Martin Boyd: A life
by Brenda Niall
Melbourne University Press 272 pp, $39.95 hb
When Martin Boyd returned to Australia in 1948 after twenty-seven years in England, he set about restoring the Grange, the derelict former home of his mother’s family, the à Becketts. He had been disappointed to find how little known his novels were in Australia and he had difficulty in re-establishing himself with the Boyd family. Nevertheless he persevered with his impulsive scheme until he could draw ‘the curtains at night in the little sitting room ... [and] indulge the illusion of being in an English manor house.’ Among the à Beckett portraits and eighteenth-century furniture were his nephew Arthur’s biblical frescoes. In trying to be an English squire in the Australian countryside, surrounded by the artefacts of two continents and centuries, Boyd presents the image of a man who never quite found himself wholly at home anywhere.
It is this sense of dualism constantly at work within him, of his being ultimately rootless however devoted to any particular place, which gives a poignant coherence to Brenda Niall’s superb biography of Martin Boyd. It may also help to account for his being persistently underrated in Australia; he was almost always more highly valued in England or America. His novels were never seen as part of the mainstream of Australian fiction: he never wrote sagas of pioneering hardihood nor blistering attacks of Australia provincialism; and he was never popularly, or, for the most part, critically valued for what made his work different from the prevailing fashions in Australian fiction during the forty-odd years of his novel writing career.