Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 325 pages; 2012.
A Difficult Young Man is the second novel in Martin Boyd’s ‘Langton Quartet’ about an upper-middle class Anglo-Australian family caught between two worlds during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It’s semi-autobiographical and is based on Boyd’s upbringing, the youngest of four, in a rather rich and well-travelled family, littered with eccentrics and artistic types, who divided their time between England and Australia, often with forays to Italy and other Europen countries.
His siblings all became artists — Merric was a potter, Penleigh and Helen painters — and they in turn produced children who became famous. Merric’s son was the painter Arthur Boyd (1920-99) and Penleigh’s son was the influential architect Robin Boyd (1919–71). In fact, the whole extended Boyd and à Beckett (his mother’s) family is filled with people who found success in the creative arts, but they also had influence in the legal, military and brewing spheres.
Martin Boyd (1893-1972) was the only one to become a writer. He had initially trained for a religious vocation and later studied architecture before joining the British Army during the First World War. He apparently led a nomadic life afterwards, dividing his time between England and Australia, and later moving to Rome, where he is buried in the same cemetery as the poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. His bibliography includes novels, poetry and memoirs.
Is it important to know all this? Probably not, but I found it useful context because it’s clear that Boyd mined his family’s history for this novel, which was first published in 1955.
Second in a quartet
A Difficult Young Man is the follow-up to The Cardboard Crown (which I read in 2013) but it works as a standalone.
The story is told in the first person by the same narrator, Guy Langton, and is set in pretty much the same locations — the family properties in Melbourne and the greater Melbourne area, and Waterpark, their estate in England, not far from Frome in Somerset.
The main focus is on Guy’s older brother Dominic — the “difficult young man” of the title — who is set to inherit everything as the firstborn son. But he’s also the black sheep of the family, prone to being misunderstood and making bad decisions, regarded by many as being reckless, eccentric and risking the reputation of the Langton’s good name — on both sides of the world.
Dominic was the eldest, and certainly in his own eyes, the most important of the cousins. He soon acquired an added importance to that of primogeniture, but it was only what was called by the politicians of the 1930s “nuisance value”. This sounds as if he was an unsympathetic character, but many people found him quite the opposite. Only a few disliked him, and when they did they repudiated and detested him absolutely. Women found him extremely attractive, especially nice women. The other sort, though they may have at first been excited by his sombre handsome face, soon found something in his nature that disturbed them, a requirement which made them feel inadequate and therefore angry.
Told in episodic fashion, the story charts Dominic’s childhood antics, his bad behaviour and his romantic liaisons — which include a broken engagement and a bad marriage to the bad-tempered social climber Baba — all filtered through Guy’s often disbelieving eyes.
But the novel is as much about Guy as it is about Dominic. We learn about his early childhood; his love for his parents and extended family members, including his beloved grandmother Alice; his happiness at school in Australia and his hatred of it in England; his interest in religion and his failed pursuit of it as a vocation; and the constant struggle to fit in, always feeling like an outsider whether in Australia or England.
Full of wit and charm and peopled by eccentric characters often doing farcical things, A Difficult Young Man is essentially a social satire set in the years leading up to the First World War.
It depicts a peripatetic lifestyle as only the rich could live it: the Langton family move from one side of the world and back again in a short space of time, and enjoy multiple long holidays to Europe and Tasmania along the way. The narrative meanders a lot, perhaps as a reflection of the Langton’s way of life, which is always on the move and rarely settled.
It’s told in brilliantly observed detail and written in warm, nostalgic-tinged prose.
A Difficult Young Man won the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal in 1957. Sue at Whispering Gums has also reviewed it.
There are two more novels in the set — Outbreak of Love and When Blackbirds Sing — which I will read in due course. Thanks to Bill at The Australian Legend for reminding me about the quartet and encouraging me to read this second volume. I believe Bill will also review A Difficult Young Man shortly.