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Martin à Beckett Boyd (1893–1972)

by Brenda Niall

This article was published:

Martin à Beckett Boyd (1893-1972), by Lettice Ramsey

Martin à Beckett Boyd (1893-1972), by Lettice Ramsey

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23136361

Martin à Beckett Boyd (1893-1972), author, was born on 10 June 1893 at Lucerne, Switzerland, fourth son of Arthur Merric Boyd and his wife Emma Minnie, née à Beckett. His parents, both painters, were then touring Europe, accompanied by their elder children, Gilbert, William Merric and Penleigh. Travelling with them was Emma Minnie's mother, Emma à Beckett, matriarch of the family, whose private fortune (the legacy of her ex-convict father John Mills, founder of the Melbourne Brewery) supported the Boyds. In March 1890 Emma's husband William Arthur à Beckett had bought Penleigh House, Wiltshire, from a cousin: they intended to divide their time between the Grange—their home at Harkaway, outside Melbourne—and the Wiltshire property.

In Melbourne's financial crash of 1892-93 the à Becketts' income was halved; Penleigh House was sold; and the Boyds, returning to Melbourne with Emma à Beckett in December 1893, were to live on a much smaller allowance. Martin Boyd's idealization of Europe may have stemmed from a sense of deprivation; the stories told to him in his childhood powerfully evoked a myth of past glories. The family suffered a deeper loss in January 1896 when 9-year-old Gilbert was killed in a riding accident at the Grange. Martin and his brothers nevertheless had a happy and secure childhood, living first at Sandringham, on Port Phillip Bay, and later (1906-13) at Tralee, a dairy farm at Yarra Glen which the Boyds bought with the hope of establishing Merric on the land. A fifth child, Helen, was born in 1903.

In 1906 Martin became a weekly boarder at Trinity Grammar School, Kew, where the headmaster George Merrick Long gave this small Anglican establishment an unusually informal, non-authoritarian atmosphere. Boyd did respectably in academic work; he edited the school magazine, the Mitre; he developed a love of English poetry; and, through Long's example, he began to consider a future as a clergyman. Hitherto his main religious influence had been his mother's strict fundamentalism, while his own temperament inclined him to Anglo-Catholicism. Canon Long, neither a High- nor a Low-Churchman, seemed to offer an acceptable compromise between the two extremes.

In 1912 Boyd enrolled as a theological student at St John's College, St Kilda; he soon became bored and restless, missing social life and finding no spiritual or aesthetic sustenance. Like his elder brothers Merric and Penleigh, Martin had no sense of urgency about earning a living. Accepting, however, his mother's suggestion that he might try architecture, he was articled in 1913 to the Melbourne firm of Purchas & Teague. Boyd liked the work well enough and showed promise, especially in domestic architecture, but he had no professional ambition. He wrote a play and some poems, and went to as many parties as possible. It was the pleasant, easy social life of pre-1914 Melbourne that he missed when the outbreak of war changed the direction of his life.

Boyd was reluctant to enlist. His instincts, he later said, were pacifist; yet, in a family with close loyalties to Britain, it was only a matter of time before he would feel the pressure to volunteer. After Gallipoli, when several of his friends were killed, he made up his mind. He chose not to join the Australian Imperial Force, but to sail for Europe to seek a commission in a British regiment; if he were to be killed, he would at least have seen England. In August 1915 he left Melbourne in the Miltiades. Having completed an officers' training course, in the summer of 1916 he was posted to the Royal East Kent Regiment, known as the 'Buffs'.

By good fortune Boyd's experience of the trenches was delayed until early 1917. As he waited, he explored the English countryside and visited Penleigh House. He stayed in country houses, discovered the London theatre and went to a great many dances. Adaptable, amusing and sociable, he made himself at home in English life. Although less striking in appearance than his elder brothers, he was considered handsome: he was tall and well built, with a clear complexion and fine, grey-blue eyes.

While spending his leaves at the London house of his mother's sister Ethel and her husband Charles Chomley, editor of the British-Australasian, Boyd often helped his uncle and cousins with cutting and pasting copy on the dining-room table and occasionally writing a paragraph or a review. It was a useful, if amateurish, introduction to a writer's life, though it is possible that Boyd would never have become a serious writer if he had not been sent to fight in France in 1917. His first autobiography, A Single Flame (1939), written when another world war was imminent, describes the impact of the trenches on a sheltered, sensitive young man. Brought up to believe that a life of absolute virtue was 'not only possible but usual', he was confronted for the first time with suffering and violence, not in any abstract way but in his own nature. Killing was evil—and he himself was capable of killing. He was a competent officer, he had plenty of physical courage and he enjoyed the comradeship of the regiment.

In September 1917 Boyd applied for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. There the casualty rate was even higher than in the infantry, but flying avoided the immediate horror of fighting hand to hand. He went as observer on bombing raids over Belgium in early 1918 before returning to England to train as a pilot. Boyd chose the single-seater fighter plane, the Sopwith Camel, because he did not want to risk the life of an observer. The Armistice came as he was awaiting orders to return to France. In his poems (Verses, privately published c.1919, and Retrospect, 1920) Boyd's incipient pacifism is less apparent than his idealization of the doomed youth of his generation.

After his demobilization in May 1919, Boyd sailed for Melbourne in the troop-ship, Prinz Hubertus. It was a disappointing homecoming. Because his war experience had been with the British rather than the A.I.F., he had little shared experience with other returned men, and he was said to have become 'too English'. His parents were living in Murrumbeena, where Merric had established a pottery. Martin did not want to be drawn into this enterprise, nor did he want to resume his training as an architect. His closest friends at this time were his second cousins Mim and Nancy Weigall; and there is reason to believe that he was in love with Nancy. If so, it was not a whole-hearted courtship: what Boyd wanted most was to go back to England, which he did in May 1921, with his parents' reluctant consent and an allowance of £100 a year.

In London again, Boyd wrote for the British-Australasian, but after two years he had accomplished little; and London social life had ceased to charm him. In August 1923 he was spending a few weeks retreat at Batcombe, Dorset, with a new order of Anglican Franciscan friars, when he had news from Melbourne that his brother Penleigh had been killed in a motorcar crash. Desolate at the loss, Martin decided to join the monastic community in its mission to derelicts. The spiritual renewal and 'disinterested love' he had hoped to find at Batcombe seemed to lose itself in squabbles between the 'High' and 'Protestant' elements; after a brief period as a novice (in which he appointed himself as cook), Boyd left the order.

The experience gave him material for his first novel, Love Gods, published in 1925 and favourably reviewed. His next work, Brangane (1926), drew on the eccentric London career of the Australian writer Barbara Baynton, then by her third marriage the Baroness Headley. The Montforts (1928) which, like its predecessors, was published under the pseudonym 'Martin Mills', was based on the history of the à Beckett family in Australia; some thinly-veiled portraits caused offence in Melbourne. It won the Australian Literature Society's first gold medal in 1929.

In 1925-38 Boyd lived mainly in Sussex, in rented, seaside cottages; he wrote in winter and travelled in Europe in summer. His novels of this period, Scandal of Spring (1934), The Lemon Farm (1936), The Picnic (1937) and Night of the Party (1938), deft social comedies with serious undertones, show his grasp of English life and manners. In A Single Flame, written during the Munich crisis, he debated the morality of war, and concluded that appeasement of Hitler was futile as well as dishonourable. The semi-allegorical Nuns in Jeopardy (1940) explored good and evil in human nature in a desert-island setting. Lucinda Brayford (1946) brought together all the preoccupations of Boyd's earlier work. With its Australian-born heroine, it moved from pre-1914 Melbourne to England in the 1940s. Written in Cambridge where Boyd made his home for the war years, it reflected the renewal of his religious faith and the clarification of his ideas about war. When British bombs fell on civilian targets in Germany, Boyd denounced church and state for what he saw as crimes against humanity.

Lucinda Brayford had high praise from critics in Britain and sold well; it was translated into Swedish and Danish, and, as a Literary Guild choice in the United States of America, added welcome dollars to Boyd's small bank balance. He already had his own cottage, Plumstead, Little Eversden, outside Cambridge, bought when his share of his mother's estate came to him following his father's death in 1940.

With his first major literary success, Boyd felt ready to go back to Australia. In June 1948 he sold Plumstead, and made plans to restore and live in his à Beckett grandfather's home, the Grange. A great deal of energy and money transformed the neglected, old house into an elegant, neo-Georgian setting for Boyd's eighteenth-century furniture. He commissioned his nephew Arthur Boyd to paint frescoes in the dining room; this ambitious work was lost when the house was demolished in the late 1960s.

Living at the Grange proved lonely and disappointing; there was little left of the life Boyd remembered, and, as in 1919, he was seen as 'too English'. Lucinda Brayford was ignored in a literary climate which devalued expatriate writing and Boyd found his reputation obscured by the rising stars of his nephews, Arthur and Robin Boyd. The one great gain, however, was the new perspective on his past: it provided a new subject which he took back with him to England in 1951. The Langton series of novels—The Cardboard Crown (1952), A Difficult Young Man (1955), Outbreak of Love (1957) and When Blackbirds Sing (1962)—had its initial impulse in Boyd's discovery of his à Beckett grandmother's diaries at the Grange. Having failed to make the past live again at the Grange, Boyd made enduring art from that failure. The first three novels won high praise in Britain and the U.S.A.; in spite of their Anglo-Australian themes and settings, they were scarcely noticed by Australian reviewers.

Lonely and restless again in England, Boyd went to Rome in 1957 and lived for the rest of his life in a series of pensiones and apartments, on a diminishing income. The last Langton novel was a critical failure, as was the Roman comedy, The Tea-Time of Love (1969). In 1965 he published a second autobiography, Day of My Delight. Although his wit, charm and generosity had won him many friends in England, Boyd became isolated in Rome. His main resource was the 'English Centre' of the Church of San Silvestro where, as he often complained, he met too many priests and 'R.C. ladies'. Boyd's faith in youth, especially the anti-Vietnam War protesters of the late 1960s, was his mainstay against depression in this period. He defended them in Why They Walk Out (1970), a personal statement of belief, published at his own expense.

In Rome Boyd's affections were centred on an Italian youth Luciano Trombini, for whom he played a quasi-paternal role until Trombini married and moved to Milan in 1964. No record of any closer or more lasting attachment appears in Boyd's life, and, although the question of his homosexuality is often raised, it has never been demonstrated that any one of a series of sentimental friendships with young men amounted to an affair. The only sexual relationship for which there is persuasive evidence involved a woman of his own age during his Sussex years. Those who knew Boyd best stress his 'correctness', his reticence and a fastidious temperament which would not easily adapt to casual sex, nor, perhaps, to any full emotional commitment. It may be questioned whether anyone was allowed to know his deepest feelings.

His family and friends were unprepared for his reception into the Catholic Church which took place a few days before he died of cancer on 3 June 1972 in the Hospital of the Blue Nuns, Rome. His niece Mary Perceval and Arthur Boyd who, with his brothers Guy and David, had helped Martin Boyd financially during his last illness, attended his burial in Rome's Protestant English cemetery, after a service in which the Anglican vicar joined the Catholic priest in prayer. Boyd had lived just long enough to see his major works reprinted and his literary stature recognized in Australia; and, to his astonishment and ironic amusement, he was awarded a Commonwealth Literary Fund pension—for life—as he awaited his death.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Niall, Martin Boyd (Melb, 1988), and for bibliography
  • Martin Boyd papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Emma à Beckett diaries (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Brenda Niall, 'Boyd, Martin à Beckett (1893–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Martin à Beckett Boyd (1893-1972), by Lettice Ramsey

Martin à Beckett Boyd (1893-1972), by Lettice Ramsey

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23136361

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Mills, Martin

10 June, 1893
Lucerne, Switzerland


3 June, 1972 (aged 78)
Rome, Italy

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.