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Cary, (Arthur) Joyce Lunelfree

  • Alan Bishop

(Arthur) Joyce Lunel Cary (1888–1957)

by Katerina Wilczynski, 1954

Cary, (Arthur) Joyce Lunel (1888–1957), writer, was born on 7 December 1888 at the Belfast Bank, Londonderry, the elder son of Arthur Pitt Chambers Cary (1864?–1937), engineer, and his first wife, Charlotte Louisa (1861?–1898), elder daughter of James John Joyce, manager of the Belfast Bank, Londonderry. Joyce Cary, as he was immediately called to avoid confusion with his father, noted later that he had inherited conflicting qualities from 'Dad the sportsman, the practical man—and my dear Mother who had the Joyce dreaminess, and reflectiveness' (letter to his wife, 5 Nov 1919). This inward tension was mirrored in a life broadly divided between action and artistic creation. To his diverse parental inheritance were added complicating influences. He was Anglo-Irish. The Carys were an ascendancy family, with roots in the English west country, who had settled in the Inishowen peninsula, north of Londonderry, in the sixteenth century. Locally powerful, moderately wealthy, and respected as magistrates and benevolent landlords through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the family then declined slowly, partly as a result of profligacy, and was finally ruined by the Land Act of 1881, a measure intended to alleviate abuses feeding nationalist agitation. Within two years the remnant of the family's once-extensive holdings, and even Castle Cary itself (the last of their three big houses and the one in which Cary's father was born) had been sold. Growing up in the shadow of these losses, Cary was aware from an early age of 'the tragedy of social conflict in which personal quality counts for nothing; where a man is ruined not because he has done any wrong, but because he represents a class or race' (J. Cary, Speaking for myself, New York Herald Tribune Book Review, 8 Oct 1950, 10). Injustice, and responses to it, were thus early established as a dominant theme in his thought.

The loss of Castle Cary precipitated a dispersal of the family's younger generation, even before Cary's grandfather, Arthur Lunel Cary, died in 1885. Cary's father, the second son in the family, moved to London in 1884 and trained as an engineer. He had met Charlotte Joyce the year before he left Inishowen, and they married in August 1887, setting up house in south London. Charlotte returned to Londonderry for the birth of their first child, in her parents' home above the Belfast Bank, in the following year. A second son, John (always called Jack), was born on 28 January 1892, but their mother died suddenly of pneumonia on 1 October 1898, when Joyce Cary was nine years old.

Cary's childhood was divided between Ireland and England: grey London streets and, every summer, the cherishing homes of his Irish grandmothers, Lough Foyle, green fields, and a horde of ebullient boys—his novel A House of Children (1941) superbly memorializes that joyful, knockabout, evanescent life. Remarried, Cary's father sent him to Hurstleigh, a preparatory school in Tunbridge Wells; and then to Clifton College. In his first year there his beloved stepmother died, and the boy's renewed distress was clear when he ran away briefly. These early experiences of sharply contrasting lives and values, of painful loss, of removal from his family, and of the requirement to maintain rigorous self-control, prepared him for his adventurous early manhood and also helped to shape the patterns and themes of his fiction.

Cary set out to become an artist by living in Paris (an elderly painter he knew there, Charles Mackie, was later a model for Cary's most famous character, Gulley Jimson in The Horse's Mouth), and then trained at the Edinburgh College of Art from 1907 to 1909. But he recognized that his artistic talent was limited, and shifted his attention to literature, privately publishing a volume of poems, Verse, in 1908. He was persuaded by his father, however, to read law at Trinity College, Oxford. There his restlessness continued, and minimal academic effort resulted in the fairly rare achievement of a fourth-class degree in 1912. He had preferred to live a sociable life. Two of his many friends became influential on his later life: John Middleton Murry, with whom he shared digs, roistered in Paris and cultivated a bohemian literary life; and Heneage Ogilvie, a medical student, whose sister Gertrude he wanted to marry.

In October 1912 Cary rushed off to Montenegro, where the First Balkan War had broken out: as a Red Cross orderly he observed some fierce fighting between Turks and Montenegrins. On his return to England he briefly set himself up as a writer in London, and wrote a vivid account of his war experiences (Memoir of the Bobotes, published posthumously, 1964). He knew now that if he was to be permitted to marry Gertrude Ogilvie he needed a paying job. Love and knowledge of Ireland pointed him to Sir Horace Plunkett's co-operative movement; but when, after several months, it was made clear that he would not be offered a permanent position, he fell back on his alternative plan to apply for a post in the Northern Nigerian political service, the élite colonial administration of Britain's African territories. He was accepted, and in May 1914 began work as an assistant district officer in a large province, Bauchi. There are traces of his two contrasting superiors, H. S. W. Edwardes and J. F. J. Fitzpatrick, in Gulley Jimson and in Jim Latter of Not Honour More respectively, and they both influenced his characterization of Cock Jarvis.

When the First World War broke out, the Nigerian administration was soon involved in conflict with the neighbouring German colony of Cameroons. Cary was seconded to lead Nigerian troops in an attack on the German redoubt of Mora Mountain. Some of his finest short stories vividly re-create experiences which culminated in his being shot through the ear on 3 September 1915, and being invalided back to England in very poor health. On 1 June 1916 he married Gertrude Margaret Ogilvie (1891–1949), and on 9 August he returned to his duties in northern Nigeria, leaving her pregnant. He was sent to govern a very remote district, Borgu, which had two competing emirs and a recent history of bloody rebellion. There, for two years, Cary put into successful practice his administrative and military experience, his own liberal principles, and those of indirect rule (the general governing policy formulated by the governor, later Lord Lugard). He presided over the building of roads, bridges, and zungos (inns for travellers), so increasing trade and the general standard of life in the district—at the cost of some local unrest, and tension with the emirs. In his The Case for African Freedom (1941) and Britain and West Africa (1946), Cary defended the British empire as largely benevolent in its effects, although he fully acknowledged the concomitant strains and injustices that he had observed critically.

During his often lonely years in Borgu Cary had continued to write fiction, completing one important short novel, 'Daventry', and some pot-boiling short stories which, accepted for publication by the Saturday Evening Post, supported his decision to resign from the colonial service and become a professional writer in England. He was now the father of two sons, Michael [see Cary, Sir (Arthur Lucius) Michael (1917-1976)] and Peter, and his wife had written forcefully of her increasing distress at his long absences. In 1920 they bought a house at 12 Parks Road, Oxford, which was Cary's home for the rest of his life, and where he began his long struggle to establish himself as a novelist. By the time he published his first novel, Aissa Saved (1932), the psychological and financial strain was extreme. Two more sons, Tristram Cary (1925–2008; later a pioneer of electronic music) and George, had been born—Cary was now avowedly a ‘family man’.

Cary wrote strenuously through the 1920s, developing his 'philosophy of life': that creativity is fundamental for a fulfilled life, and the only foil to the pervasive change and injustice which are the price of human freedom. But a particular barrier was the chaotic method of writing he had developed in his unsettled Nigerian days, when, frequently travelling rough in Borgu, he would necessarily work randomly rather than consecutively on a novel, often writing several versions, and even several novels, side by side. What should have been his first published novel, Cock Jarvis (edited and published posthumously), with a seminal protagonist and theme, collapsed in confusion after years of hard work.

But Cary prevailed; his energy and ambition resulted in An American Visitor (1933) and The African Witch (1936), which drew mainly on his Nigerian memories, while Castle Corner (1938), intended as the first of a series, connected these with his family's history in Ireland. His intense experiences and relationships in Borgu were especially fruitful in his fiction, most strikingly as the heart of one of his finest novels, Mister Johnson (1939), about a young Nigerian clerk who works in a British colonial office, loves England, and who, as Cary explains in his preface, 'turns his life into a romance'. Thereafter—apart from A House of Children, which won the James Tait Black memorial prize in 1941—setting and characters were predominantly English. His most popular, admired, and lucrative novel was The Horse's Mouth (1944), the third of his first trilogy, which also included Herself Surprised (1941) and To be a Pilgrim (1942). This trilogy has a basic pattern of conflicting viewpoints—of the family-centred woman, the tradition-bound man, and the creative, innovative man—which was again fundamental in Cary's darker and more complex second trilogy: Prisoner of Grace (1952), Except the Lord (1953), and Not Honour More (1955).

During and after the Second World War Cary also published political treatises, Power in Men (1939) and Process of Real Freedom (1943); two idiosyncratic long poems, Marching Soldier (1945) and The Drunken Sailor (1947); and three novels reflecting his substantive themes of creativity, change, and injustice, in relation, especially, to children and women: Charley is my Darling (1940), The Moonlight (1946), and A Fearful Joy (1949). He also endured tragedy in his family life, with the death of his wife in 1949, and the early death of his fourth son, George, in 1953. He was given strong support by his family and by close friends in Oxford such as Lord David Cecil, Enid Starkie, and Helen Gardner, and by American friends such as Edith Haggard, his New York agent, who had placed many of his short stories in American journals.

By the mid-1950s Cary was famous and regarded around the world (and especially in the USA) as one of Britain's most eminent novelists. He had always enjoyed travel: during the Second World War, while writing The Horse's Mouth, he had gone on a risky expedition to Africa with Thorold Dickinson, director of Men of Two Worlds (for which Cary had written the film script). After the war he travelled extensively in India, on a similar but abortive project; then he had made a series of demanding lecture tours in Europe and the United States. At the height of his success he fell seriously ill with what was diagnosed early in 1955 as motor neurone disease. He was hospitalized for treatment, but this failed to halt the progressive atrophy of his muscles. By mid-1956 he was confined to bed, but was enabled (by an ingenious invention of his own to support his wasting right arm) to continue his prolific writing: short stories, the Clark lectures (published posthumously as Art and Reality and delivered at Cambridge by a nephew, Robert Ogilvie), and finally a novel, The Captive and the Free. For this, in his final months, he needed the devoted help of his friend Winifred Davin who acted as his amanuensis. To the end Cary was uncomplaining, sociable, and unremittingly creative. He died at his home on 29 March 1957. Davin, now acting as Cary's literary executor, edited The Captive and the Free for posthumous publication in 1959, and also a selection of his fine short stories, Spring Song and other Stories (1960).

A prolific, independent, wide-ranging writer with a place in three literatures (English, Irish, Nigerian), difficult to categorize because his writing integrates the traditional and experimental, Cary left behind a mass of unpublished material now held in the Bodleian Library. His reputation as a novelist, so high at the time of his death, has since dwindled. A varied, active life fed into his writings, giving even the most imaginative a strong basis in personal experience. His philosophical, historical, and political conclusions, sometimes criticized as simplistic, convey a profoundly moral, thoughtful, and generous response to human existence.


  • A. Bishop, Gentleman rider: a life of Joyce Cary (1988)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.
  • F. W. O. [F. Ogilvie], Ogilvies and others (1931)


  • BBC WAC, corresp. and papers
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. and papers
  • BL, corresp. with Society of Authors, Add. MS 56680
  • NL Scot., letters to John Dover Wilson


  • photograph, 1916, Hult. Arch.
  • M. Gerson, photograph, 1953, NPG
  • K. Wilczynski, pen-and-ink drawing, 1954, NPG [see illus.]
  • J. Cary, self-portrait, lithograph, 1956, NPG
  • E. Kennington, oils, priv. coll.

Wealth at Death

£18,658 5s. 3d.: probate, 1 July 1957, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)