Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.

26.3.20

Another kind of crown.

And so we wind back the clock, past the GFC, the Y2K non-bug, the '87 crash, that '70s stagflation thing, the early '60s credit crunch, post-war austerity, two world wars with a depression in the middle, and a Boer war; and we crash land on page 245 of Martin Boyd’s The Cardboard Crown, where we find ourselves in the middle of the 1890s depression which, as always, followed a boom.

Arthur is giving a party to welcome his relative Alice back from England. He notes:
Nobody talked of anything but the financial crisis.
Later, Alice, whose diary is the basis for the novel, records:
'31 December. Dimanche. ... Went with Austin to the new cathedral. I do not like it ... hard, striped and confused ... No repose for the eye anywhere. They should whitewash it and hang up some good tapestries as at Arles. It needs softening. Sermon on the financial difficulty and trouble of this past year.'
Then the narrator:
As she listened to this financial sermon in the new striped cathedral, did she find it was the heart and not the eye for which there was no repose, and did she try to imagine that she was in the Duomo at Milan, or in Santa Croce, or in St. Peter's where the cardinal walked in procession in his petunia cope, and Aubrey waited outside between the colonnade and the fountains?
Aubrey is a shattered dream, left behind in Italy. Like a painted-over masterpiece slowly exposed by an art restorer, The Cardboard Crown peels back eighty years of a family’s history revealing tragedy on tragedy. Alice has married into the Langtons, whose ancestral home in England is kept up even though the family has settled in Australia, so that the family is torn between hemispheres. In England, at their ancestral Waterpark home:
... for two or three months (they) were intensely happy, driving together along the steep and shadowed lanes to sit among the ruins of Farleigh or pick wild flowers along the road to Longleat. In the evening they must often have walked out after dinner, and crossed the lawn to the stream and murmured there together in quiet voices which blended with the sounds of the twilight, the mourning of the small gnats, the splash of a trout rising, or the last twitter of a bird, while all around them was the drowsy beauty of the English summer meadows, the scenes and scents of home.
Then back in Australia:
There are in the country outside Melbourne little cottages built of bark and tin, whitewashed, with vines along their walls, and the fowls pecking at the hard earth under the fig tree, where one feels the disguised Ulysses might have asked for shelter and a bowl of goat's milk, while one cannot possibly imagine him calling at Waterpark, with its far greater antiquity. But this may be partly due to the feeling one has in the Australian countryside, that it has known the morning of the world.
Alice's diaries, conversations with relatives, and retold family mythology are Boyd's sources. Each is an opaque cloud that fleetingly opens up as it moves across the reader's line of vision before vaporising out of view. Boyd is even, evocative, poetic, almost allegorical; his long perfectly weighted sentences are commuted into precise phrases that convey the passage and decay of time by their very construction.

Rather than committing the artifice of sitting a literary quote smugly on its own page before the start of the narrative, Boyd drops Marcel Proust into the start of chapter one, making it the reasonable consideration of the narrator instead of an author's pomposity:
'When we have passed a certain age, the soul of the child that we were, and the souls of the dead from whom we spring, come and bestow upon us in handfuls their treasures and their calamities'. The realisation that I had reached this age came upon me one night in 1949. It was after midnight, and I was driving through pouring rain from a dinner party in Toorak up to Westhill, my home in the country, thirty miles from Melbourne. My thoughts were accompanied by the dreary whining of the windscreen wiper, and occasionally and dangerously interrupted by the blinding lights of a timber lorry, driven presumably by a drunkard of a criminal.
No family saga/chronicle/history/narrative clich├ęs do this book justice. Tragedy occurs over and over, but the author understood that the emotional response is the reader's job, not to be plastered onto the page by the author.

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Alice, based on a real person, was of that generation whose sons would be decimated in the Great War. Those who survived would face Spanish flu which would claim more than the war’s toll. Alice's such bereaved contemporaries would then, in middle to late age, witness another depression and might still be alive to see yet another son-crunching world conflict. Those real-life Alices who made it that far would surely have wondered if the course of evolution could withstand the wastage of a couple of generations' worth of the finest and best young men. The question remains today. The twentieth century was as savage a destroyer of life as any time in human history. Have those who were left – the men who stayed behind – lived up to their brothers' ideals, or determination, or courage? After all, we are only twenty years into the subsequent century. A lot of leaders look like vacillating, arm-waving emoticons jumping to salute the latest public mood swing; without resolve, without strength, without historical perspective, without an original thought, without a clue.

Perhaps civilisation had been mortally wounded in some rain-soaked field in France in 1916.

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The Cardboard Crown by Martin Boyd
1952 Cresset Press London

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Kitchen Hand instant summary: The Cardboard Crown should be read by every Australian high school student; but good luck if you can find a copy.

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