Joyce Cary (Arthur Joyce Lunel Cary) was born to Anglo-Irish parents in Derry on December 7, 1888. Though his family moved to London shortly after his birth, Cary maintained an intimate connection to Ireland for much of his life, and a particular connection to Inishowen, where the Carys had lived as members of the Protestant Ascendancy from the early seventeenth century until the Irish Land Act of 1882 led to economic hardship. Arguably, Cary's sense of himself as an Anglo-Irishman – attached to both yet belonging fully to neither culture – contributed to his ability to identify and empathize with different subject positions, a characteristic that marks his early fiction set in Africa as well as his more mature, multivoiced trilogies. He studied painting in Paris and Edinburgh during the first decade of the twentieth century, but eventuallyresigned himself to reading law at Oxford. His results were less than exemplary as his determination to be a professional writer interfered with his studies. After a stint with the Red Cross in Montenegro and a failed attempt to secure employment in Ireland, he enlisted in Nigerian political service as an assistant district officer. He occupied various positions in West Africa from 1914 until early 1920, before returning to Oxford to establish himself as a writer. Aissa Saved, published in 1932, was the first of the 15 novels that followed until his death in 1957. Two more novels, The Captive and the Free (1959) and Cock Jarvis (1974), were published posthumously.
Cary's early writing career was dedicated to the subject of West Africa, informed by his experiences in the Nigerian political service with its Lugardian imperative of “indirect rule.” After Aissa Saved, he published An American Visitor (1933), The African Witch (1936), and Mister Johnson (1939). His African fiction, while problematic on some levels, particularly in its oversimplified representations of Africans, is marked by a characteristic ambivalence to the imperial project as a whole. Mister Johnson – which was eventually adapted into a film by Bruce Beresford – is particularly successful in this regard, though Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe felt the need to respond to its oversimplifications of African culture by writing his landmark novel, Things Fall Apart (1959). Informed by his childhood experiences in Ireland, Cary's novels Castle Corner (1938), based on Castle Cary in Inishowen, and A House of Children (1941b), which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, signaled a shift to the seemingly less problematic setting of Europe, and specifically to England in Charlie Is My Darling (1940). His growing popularity as a writer accompanied the shift.
With the exceptions of The Moonlight (1946) and A Fearful Joy (1949), Cary's remaining novels, and most significant achievements, make up two trilogies that explore philosophical and political issues. In a structure that belies the complexity of his narrative and thematic vision, each novel in each trilogy is dedicated to one of three main characters representing a philosophical or political principle. The first trilogy – consisting of Herself Surprised (1941a), To Be a Pilgrim (1942), and The Horse's Mouth (1944) – places SaraMonday(Herself) inadialecticallovetriangle with conservative Thomas Wilcher (Pilgrim), and the simultaneouslycreative and destructive artist, Gulley Jimson (Horse). It explores through a dialogical narrative the relationships between freedom, preservation, and destruction. The second and much darker trilogy – consisting of Prisoner of Grace (1952), Except the Lord (1953), and Not Honour More (1955) – places Nina Woodville (Prisoner) in a love triangle with left-wing politico Chester Nimmo (Except) and the almost fascistically conservative Jimmy Latter (Honour). Through its dialogical narrative, it explores the political and moral implications of all relationships, and, more precisely, the potential human cost of conflicts between the radical and the reactionary in contemporary England. Though on many levels the second trilogy is superior to the first as a cohesive unit, it has not garnered as much popular or critical attention, perhaps because it lacks the life-affirming humor and optimism of its precursor. The Horse's Mouth remains Cary's most popular and successful work, aided in part by Alec Guinness's very successful adaptation for the 1958 film directed by Ronald Neame.
As Alan Bishop noted in the biography published during the centenary year of Cary's birth, critical reception of the author's work has always been mixed, partly because he does not fit easily into any literary school. He has not received the critical attention that some of his contemporaries have, despite his success and his influences on prominent writers who followed him. And what critical attention he does receive continues to wane. His African fiction receives the majority of the continued critical output, much, however, following on the heels of the dismissive but highly influential treatment of it as racial romance in Abdul Jan Mohamed's Manichean Aesthetics (1983).
SEE ALSO: Achebe, Chinua (WF); Irish Fiction (BIF); West African Fiction (WF)
- Gentleman Rider: A Life of Joyce Cary. London: Michael Joseph. (1988).
- Aissa Saved. London: Ernest Benn. (1932).
- An American Visitor. London: Ernest Benn. (1933).
- The African Witch. London: Gollancz. (1936).
- Castle Corner. London: Gollancz. (1938).
- Mister Johnson. London: Gollancz. (1939).
- Charlie Is My Darling. London: Michael Joseph. (1940).
- Herself Surprised. London: Michael Joseph. (1941a).
- A House of Children. London: Michael Joseph. (1941b).
- To be a Pilgrim. London: Michael Joseph. (1942).
- The Horse's Mouth. London: Michael Joseph. (1944).
- The Moonlight. London: Michael Joseph. (1946).
- A Fearful Joy. London: Michael Joseph. (1949).
- Prisoner of Grace. London: Michael Joseph. (1952).
- Except the Lord. London: Michael Joseph. (1953).
- Not Honour More. London: Michael Joseph. (1955).
- The Captive and the Free. London: Michael Joseph. (1959).
- Cock Jarvis: An Unfinished Novel (ed. Bishop, A. G. ). London: Michael Joseph. (1974).
- Joyce Cary and the Dimensions of Order. London: Macmillan. (1979).
- Manichean Aesthetics: The Politics of Literature in Colonial Africa. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. (1983).
- The Horse's Mouth (screenplay by A. Guinness). Knightsbridge Films. (dir.) (1958).
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