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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1584

First published: 1941

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social comedy

Time of work: First quarter of the twentieth century

Locale: London and the English southern counties

Principal Characters:

Sara Monday, a cook

Matthew (Matt) Monday, her husband

Gulley Jimson, a painter

Nina , his supposed...

(The entire section contains 1584 words.)

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First published: 1941

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social comedy

Time of work: First quarter of the twentieth century

Locale: London and the English southern counties

Principal Characters:

Sara Monday, a cook

Matthew (Matt) Monday, her husband

Gulley Jimson, a painter

Nina, his supposed wife

Mr. Wilcher, the owner of Tolbrook Manor

Blanche Wilcher, his niece by marriage

Miss Clarissa Hipper, her older sister

Mr. Hickson, a friend of the Mondays

The Story:

In prison, Sara Monday realized that she was indeed guilty as charged. She hoped that other women would read her story and examine their characters before their thoughtless behavior brought them also to ruin.

Sara’s first position was that of cook in a medium-sized country house. Matthew Monday, the middle-aged son of Sara’s employer, had been dominated all of his life by his mother and sister. Then this rather pathetic man fell in love with Sara, who discouraged his attentions, both because she feared he would cause her to lose her job and because she found him slightly ridiculous. Nevertheless, and somewhat to her surprise, when he proposed marriage, she accepted him.

At a church bazaar a few months after her marriage, Sara met Mr. Hickson, a millionaire art collector with whom Matthew was associated in business. With Hickson’s help, she was able to emancipate Matt from the influence of his family. Partly because she was grateful to him for his help, Sara did not rebuke Hickson when he tried to flirt with her. After Sara had been forced to spend a night at Hickson’s country house because his car had broken down, Matt supported her against the gossip and disapproval the episode occasioned.

Except for the death of their son in infancy, Sara’s life with Matt was a happy one during the first years of their marriage. They had four daughters, and Sara’s time was filled with parties, clothes, her nursery, and work on local committees.

Hickson brought an artist to stay with the Mondays. He was Gulley Jimson, who was to compete for the commission to paint a mural in the new town hall. Gulley settled in quickly, and soon his forbearing wife, Nina, joined him. After a quarrel over a portrait of Matt, the Jimsons left. Soon afterward, Sara visited them in their rooms at the local inn.

In jealousy, Hickson told Matt of these visits, and the infuriated man accused his wife of infidelity. After his outburst, Matt was very repentant and blamed himself for neglecting Sara. The incident, however, caused him to lose all the confidence his marriage had given him.

Sara did not see Gulley for years after this incident. One day during Matt’s last illness, he reappeared. He looked shabby and wanted money to buy paints and clothes. After telling her that Nina was dead, he asked Sara to marry him after Matt’s death. Although she was shocked, Sara did not stop seeing Gulley immediately. While Matt was dying, Gulley repeatedly proposed to her. Finally, she sent him away.

After Matt’s death and the sale of her house, Sara went to Rose Cottage, where Gulley was staying with Miss Slaughter, one of the sponsors for the church hall in which he was painting a mural. Miss Slaughter encouraged Sara to marry Gulley; at the end of a week, they were engaged. Just before they were to be married, however, Gulley unhappily confessed that he had a wife and had never formally been married to Nina. Sara was furious and also bitterly disappointed, but in the end, she agreed to live with Gulley and to say they were married. After an intensely happy honeymoon, they lived with Miss Slaughter while Gulley worked on his mural. During that time, Sara tried to persuade Gulley to accept portrait commissions. Infuriated by her interference, Gulley struck Sara, who then left him. She was glad to return to Rose Cottage, however, when Miss Slaughter came for her.

Although Gulley’s completed mural was considered unacceptable, he refused to change it. When Sara wanted him to repair some damage done to the painting, Gulley knocked her unconscious and left. Having exhausted her funds, Sara paid their outstanding bills with bad checks, and she was duly summoned by the police.

After Sara had thus lost her good character, the only position she could obtain was that of cook at Tolbrook Manor. The owner, Mr. Wilcher, had a bad reputation for molesting young girls and seducing his women servants. Sara, however, pitied him and liked him. Eventually, Mr. Wilcher moved Sara to his town house, having persuaded her to serve as housekeeper for both residences. She was glad for the extra money, because Gulley had been writing to her asking for loans.

For many years, Mr. Wilcher had a mistress whom he visited every Saturday. During one of many long talks by Sara’s fireside, he told her that he was tired of visiting this woman. When he asked Sara to take her place, she was at first slightly hesitant and confused; in the end, however, she agreed. The arrangement worked well enough for several years.

Mr. Wilcher became worried with family and financial affairs, and Sara helped him by economizing on household expenses. At the same time, she managed to falsify her accounts and send extra money to Gulley. One day, a policeman came to the house with two girls who had complained of Mr. Wilcher’s behavior. Mr. Wilcher disappeared, but Sara discovered him hours later hiding behind the chimney stacks on the roof. The family was appalled by this incident. After the impending summons had been quashed, Mr. Wilcher became even more unstable. Haunted by his past misdemeanors, he decided to confess them to the police. He also asked Sara to marry him after he had served his sentence. At this time, he had an attack of sciatica. While he was confined to his bed, Blanche Wilcher, his niece by marriage and a woman who had always been suspicious of Sara, dismissed her.

Returning from a visit to her daughter, Sara forgot that she was no longer employed and entered Mr. Wilcher’s street. There she found that the house had burned down in the night. Mr. Wilcher had been taken to the house of his niece’s sister Clarissa. After he had recovered from shock, he continued to see Sara and ignored Blanche. He rushed Sara to a registry office to give notice of their forthcoming marriage and then took a small new house for them to live in.

Sara had recently encountered Gulley once more and had gradually assumed financial responsibility for his new household. She maintained these payments for a time by selling oddments to an antique shop that Mr. Wilcher had told her to throw away.

The evening before her marriage, Sara arrived at the new house to find Blanche and a detective examining her possessions. She did not protest. After they had found receipts from the antique dealer and grocers’ bills for supplies for Gulley, she was taken to the police station. She received an eighteen-month prison sentence and did not see Mr. Wilcher again.

A newspaper offered her money for her story. With this money, she paid Gulley’s expenses and planned to become a cook again after she had served her sentence. She knew she could thus regain her “character,” and she believed she could keep it now that she had discovered her weaknesses.

Critical Evaluation:

HERSELF SURPRISED is the first novel in a trilogy published in the early 1940’s (the other titles are TO BE A PILGRIM and THE HORSE’S MOUTH). Each novel may be read by itself with satisfaction, but for greatest enjoyment and understanding the trilogy should be experienced as a unit. In the trilogy, each novel is given over to a single character who tells his or her story with wonderful personal style and inflection. These novels establish Joyce Cary as one of the great mimics of literature. The basic scheme of the trilogy involves the conflict between the conservative attitude represented by the lawyer and landholder Tom Wilcher (TO BE A PILGRIM), and the liberal attitude represented by the painter Gulley Jimson (THE HORSE’S MOUTH). Sara Monday, the heroine of HERSELF SURPRISED, has loved both of these men. She stands between them in a mediating position.

Sara is a warm, comfortable woman. She likes to make her men feel at ease. Her narrative is full of the imagery of the home and the kitchen. She has been Jimson’s mistress and endured his rages as well as his ecstasies. He has painted some of his finest nude studies using her as a model. Basically, however, he rejects her because she threatens to domesticate him and dampen his creative fires. Her next companion is Tom Wilcher, a fussy old bachelor who is largely concerned with maintaining the traditions represented in the family estate of Tolbrook. Sara soothes and smooths Wilcher’s thorny nature. He is a perfect object for her feminine arts.

In Cary’s world, Sara Monday stands for the womanly virtues of love, acceptance, gratification, and nurturing. She may make her way in the world by employing these skills with some calculation, but it is a kind passage. Cary’s prose style is simple, his language rich and colorful. Although critics have found it impossible to interpret his philosophy with any certainty, he is considered one of the foremost British novelists of his period.

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