

One of the defining characteristics of Boyd was his reputation as a social enigma. This can mainly be traced to the contrast between the professional aspects of his life and the socially deviant behaviour of, and rumours surrounding, his personal life.[17]: 1–10 

One such behavioural trait was his inability to remain in one place for an extended amount of time, which he himself referred to as wanderlust. Throughout his life he took up residence in a variety of places throughout Australia and Europe. Because of this trait, Boyd was often considered a travelled individual, even publishing his own travel book,[18] and extended his social influence to many of the new locations where he took up residence. However his well known wanderlust also contributed to a reputation for restlessness among his social peers and raised the issue of his inability to settle down and take a wife.

The fact he never married, coupled with rumours and reports of behaviour deviant from that expected of a gentleman and popular author in his position, began to raise questions and doubts about his sexual tendencies. The suspicions centred around his close relationships with those of the same sex; in particular, he was suspected of having an illicit relationship with a young Italian boy, Luciano Trombini.[17]: 5 

Despite Boyd’s denial and the lack of any substantial evidence, these claims fundamentally changed views of Boyd and his literature. A few of Boyd’s works had already been subjected to censorship and one novel had been refused publication for its homosexual content.[19]

However it was not until well after his death that such issues were viewed without the sense of prejudice and taboo that were common during his time. It was then that multiple papers analysing the erotic and homosexual undertones of his works were published.[20]

Additional Information

AuthorBrenda Niall
Number of pages268 p., [24] p. of plates ; 24 cm.
PublisherMelbourne University Press
Year Published2004 (Revised)
Binding Type


Book Condition


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