The Cardboard Crown by Martin Boyd


The first of a quartet, this wonderful book was written in 1949. The author whose Australian family owned land in Britain as well as Australia, had lived in Britain since going there to serve in World War I. He remained there until he had written a very successful book and envisioned returning to revive the family home outside Melbourne and become the benefactor to his artistic nephews. While there he came upon his grandmother's 50 dairies, written from the time of her marriage in 1855 until her death in 1906.

Encouraged by one of his nephews, he undertook to write the story of the family using her diaries, his childhood memories, and tales of his elderly relatives. And what a family it is: wealthy, eccentric and extensive. His grandmother, viewed as from an unacceptable family by her in-laws, brought money and over the remainder of her life and beyond, bankrolled the family. The family secret was that this grandmother's father was a convict who had served seven years before setting up a brewry and becoming successful. This secret is not revealed in the novel; other plotlines are created or enhanced so that this secret, still a shameful one in 1949, is kept.

The novel opens as the mature Guy Langton reads some of his grandmother Alice's dairy and concludes there is a story to be told. He tells us about another of his sources, his grandfather's brother Arthur who is a somewhat unreliable witness. Then we begin hearing about the young family and their friends. There is Austin who was pursued by the single-minded Hetty, who declares that if she cannot wear the cardboard crown, she will burn it. Austin elopes with the beautiful Alice but is not able to escape Hetty who bears several of his children, a secret that is kept for 10 years. 

The family spends long periods in Europe, where eventually Alice is able to enjoy the culture she longs for, but they must always return to the raw Australia where their money resides. They inherited an estate in Britain called Waterpark.

In a hard winter they let the tenants off their rent, and gave the sick and poor presents of food and wine, which their Australian money enabled them to do, and which the estate alone could not have afforded. Waterpark as a family seat would naturally have expired with Cousin Thomas. It no longer had within itself the means of survival. This Australian money was a kind of monkey-gland infusion, which kept it going for another two or three generations. 

When Alice learns of Austin's duplicity, she meets a man named Aubrey Tunstall in Europe who introduces her to his life in Rome, surrounded by beauty and luxury. He is always very proper to her as he showers her with attentions. When it becomes clear that she would leave Austin for him bringing along her children, he arranges for Austin to arrive and all is healed between Alice and Austin. Twenty years later, when Aubrey's fortunes have diminished and her children are grown, he courts her and nearly wins her. Our narrator points out the indications in her diary that Aubrey is actually a more benign Gilbert Osmond from Henry James' Portrait of a Lady, who would have squandered her fortune. 

I loved this book for its wonderful story, the sharply drawn characters, some of whom were based on actual people, the lovingly described settings and most of all the beloved Alice. I learned about this book from Reading Matters' review of it.

Martin Boyd, The Cardboard Crown, republished by Text Classics, originally published 1949, 288 pages. I read the Kindle version. Available at UVa library and Amazon.

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