Today is the first day of Australian and New Zealand Literature Month! I can’t imagine a better way to begin than with the Langton Quartet by Martin Boyd, a quintessential Australian writer. It was Reading Matters that introduced me to him. Outbreak of Love is the third book of the Quartet; here’s what I wrote about the first and second. The quartet describes the Australian Langton family who had an estate in Britain and for some generations, traveled back and forth between Britain and Australia. The impetus for these novels was the discovery by the narrator that his grandmother wrote 50 volumes of a diary beginning in 1855 when she married. Martin Boyd did have such a family and his grandmother did write a diary.
The first book, The Cardboard Crown, focuses on his wonderful grandmother Alice who brought Australian money to the Langtons, enough to bankroll the family even after her death. The narrator, Guy Langton, is a part of the story though he was, of course, not present during his grandmother’s young life. The next book, A Difficult Young Man, tells the story of Guy’s older brother, who appears briefly in The Cardboard Crown. The narrator is present for much more of this book, and we hear about his own young life. Outbreak of Love tells about his Aunt Diana, Alice’s youngest daughter, who to Alice’s great dismay, married an oblivious, often unpleasant German composer called Wolfie. The narrator is absent from much of the telling of this story, but turns up occasionally for his own part. He was 20 during this period and lived with another of Alice’s daughters, the unpleasant Mildred.
The story takes place over the course of the year just before World War I and begins when Diana encounters a childhood friend, Russell Lockwood, who has just returned to Australia after years in Europe. They meet again at a performance Diana has arranged for some work Wolfie composed. Diana has been a tireless supporter of Wolfie in every way, though he has been a problematic husband. He loves very young women and caused a rift in the family by kissing one of the twin daughters of Diana’s cousin.
Her occasional meetings with Russell Lockwood become a great joy to them both, as they are so comfortable with each other and enjoy talking at great length. He represents the highly “cultured” life in Europe that her mother so loved. When she learns in a public setting from a very drunk woman that Wolfie has had a mistress, she decides to go to Europe with Russell. The question that we ponder to the end is whether she will leave all her ties to family and Australia for Europe. And of course we know the answer to that question well before the end.
Although Guy, that witty and conversational narrator, is less in evidence, still there is sparkling prose. For example, this exchange:
“Now that Captain Wyckham’s gone off with a milkmaid, we’ll have to fall back on you,” [referring to Guy] said Anthea.
“You can fall as hard as you like,” I replied enthusiastically.
“The intention is good, but the expression unfortunate,” said Cynthia, with whom one felt that one was the subject of a perpetual book review.
Diana’s take on her son Harry, back from a year working on a sheep station in Queensland after she spent a great deal to educate him at the most expensive school, is key:
She had hoped that a year on the station would have made him more sensible, but it had only made him a little coarser in appearance and defiantly “Australian.” He saw, perhaps truly, that his relatives were simply the survivors of the early administrators of the colony, with the self-sufficiency they had inherited from those people, still half-English in their attitude and entirely so in their values and that they had no future in the country. It may be of interest to note here that the 1914 war finished them. They no longer survived as a group of any importance, or at any rate of social importance, as their qualities could not survive amongst people whose only respect was for money.
I’m sad that I have only one more volume in the quartet. I will miss my time with Guy Langton and his eccentric family very much.
Martin Boyd, Outbreak of Love, Landsdowne Press, 1971 (written in 1957), 254 pages.