Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1050
Arthur Joyce Lunel Cary successfully mated modern fiction’s playful experimentation with form and language to the traditional novel’s firm reliance upon plot and character. Shortly after Cary’s birth in Ireland, his father, Arthur Cary, moved the family to England. Cary was reared knowing three worlds: London, where his family lived; Devon, where the family went on holiday; and Ireland, where he vacationed with grandparents. These contrasting worlds taught him to see the world through varied perspectives. His mother, Charlotte, died when he was ten, and his stepmother, Dora, died when he was fifteen. Cary attended boarding school at Hurstleigh and Clifton, but he was an unremarkable student. For four years, Cary dreamed of becoming a painter. On a trip to France in 1904, he discovered Impressionism and moved to Paris in 1906 as an art student. A year later, he went to Edinburgh, but by 1908 he had decided that canvas was not his medium. The experiences of these years came to fruition in Cary’s first fictional trilogy about the artist Gulley Jimson, whose bohemian life and visual imagination infuse the novel with unpredictable emotion and vivid metaphors.
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Cary entered the University of Oxford in 1909 to study law and took his degree in 1912. Without prospects for a profession, Cary went to the Balkans, where war had broken out. After his return to England a year later, he found a position in the colonial service and went to Nigeria in 1914. There, he fought against the German East African army for four years and assisted in postwar reconstruction. At various times he served as a policeman, tax collector, and engineer. Like other colonial administrators-turned-artists (Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell, for example) whose imaginations were shaped in England’s empire, Cary learned to see the world with non-British eyes. These years provided him with the situations, characters, and themes of four early novels that describe the sometimes comic, often tragic interaction of Western imperialism and African tribalism.
In 1920, Cary returned to England. With his wife, Gertrude Ogilvie, whom he had married in 1916 while on leave, Cary settled in Oxford. He lived in the same house for thirty-seven years. There, he wrote prodigiously, fathered five children, and nursed his wife through a fatal illness. Cary supported himself by penning predictable but lively short stories for popular magazines. Once he had achieved some financial security, he turned to serious fiction. His first novel, Aissa Saved, was neither a monetary nor a critical success, but with each succeeding book he gained a reputation as a competent practitioner of the panoramic novel about social conflict. Cary switched his focus from Africa to Ireland, publishing Castle Corner in 1938 as the first volume of a projected trilogy. Sensing that the traditional storytelling mode could not express the complicated reality he wished to communicate, Cary abandoned the project and his narrative method. Mister Johnson marks a watershed in Cary’s development as a novelist. The novel, set in Africa, is told from an unusual point of view, that of a third-person narrator recounting in the present tense how a black civil servant, Johnson, and a white district officer, Rudbeck, pool their imaginations and energies to build a road. Cary’s narrative method introduces the reader into the unfamiliar experience of a vision shared between an African and a European. Although the book ends tragically with Johnson’s death at Rudbeck’s hands, Cary discovered how to delineate character through narrative innovation: not character as in external appearances but character as a unique set of perceptions. Unlike some modernists, however, Cary used narrative innovation as a tool to explore character, not as an end in itself.
In 1941, when Cary was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for the best British novel of the year, he was just on the verge of his greatest accomplishment, a trilogy of first-person novels about the world of painting. Each novel records the losses and loves of three intertwined lives. Herself Surprised is Sara Monday’s narrative of her romances with the artist Gulley Jimson and the art critic Tom Wilcher. To Be a Pilgrim is Wilcher’s account of his life spent in the acquisition of paintings. The Horse’s Mouth is Jimson’s story of his quest to paint a masterpiece. Each novel is told in a distinctive voice, its sentences, syntax, and similes the inimitable utterances of a unique speaker. Though not arranged chronologically, the novels rework the same episodes and reinterpret the conflicting emotions of three people whose fates interweave like tapestry threads of different colors. From afar, the threads form one picture, up close, they reveal myriad variations. Given its composition during the dark years of World War II, this trilogy is a remarkable celebration of the human spirit. Though none of the protagonists lives “happily ever after” in the popular novel tradition, they survive their experiences as infinitely rich, infinitely complex, and infinitely joyous beings.
By the final decade of his life, Cary was considered a foresighted writer. Because of his novels about Africa, he was, during and after World War II, an authoritative commentator on its future. Because of his trilogy about art, he commanded respect as a philosopher of aesthetics. His observations on politics and art expressed hope to a war-weary world. His last three novels form a trilogy that studies the political tensions that had led up to World War II. It seems to conclude that human salvation lies with individuals, not ideologies. In his last writings, composed during the illness that ended his life, he discusses how art imitates, transcends, and transforms reality.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, writers and readers alike speculated that the novel was dead and that two centuries of imaginative effort were exhausted. The fiction that most people enjoyed followed familiar formulas for plot, character, and theme. Fiction produced by such experimenters as James Joyce seemed too convoluted and too self-consciously different to reach a wide readership. Cary demonstrated that the conventional taste for an interesting story about interesting characters in a contemporary setting could be met, and enhanced, through new narrative methods. With William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and many others, Cary showed by midcentury that the novel was not dead. Appropriately, his only novel to make the Book-of-the-Month Club list was his best, The Horse’s Mouth.