Martin Boyd

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.

Martin Boyd
Boyd seated at his desk in his home, "Plumstead", near Cambridge, England, 1947
Martin à Beckett Boyd

10 June 1893
Lucerne, Switzerland
Died3 June 1972
Rome, Italy
Burial placeProtestant English Cemetery, Rome
ResidenceAustralia, Britain, Rome
Other namesMartin Mills (pseudonym)
(Emma née Mills, his grandmother)
EducationTrinity Grammar School, Melbourne
Known forNovels, autobiographies, family
RelativesMerric Boyd, Penleigh Boyd, Helen Read (siblings); Lucy Beck, Arthur Boyd, Guy Boyd, David Boyd, Mary Nolan, Robin Boyd
  • ALS Gold Medal – pseud. Martin Mills
    1928 'The Montforts' – author
  • ALS Gold Medal
    1957 'A Difficult Young Man' – author
Military career
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch British Army
Years of service1916-1918

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 (b. 1916), 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.

A complex life

Boyd's friends saw him as "[c]harming, generous, frivolous and funny".[1] He was sensitive and private; a complex man who struggled with his identity as an Anglo-Australian, as an expatriate writer and with religious beliefs. He did not believe in the class superiority which many of his critics levelled at him;[2] was a loyal family man and friend, yet never found a lasting romantic relationship of his own. As a writer he wrote from experience and about what he knew intimately but was never sure about himself.[1][3] Throughout his life he felt like an outsider whether in Australia or Europe.[2]

Childhood and education

Martin à Beckett Boyd was born in Lucerne, Switzerland, on 10 June 1893. He was the youngest son of Arthur Merric Boyd (1862-1940) and Emma Minnie à Beckett (1858-1936) who were both established painters. At the time of his birth, the family was travelling through Europe, supported financially by his maternal grandmother, Emma à Beckett, wife to William Arthur Callendar à Beckett. It was Emma's fortune, inherited from her father, John Mills, an ex-convict who founded the Melbourne Brewery, that allowed their family to live comfortably.[4] He regarded this "somewhat casual birthplace as one of the factors accounting for his lifelong inability ever to feel completely at home anywhere."[5]

Boyd lived in the Melbourne suburb of Sandringham until he was 13 when the family moved permanently to the family farm in Yarra Glen, Victoria. He had a love of books and writing from an early age, but he was also colour blind.[1] He became the only writer in his ancient family amongst painters and artists. Brenda Niall, Boyd's biographer, comments, "His family seems to have been one of those so distinctive in character and achievement that it confers its own citizenship. Being a Boyd was more important than being an Australian: it gave him a sense of identity strong enough to bypass nationalism for civilization."[6]

Boyd's siblings included the potter William Merric Boyd (1888–1959), and the painters Theodore Penleigh Boyd (1890–1923) and Helen à Beckett Read (1903–1999). He fondly remembered his childhood years at Yarra Glen.[2] "[T]he Yarra, only yards away, still provides summer swimming as it did for the Boyds. The river yields cold eels that writhe and bite like snakes but make nice eating later. On the farm the Boyds had ponies, hunting, and fishing, and gorged themselves in the evenings on unlimited fruit and cream."[7] He enjoyed his school years at Trinity Grammar School, Kew.[4] Niall notes that "Boyd did respectably in academic work; he edited the school magazine, the Mitre; he developed a love of English poetry; and, through [his headmaster's] example, he began to consider a future as a clergyman."[8]

After finishing school in 1912, Boyd was undecided on a career path and so commenced study for a religious vocation at St John’s College, St Kilda. He did not see out the year but this was the beginning of a lifelong, but never resolved, investigation of the place of religious devotion in his life. At the suggestion of his mother, he began training as an architect at Purchas and Teague in Melbourne.[4]

War experiences

Initially feeling no pressure to enlist, Boyd eventually signed up after hearing that some of his contemporaries at Trinity Grammar had died during the landing at Gallipoli. On the advice of his family, who thought he might not survive the rigours expected of an ordinary Australian soldier, he travelled to England and in 1916 took up a position as a commissioned officer in the Royal East Kent Regiment, known as the "Buffs".[2] After fighting in the trenches in France for several months during 1916 and 1917, Boyd requested a transfer and was accepted into the Royal Flying Corps in 1917 where he stayed until the end of the World War I. His war experiences coloured the rest of his life, including his writing.[4]

In the 1940s Boyd questioned following Britain into World War Two believing that Australia should look to America and Mediterranean countries for replacement ties. Even though he had served in the military, he felt a strong sense of injustice at the bombing of German cities and the killing of innocent women and children, and questioned the complicity of the Church of England in the atrocities during that time.[1][3]

Michael Bardwell notes that Boyd was "a great campaigner [...] often writing letters to the press about matters he thought were of public importance." A wartime example of this activism was an incident in December 1943, which Boyd relates in his autobiography Day of my Delight, quoted by Bardwell: "A group of eminent people had drawn up a petition to end by mutual agreement the night bombing of cities, which had now become senseless massacres. I put one of the printed forms of this petition on the village notice board, and one on my gate, saying it could be signed at my house. The notices were torn off at night. . .I then put up another inscribed: "The object of this petition is to stop the murder of women and children. Will those who think this aim undesirable, please come in and explain why, instead of tearing this notice off under cover of darkness?" No one came, and a farmer’s wife in the village said: "It is a pity Mr. Boyd put up those notices. It quite spoiled the Christmas spirit." [5]

While Boyd did not see himself as a pacifist (he described his belief as 'qualified pacifism',[9] he supported those who did.[1] Throughout the years his consistent opposition to war included the publication of a seven-part protest pamphlet during the war in Vietnam entitled Why They Walk Out (1970).[3] Extracts of the essay were published in Australia.[10]

Life after World War One

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 Reid, Patrick 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


Martin Boyd suffered from ill health for the last decade of his life. He died of cancer on 3 June 1972 just days after being received into the Catholic Church. He is buried near the poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley in Rome's Protestant 'English cemetery'.[6]

Critical reception and recognition

In 1928 Boyd won the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal for his novel The Montforts. The novel, written under the pseudonym Martin Mills, is based on the history of Boyd's à Beckett ancestors. In 1957, he again won the ALS Gold Medal award for A Difficult Young Man, published in his own name.

Boyd wrote extensively, with early poems, autobiographical books, an essay pamphlet on modern youth, an extensive list of novels, five short stories, and articles on varying subjects,[14] to his name. He is, however, most renowned for his novels, which were inspired, according to many critics, by his own life and family experiences.[15]:5 Often described as a witty author,[16] Boyd is recognised as one of the most important Australian novelists of the 20th century although responses to his novels vary.

Early works

  • Verses

The following novels were written under the pseudonym of Martin Mills, though Boyd later gave his birth name to The Montforts. First publication details given below.

  • Love Gods (London, England: Constable, 1925.)
  • Bangrane: a memoir (London, England: Constable, 1926.)
  • The Madeleine Heritage (Indianapolis, USA: Bobbs-Merrill, 1928.) This is the American edition of The Montforts (London, England: Constable, 1928.)
  • Dearest Idol (Indianapolis, USA: Bobbs-Merrill, 1929.) Published under the pseudonym Walter Beckett.

Later works

While almost all of Boyd’s novels were written in England, some regard his earlier novels as less refined when compared to his later works,[17] those being:

Unpublished works

  • The Shepherd Of Admetus
  • Bitter Sauces


  • A Single Flame (London, England: J. M. Dent, 1939)
  • Day of My Delight: An Anglo-Australian Memoir (Melbourne, Victoria: Lansdowne, 1965)

Subject matter

While writing most his novels in England, Boyd's novels frequently focus on the contrasting and conflicting realities of upper-class English and Australian societies.[18] He tended to concentrate on the niceties and absurdities of social exchanges, instead of a greater concern with universal problems of human life.[16]

Boyd’s works do, however, reflect the two major preoccupations of his own life: a spiritual and religious concern; and, the disillusionment with and displacement from the two countries he was affiliated with, England and Australia. This is referred to by Kathleen Fitzpatrick AO as "the Anglo-Australian malaise".[15]:5 The novels explore the importance of class and social standing in England and Australia that families such as the Boyds experienced. The novel Lucinda Brayford, is a good example of this preoccupation. Biographer and critic, Brian McFarlane, writes, "...Boyd is clearly preoccupied with the way qualities of character and patterns of behavior recur in families. Sometimes, indeed, his stress on hereditary influences seems so bluntly asserted as to rob the impulses and motivations of his characters of some of their interests".[19]:18

Responses to Boyd’s work vary from outright hostility,[14] to others describing his novels as "alone in Australian Literature reflect[ing] the lives of an alienated British elite…".[20] Fitzpatrick writes, "In spite of very great gifts, which included a prose style of great flexibility and grace, Martin Boyd, the man without a country and the writer without a subject has remained a gifted amateur rather than a professional novelist",[15]:14 while McFarlane describes Boyd’s virtues as "minor but real".[19]:56

Boyd’s novels are now published in the Penguin Twentieth Century Classics series, and he is described as "rubbing shoulders" with authors such as Kafka.[21] In his own time, Boyd’s novels received few reviews in the Australian newspapers, and little critical attention between 1928 and 1949. While Boyd’s first three novels did not sell well and led to his following three novels being rejected by publishers,[15]:13 his novel, The Montforts achieved critical success. Despite this, Fitzpatrick wrote in 1963, "He has a public in England, and his novel Lucinda Brayford was a bestseller in America, but his work seems to be little known in Australia...".[15]:2 "Martin Boyd’s work is vaguely felt, I think, to be rather immoral because it is in conflict with the Australian ethos of the moment".[15]:26 In The Australian Book Review, McFarlane also claims that "There has always been something grudging about the Australian response to Boyd. Perhaps he would have been more critically and commercially popular if he had not confined himself to writing about the upper-middle classes".[21]

See also


  1. Niall, Brenda (2002). The Boyds: A Family Biography. Carlton South, Victoria: Melbourne University Press.
  2. Boyd, Martin (10 May 1961). "Why I am an expatriate". The Bulletin: 12–13.
  3. Dobrez, Patricia (1996). "When Blackbirds Sing: Martin Boyd and the reality of Good Friday". Kunapipi. 18 (2–3): 68–82.
  4. Niall, Brenda (1988). Martin Boyd: A Life. Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press.
  5. Bardwell, Michael. "Divided Novelist: Martin Boyd (1893-1972)". London Magazine. 35, 1-2, 1995, 70-76. Print.
  6. Niall, Brenda (1974). Martin Boyd. Australian Writers and their work. London: Oxford University Press. p. 3.
  7. Kinross Smith, Graeme. "Martin Boyd." Westerly. 2, 1975, 33-37.
  8. "Martin à Beckett Boyd". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University.
  9. Boyd, Martin. Day of my Delight, Melbourne: Landsdowne Press, 1965.
  10. "Why They Walk Out". The Sunday Review (extract). Melbourne. 22 November 1970.
  11. Lindsay, Joan (1976). Time Without Clocks. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin Books.
  12. Darby, Robert (2013). "A boy's best friend is his Dick: Homosociality and homo-eroticism in Martin Boyd's Scandal of Spring". Southerly. 73 (3).
  13. Long, Nonie (1989). "John Mills, Emma and the à Becketts". Overland (114): 15–18.
  14. Crocker, Walter (May 1989). "Martin Boyd". Overland (114): 9–14.
  15. Fitzpatrick, Kathleen (1963). Australian Writers and their Work, Martin Boyd. Melbourne: Lansdowne Press Pty. Ltd.
  16. Mckernan, Susan (1978). "Much Else in Boyd: The Relationship Between Martin Boyd's Non-Fiction Work and His Later Novels". Southerly. 38 (3): 309–330.
  17. Elliot, Brian (1957). "Martin Boyd: An appreciation". Meanjin. 16 (1): 15–22.
  18. Rutherford, Anna (1992). Populous Places. Sydney: Dangaroo Press. p. 171.
  19. McFarlane, Brian (1980). Martin Boyd’s Langton Novels, Studies in Australian Literature. Victoria, Australia: Edward Arnold Pty Ltd.
  20. Davidson, Frank (24 April 1987). "Australia's Challenge to Martin Boyd". Span: 96–106.
  21. McFarlane, Brian (June 1993). "Classic But Still Readable". Australian Book Review (151): 35–36.

Further reading

  • McKenzie, Janet (2000). Arthur Boyd: Art & Life. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.
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