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.