Martin Boyd's The Cardboard Crown is the first part of a quartet exploring the secret history of an upper-class Anglo-Australian family.
It's an amazingly vivid and absorbing saga supposedly based on Boyd's own family — in his author's note he claims the plot is factual, but "the characters and certain episodes are fictitious".
Unsurprisingly, for a book that is so gripping and entertaining, it became a bestseller in the UK when it was first published in 1952. But Australian audiences didn't agree. It wasn't until it was reprinted almost 20 years later, in 1971, that it garnered critical acclaim in Boyd's homeland. Now it has been reissued again, this time by Text Classics, for a whole new generation of readers to enjoy.
A story set in England and Australia
The story revolves around the independently wealthy Alice Verso, whose marriage to Austin Langton forges a dynasty that spans two continents. But at the heart of this alliance lies a shocking secret kept hidden from the world for three generations.
The secret is discovered by Alice's grandson, Guy Langton, some 50 years after her death. Guy, who narrates the novel, finds her diaries in the Melbourne home he has inherited. By going through the diaries and talking to his uncle and a cousin about the family's history and mythology, he is able to piece together his grandmother's amazingly privileged if somewhat tragic life.
The tale he tells swings between England and Australia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where the Langton family leads two very different lives depending on which country they happen to be living in.
A rootless existence
In Australia, the Langtons are well regarded and socially pre-eminent with connections in all the right places, and their newly built home, in native bushland 30 miles outside of Melbourne, becomes a home away from home for a vast array of family and friends. In England, they have less social standing, but life is gentler and more cultured, and their surroundings at Waterpark, the traditional family home, are far more pleasant with grand gardens and plenty of land upon which to go hunting. England also has the benefit of being much closer to continental Europe, specifically France and Italy, where the family can experience high culture, art and travel. (I should point out that quite a bit of this novel is set in Rome.)
But despite having the good fortune to be able to reside on either side of the world as and when they feel like it, there is a downside to this inability to put down permanent roots. Alice, for instance, never feels truly at home in either country and a restlessness develops that can not be cast aside. This is how Guy describes the dilemma:
A Cornishman once told me that when he was a boy he caught a seagull, and clipped its wing so that it could not fly away. After a while the feathers grew and he forgot to clip them again. It flew back to its companions who killed it. In its captivity it had acquired some human taint which they sensed was hostile. My family were captive seagulls, both at Waterpark, and even more, as time went on, in Australia.
A story about love, money and class
I will admit that it took me a little time to get into this story. I think that's largely because it starts off in a kind of meta-fiction type of way, with Guy Langton recalling a conversation in which he was encouraged to write his grandmother's story. And following on from this, there's a lot of ground-setting to be done and what appears to be a complicated cast list to get your head around. But once I got into the nub of the story — Alice's marriage to Austen — things really took off and I found myself completely hooked on this story about love and money and class on two sides of the world.
It's quite witty in places and terribly sad in others. Indeed, the narrative is full of light and shade, a reflection, perhaps, of the two very different countries in which the book is set.
But what I liked and appreciated most was the way in which Boyd portrays Alice as a woman before her time — a matriarch with plenty of money who did not flaunt her riches but used her wealth to keep family and friends in comfortable circumstances. And while she seemed to always put others before herself, she was not afraid to do her own thing and to forge her own path even if that meant upsetting social conventions of the time.
As an exploration of Melbourne's colonial past and Australia's early history, The Cardboard Crown is a fascinating read. But what this book really excels at is capturing that terrible sense of dislocation when you're never quite sure which country to call home.
Note that the three other books in the Langton Quartet are A Difficult Young Man, Outbreak of Love and When Blackbirds Sing. All but the latter have been republished by Text Classics. Do visit the publisher's website for ordering information.
To read about the author's extraordinary life (and family) check out the entry on Wikipedia.
I read this book as part of Australian Literature Month, which runs throughout April 2013. The idea is to simply celebrate and help promote literature from my homeland and to encourage others to do the same. Anyone can take part. All you need to do is read an Australian book or two, post about Australian literature on your own blog or simply engage in the conversation on this blog and on Twitter using the hashtag #OzLitMonth. If you don't have a blog, don't worry — you just need to be willing to read something by an Australian writer and maybe comment on other people's posts. You can find out more here.