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Youth and education
Arthur Joyce Lunel Cary was born in a hospital in Derry, Ireland, on December 7, 1888. His family had been landlords in Inishowen in County Donegal since Elizabethan times, but lost their property after passage of the Irish Land Act in 1882. Cary's grandfather died soon after and his grandmother moved into a cottage near Cary Castle, one of the lost family properties.
The family dispersed and Cary had uncles who served in the frontier US Cavalry and the Canadian North-West Mounted Police. Most of the Carys wound up in England. Arthur Cary, his father, trained as an engineer and married Charlotte Joyce, the well-to-do daughter of a Belfast banker. After his son was born in 1888, Arthur moved his family to London.
Throughout his childhood, Joyce Cary spent many summers at his grandmother's house in Ireland and at Cromwell House in England, home of his great-uncle, which served as a base for all the Cary clan. Some of this upbringing is described in the fictionalized memoir A House of Children (1941) and the novel Castle Corner (1938)—i.e., Cary Castle. Although he always remembered his Irish childhood with affection and wrote about it with great feeling, Cary was based in England the rest of his life. The feeling of displacement and the idea that life's tranquility may be disturbed at any moment marked Cary and informs much of his writing.
Cary's health was poor as a child. He was subject to asthma, which recurred throughout his life, and was nearly blind in one eye, which caused him to wear a monocle when he was in his twenties. Cary was educated at Clifton College in Bristol, England, where he was a member of Dakyns House. His mother died during this period, leaving Cary a small legacy which served as his financial base until the 1930s.
In 1906, determined to be an artist, Cary travelled to Paris. Discovering that he needed more technical training, Cary then studied art in Edinburgh. Soon enough, he determined that he could never be more than a third rate painter and decided to apply himself to literature. Cary published a volume of poems which, by his own later account, was "pretty bad," and then entered Trinity College, Oxford. There he became friends with fellow-student John Middleton Murry and introduced Murry to Paris on a holiday together. Cary neglected his studies and left Oxford with a fourth class degree.
Nigeria and early writing
Seeking adventure, in 1912 Cary left for Montenegro and served as a Red Cross orderly during the Balkan Wars. Cary kept and illustrated a record of his experiences there, Memoir of the Bobotes (1964), that was not published until after his death.
Returning to England the next year, Cary sought a post with an Irish agricultural cooperative scheme, but the project fell through. Dissatisfied and believing that he lacked the education that would provide him with a good position in Britain, Cary joined the Nigerian political service. During the First World War Cary served with a Nigerian regiment fighting in the German colony of Cameroon. The short story "Umaru" (1921) describes an incident from this period in which a British officer recognizes the common humanity that connects him with his African sergeant.
Cary was wounded at the battle of Mount Mora in 1916. He returned to England on leave and proposed marriage to Gertrude Oglivie, the sister of a friend, whom he had been courting for years. Three months later, Cary returned to service as a colonial officer, leaving a pregnant Gertrude in England. Cary held several posts in Nigeria including that of magistrate and executive officer in Borgu. Cary began his African service as a stereotypical colonial officer, determined to bring order to the natives, but by the end of his service, he had come to see the Nigerians as individuals facing difficult problems, including those created by colonial rule.
By 1920, Cary was concentrating his energies on providing clean water and roads to connect remote villages with the larger world. A second leave in England had left Gertrude pregnant with their second child. She begged Cary to retire from government service so that they could live together in England. Cary had thought this impossible for financial reasons, but in 1920, he obtained a literary agent and some of the stories he had written while in Africa were sold to The Saturday Evening Post, an American magazine, published under the name "Thomas Joyce". This provided Cary with enough incentive to resign from the Nigerian service and he and Gertrude found a house in Oxford on Parks Road opposite the University Parks (now with a blue plaque) for their growing family. They would have four sons, including the composer, Tristram Cary.
Cary worked hard on developing as a writer, but his brief economic success soon ended as the Post decided that his stories had become too "literary". Cary worked at various novels and a play, but nothing sold, and the family soon had to take in tenants. Their plight worsened when the Depression wiped out the investments that provided them with income and, at one point, the family rented out their house and lived with family members. Finally, in 1932, Cary managed to publish Aissa Saved, a novel that drew on his Nigerian experience. The book was not particularly successful, but sold more than Cary's next novel, An American Visitor (1933), even though that book had some critical success. The African Witch (1936) did a little better, and the Carys managed to move back into their home.
Although none of Cary's first three novels was particularly successful critically or financially, they are progressively more ambitious and complex. Indeed, The African Witch (1936) is so rich in incident, character, and thematic possibility that it over-burdens its structure. Cary understood that he needed to find new ways to make the narrative form carry his ideas. With Mister Johnson (1939), written entirely in the present tense, Cary's work becomes generally identified with literary Modernism.
George Orwell, on his return from Spain, recommended Cary to the Liberal Book Club, which requested Cary to put together a work outlining his ideas on freedom and liberty, a basic theme in all his novels. It was released as Power in Men (1939) [not Cary's title], but the publisher seriously cut the manuscript without Cary's approval and he was most unhappy with the book.
Now Cary contemplated a trilogy of novels based on his Irish background. Castle Corner (1938) did not do well and Cary abandoned the idea. One last African novel, Mister Johnson (1939), followed. Although now regarded as one of Cary's best novels, it sold poorly at the time. But Charley Is My Darling (1940), about displaced young people at the start of World War II, found a wider readership, and the memoir A House of Children (1941) won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for best novel.
Mature works, illness, and death
Cary now undertook his great works examining historical and social change in England during his own lifetime. The First Trilogy (1941–44) finally provided Cary with a reasonable income, and The Horse's Mouth (1944) remains his most popular novel. Cary's pamphlet "The Case for African Freedom" (1941), published by Orwell's Searchlight Books series, had attracted some interest, and the film director Thorold Dickinson asked for Cary's help in developing a wartime movie set partly in Africa. In 1943, while writing The Horse's Mouth, Cary travelled to Africa with a film crew to work on Men of Two Worlds.
Cary travelled to India in 1946 on a second film project with Dickinson, but the struggle against the British for national independence made movie-making impossible, and the project was abandoned. The Moonlight (1946), a novel about the difficulties of women, ended a long period of intense creativity for Cary. Gertrude was suffering from cancer and his output slowed for a while. Gertrude died as A Fearful Joy (1949) was being published. Cary was now at the height of his fame and fortune. He began preparing a series of prefatory notes for the re-publication of all his works in a standard edition published by Michael Joseph.
He visited the United States, collaborated on a stage adaptation of Mister Johnson, and was offered a CBE, which he refused. Meanwhile he continued work on the three novels that make up the Second Trilogy (1952–55). In 1952, Cary had some muscle problems which were originally diagnosed as bursitis, but as more symptoms were noted over the next two years, the diagnosis was changed to that of motor neuron disease (known as Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS) in North America), a wasting and gradual paralysis that was terminal. As his physical powers failed, Cary had to have a pen tied to his hand and his arm supported by a rope in order to write. Finally, he resorted to dictation until unable to speak, and then ceased writing for the first time since 1912. His last work, The Captive and the Free (1959), first volume of a projected trilogy on religion, was unfinished at his death on March 29, 1957.
He had appointed his close friend Winnie Davin as his literary executor, and she supervised the transfer of his library to the Bodleian Library, posthumously published some unfinished works, and supported scholars who studied his papers. She also wrote Cary's entry for the Dictionary of National Biography.
Cary's mature work shows several consistent themes. First, the tension between creativity, which destroys the old as it fashions the new, and the conservative desire to preserve things as they are; second, the difference between liberty, which consists of a lack of restraint, and freedom, which lies in the ability to act; finally, the sense that human life is difficult and happiness elusive, that fleeting joy is life's only reward and that love is necessary to humanity.
Mister Johnson (1939) is the story of a young Nigerian who falls afoul of the British colonial regime. Although the novel has a comic tone, the story itself is tragic. Joyce Cary has been quoted as saying that Mister Johnson was his favorite of his own books. Johnson, a young African, is assigned as clerk at an English district office in Fada, Nigeria. He is from a different district and is regarded as a foreigner by those native to the area. Johnson works his way into local society, marrying there, but never really fitting in. At the same time, he has difficulties in adjusting to the regulations and mechanism of the district office and his official duties. The district officer, Rudbeck, meanwhile, is dissatisfied with his work in the service and his life in Africa. Rudbeck conceives the notion that a road linking Fada to the main highway and larger population centers will be of great benefit to the region. Johnson, as Rudbeck's clerk, also becomes enthused about this project. Johnson is one of Cary's joy-filled characters, possessor of a great energy that infects all around him. People are drawn to Johnson and follow him without realizing that they are being led. Indeed, Johnson has no clear idea of where he is going. His delight is in seeing those around him happy. His mood infects Rudbeck and, when Johnson suggests how the books may be fiddled to support Rudbeck's road project, the colonial officer is seduced. But Rudbeck's swindle is uncovered and he returns to England to be with his wife. Johnson now goes to work for Gollup, a retired British sergeant who has married a native woman and runs the local store. Gollup is an abusive drunk given to racist epithets, but he admires Johnson's good-humored courage in facing up to his words and blows. Johnson, in turn, enjoys the compliment to his courage and, when Gollup next attacks him, retaliates. Gollup does not take this kind of violence seriously and thinks no less of Johnson, but he cannot have an employee who has struck him in public. Johnson is let go and leaves Fada. Meanwhile, a shortage of political officers means that Rudbeck must return. He immediately recommences his road-building. Rudbeck and his superior work out the extent to which he can finagle road-building funds from the accounts, but the older man warns Rudbeck that another scandal will destroy his career. The road-building brings Johnson back to Fada. Rudbeck hires him and Johnson's infectious enthusiasm makes the road-building successful. But Rudbeck discovers that Johnson has been engaged in petty graft and dismisses him. Johnson turns to theft from the store to support his lifestyle and, when Gollup discovers him, kills the storekeeper. Now Rudbeck must try Johnson for murder. The trial brings Rudbeck to the breaking point. Johnson is found guilty and begs Rudbeck to keep him from the gallows by killing him. Rudbeck follows his heart rather than the rules and does so, though the act will destroy his career and possibly have other ramifications, legal and personal, that lie beyond the close of the novel.
Chinua Achebe has said that Mister Johnson struck him as superficial and helped form his determination to write his own novels about Nigeria. Other critics have found Cary's portrayal of his main character patronizing and Johnson himself childish. But these criticisms miss the universal quality of Johnson as one of the world's creators. It is important to see Johnson as an individual character and not as a generalized racial type. And, it should be noted, the pidgin English spoken by the characters is a lingua franca for Nigerians with different tribal dialects. Johnson is capable of speaking good Hausa and other languages and this is presented by Cary in a different fashion than pidgin conversations. The general theme of creator/destroyer (since Cary thought the two went together) opposed to conservative order is present in much of Cary's fiction from this point forward.
Mister Johnson is often read in schools and has had a wide audience. It has been adapted as a play (by Norman Rosten) and a film (by Bruce Beresford).
The First Trilogy: Cary's first trilogy follows three characters at the end of their lives whose stories serve as social commentary on Edwardian and post World War I England. Each novel is narrated in the first person by its main character. The resulting counterpoint (and sometimes contradiction) of voices contribute to a richly textured narrative. Although each book stands on its own, the trilogy is a cohesive work. The basic theme is the contrast between Gulley Jimson, the destructive creator, and Thomas Wilcher, the staid conservator of the past. Sara Monday, lover to both, lives in the present, making do as best she can.
Herself Surprised (1941), introduces Sara Monday, the character whose life unites the three volumes. Sara, a rural domestic, marries her employer, Matthew Monday. When Matthew dies, Sara takes up with Gulley Jimson, a painter who had performed a commission arranged by the Mondays. This event estranges Sara from her snobbish daughters. Jimson runs through Sara's savings and she is left on her own. Sara then takes up a position with the Wilcher family, looking after the aged Thomas Wilcher. Sara winds up in bed with him and the family become concerned that she will displace them in Wilcher's will. They have her arrested for theft. All this is related by Sara, who is just out of jail at the novel's beginning. Here, and in the books that follow, Cary has his characters relate the action from a personal point of view that shows them as they wish to be seen. Sara justifies her actions from her own perspective and is silent about events she wishes to hide. The reader is left to work out the actuality of events from the clues Cary has provided.
To Be a Pilgrim (1942) is Thomas Wilcher's story. It is often neglected by readers of the other two novels in the trilogy. Cary thought this was because it lacked the humor of the other two books. Wilcher is a cold man, dedicated to preserving the family fortune. He has been brought up in an age when the ideal is "To be a pilgrim" (as in John Bunyan's hymn). His sister joins a religious commune and his brother, Edward, is a radical Liberal politician. These characters are deeply involved in the events of their time. Both seek a new and better day. Edward's party is triumphant in the constitutional crisis of 1906 which ends the power of the House of Lords, but the reader can see, through Thomas' eyes, that Edward embodies the traits that destroy the Liberals shortly after. Wilcher, whose great desire is "to be a pilgrim", never manages to escape the constriction of the life he has created for himself. Cary said that, while Sara knew historical change "only in people and herself" and Jimson saw it "as the battle of aesthetic ideas with each other and with a public always blind and self-assured", Wilcher is a man of "political and religious intuition. The tragedy of such a man is that he sees the good for ever being destroyed by the bad..." To Be a Pilgrim begins a month after Sara's incarceration. Wilcher has been removed to the family's country house and put under the care of his niece, Ann. His nephew, Robert, joins them and the two cousins become involved. Wilcher escapes from their custody to seek out Sara Monday but finds her already settled with another man. Back in his home, the dying Wilcher first struggles against the changes that his niece and her young man are making to the house then comes to accept them as necessary destruction. At the end of his life, Wilcher comes to accept himself as a conservator even as he learns to embrace change and to, finally, live as a pilgrim.
The Horse's Mouth (1944) is Gulley Jimson's tale. Jimson's father, based on a real person known to Cary, was an Academy artist who is heart-broken when Impressionism drives his style from popular taste. Jimson has put aside any consideration of acceptance by either academy or public and paints in fits of creative ecstasy. Although his work is known to collectors and has become valuable, Jimson himself is forced to live from one scam or petty theft to the next. Cadging enough money to buy paints and supplies, he spends much of the novel seeking surfaces, such as walls, to serve as ground for his paintings. When the novel opens, Jimson has just been released from jail. He seeks money from Hickson, his sometime patron, who was introduced in Herself Surprised. Later in the book, he will track down Sara Monday and try to obtain an early painting from her that is worth a great deal. Sara is reluctant to give up the picture, which serves as a reminder of her youth. In the struggle that follows, Sara falls and suffers a fatal injury. Jimson is unsentimental about his life and work and sees himself as someone who has given over to a destructive passion. Yet he regrets nothing. At the novel's end, the dying Jimson reflects on his life and the home and family that he has missed. But he recognizes that he himself made the decision to sacrifice those possibilities in order to pursue his art. A nun who is nursing him remarks that he should be praying instead of laughing, "Same thing, Mother." replies Jimson, his last words. The book's commentary on the relationship of the artist to society and the humor with which Jimson's life is presented have made it Cary's best-liked novel. The Horse's Mouth was adapted into a successful film by the director Ronald Neame, starring Alec Guinness (who also wrote the script) as Jimson and featuring the paintings of John Bratby. The film was successful with audiences, but Cary's ending was softened.
Each of the characters in the First Trilogy fails, to some degree, in meeting their own objectives. In each case, this failure is caused by the conflicting elements that make up each personality. Sara wants to rise in society and find a secure home, but her appetite for life causes her to lose her bourgeois home and status. Yet this appetite arises from the vitality that is Sara's great gift. Wilcher wishes to be a pilgrim, yet his conservative nature keeps him from ever leaving a restricted life. But this conservatism is also Wilcher's virtue and the preservation of old verities, rather than the quest for new truths, is his life's work. Jimson wants to lose himself in creation, but his very presence creates disorder and destruction. It is noteworthy that, of the various projects Jimson begins in The Horse's Mouth, only one survives (and that is unfinished) at the end of the book. This destruction extends to the people who come into contact with Jimson, including Sara Monday, and to Jimson himself whose body is broken by the same neglect and abuse he offers others. Even though the characters in the First Trilogy cannot manage to reach their self-proclaimed objectives, they are not failures as people. It is Cary's great achievement that we find some kind of sympathy and understanding for each of these human beings whose lives shape the flow of history even as they are swept along by it.
The Moonlight (1946), is the story of three women in 1930s England: Amanda and her two aunts, Rose and Ella. Amanda is 32, an introspective and bookish woman; her aunts are determined to see her married, though each has a different candidate for husband. Ella has selected a local young farmer, Harry Dawbarn, and Rose opts for Amanda's cousin, a lawyer named Robin Sant. As the novel progresses, we see that Rose has made a choice based on her view of a good match—Robin is Amanda's match intellectually—but Ella is trying to relive her own past love affair, thwarted by Rose, by choosing an impecunious, but attractive, young man. In the event, Amanda tries both men, then makes her own choices.
Cary meant The Moonlight as a riposte to Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata, a work narrated by a man who has murdered his wife which characterized women as a trap. Cary understood this as a mischaracterization of the fundamental "bitter injustice" of women's position. Toward the novel's end, Ella plays the Moonlight Sonata. Her audience remarks that it is romantic but she reflects that it is "violent, bitter, tragic". Cary thought that the triumphs of the suffragette movement in the 1920s had not made women happier, but only created for them a difficult choice between family and personal fulfillment. Even so, this was an advance, and all humanity was better off that women were more free.
The novel's point of view is sometimes that of Amanda, more often that of Ella's. Rose is seen only from outside, though she is the character that has taken the brunt of criticism. Cary went to great lengths to defend Rose. She was one of his conservators but, like Wilcher for example, she failed to elicit reader sympathy. Another problem for some readers is Amanda's personality, which can be seen as either cold or passive. Amanda is an outsider who intellectualizes and analyzes even when she observes herself. Sometimes she wonders at her own lack of passion but this is part of her nature. At the end of the novel she finds herself wondering if that nature may change. All of The Moonlight's main characters, except Harry and Robin, are women. Men are seen from outside and judgments on them as individuals are often harsh. It is only toward the end of the novel that these judgments are at all softened and we are reminded of Cary's dictum that life for all people, not just women, is essentially unfair. Although the rural background and talk of tenants and trusts and interest income may sound like George Eliot, The Moonlight is a novel with very current concerns. Post-revolutionary reaction, the conflict between marriage and career, the choice between self-fulfillment and social acceptance, are contemporary topics that were Cary's currency more than a half century ago.
The Second Trilogy: Between 1952 and 1955, Joyce Cary published a second trilogy: Prisoner of Grace (1952), Except the Lord (1954), and Not Honour More (1955). Cary was dissatisfied with his first trilogy and wished his second set of three novels to be a more unified work. The basic theme of the trilogy is politics and its background, the rise of Labour in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century. Cary thought that, just as religion has the function of satisfying and guiding the soul, so politics performed the same function for the body. He said that politicians have the options of persuading people or shooting them, and this is the rather explicit message of this work. As in the First Trilogy, each novel is narrated by a character at life's end, looking back on the past and telling the story of how things came to turn out the way that they have. Also as in the earlier work, the characters form a triangle, a woman and two of her lovers.
Prisoner of Grace is Nina Woodville's story. She loves her cousin, Jim Latter, in a passive way. Latter is an exciting element in her life, though one she might do without. Nina never has this option though, as her aunt manipulates the situation and drives the two together. Still, when Nina winds up pregnant, Latter is judged not to have the material resources to make a good husband. He is packed off to Africa and Nina is married to Chester Nimmo, a Labour politico who is twenty years her senior. When Latter returns from Africa, he and Nina take up once more and she becomes pregnant again. Again, Latter is removed from the picture and Nimmo takes on the second child. Then Nimmo is involved in a stock-manipulation scandal that ruins him politically. Nina's narrative is meant, on the surface, to help explain that Nimmo was only trying to do the right thing. Nina goes from one to the other of the men, Nimmo representing persuasion and Latter, force. Nina, then, might represent the public, though Cary himself would disdain such a stark reading of his scheme.
Except the Lord is Nimmo's story and Cary's attempt to show the "roots of English left-wing politics in evangelical religion". Nimmo is the son of a lay preacher, a "religious soldier" as his son remembers him, who works as a stableman. Nimmo grows up in poverty. He loses his religion but replaces it with a new political faith fed by radical pamphlets and ideas. He begins by trying to organize farm laborers in his district. These early efforts end in failure but, eventually, organizing bears fruit and Nimmo is elected MP largely by the evangelical vote. When reading the first and third volumes of the Second Trilogy, we see Nimmo from the outside as a manipulative fraud, but Except the Lord shows the anger and compassion that drive Nimmo and their source in the grinding poverty of his early life. Cary meant Nimmo as a type he called the "spell-binder", someone who can attract and persuade people. This was the common sort of politician in a democracy, he said, where persuasion is more important than force.
Jim Latter, narrator of Not Honour More, is an Army man who believes in authority. In the General Strike of 1926, Latter forms a vigilante police force to keep order, but the reader can see that the group is just this side of fascist thuggery. Nimmo is attempting a political comeback, Nina is helping him, Latter becomes jealous, and the three are drawn into a fateful confrontation. Of the three characters, Latter is the easiest to dislike but Cary succeeds in making us at least understand the man. Latter is a man of order who accepts society and its rules as a given. He believes that he is a man destined to rule because he was born to a certain social level. He is dependent on society's willingness to support him but is unable to see his own limitations.
Cary: "The whole point of the trilogy is the all-pervasion of the political scene. All human relations, even the most private and personal, have a political aspect." And: "...moral ends are still dominant in British politics. The essential difference between the conservative and radical parties is still in their basic religious ideas."
- Works by Joyce Cary on Open Library at the Internet Archive
- Works about Joyce Cary in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- Aissa Saved (1932)
- An American Visitor (1933)
- The African Witch (1936)
- Castle Corner (1938)
- Mister Johnson (1939)
- Charley is My Darling (1940)
- A House of Children (1941)
- Herself Surprised (1941)
- The Case for African Freedom (1941)
- To Be a Pilgrim (1942)
- The Horse's Mouth (1944)
- Marching Soldier (1945)
- The Moonlight (1946)
- A Fearful Joy (1949)
- Prisoner of Grace (1952)
- Except the Lord (1953)
- Not Honour More (1955)
- Art and Reality (1958)
- The Captive and the Free (1959)
- Spring Song and other Stories (1960)
- Memoir of the Bobotes (1964)
- Selected Essays (1976), ed. Alan Bishop
- Tobias Döring. 1996. Chinua Achebe und Joyce Cary. Ein postkoloniales Rewriting englischer Afrika-Fiktionen. Pfaffenweiler, Germany. ISBN 978-3825500214.
- Lardner, John (4 Feb 1950). "Art and Roguery by the Thames [review of The Horse's Mouth]". The New Yorker 25 (50): 88–90.
- Leithauser, Brad (12 June 1986). "Out of Exile". The New York Review of Books 33 (10).[examines much of Cary's work]
- Malcolm Foster Joyce Cary: A Biography, 1968, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, Boston
- Culture Northern Ireland – Joyce Cary
- "Joyce Cary". Nndb.com. 1925-05-14. Retrieved 2010-10-28.
- "Joyce Cary (British author) - Britannica Online Encyclopedia". Britannica.com. 1957-03-29. Retrieved 2010-10-28.
- "Joyce Cary". Irelandseye.com. Retrieved 2010-10-28.
- Davin, Anna. "Winifred Kathleen Joan Davin". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 17 November 2012.
- The Paris Review Interview, also in Writers At Work, Cowley, ed.,New York (1959).
- Cary's foreword to To Be a Pilgrim
- Interview cited in Malcolm Foster, Joyce Cary: A Biography, p.426.
- Cary's foreword to Not Honour More
- Cary's foreword to The Moonlight.
- John Burrows & Alex Hamilton (Fall-Winter 1954-1955). "Joyce Cary, The Art of Fiction No. 7". Paris Review.
- Brief overview
- Authortrek resources
- Google scan of 1957 Life magazine article on Cary's last days
- "Joyce Cary: Master Novelist", George Steinbrecher, Jr. College English, Vol. 18, No. 8 (May 1957), pp. 387–395