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Joyce Cary: Except the Lord

This is the second book in Joyce Cary’s second trilogy. The first book – Prisoner of Grace – told the story of Chester Nimmo, a successful Liberal politician, whose rise and fall is narrated by his ex-wife, Nina Woodville. This book is narrated by Nimmo himself and focusses on his childhood. Cary had only planned to write the one book, not a trilogy, but, after publication of Prisoner of Grace, his friends persuaded him to write another. One of his reasons for doing so is that he thought the critics misunderstood Chester, considering him a bad man whereas, for Cary, he was a politician doing what politicians have to do. What I believe, of course, is what Nimmo believes, that wangle is inevitable in the modern state, he wrote.

We saw Nimmo’s religious background in Prisoner of Grace and this is brought out here. His father, Tom, is a yeoman farmer in Devon but he is also a preacher, his religion being Adventist i.e. one that supports the Second Coming of Christ. Times are hard for everyone and soon Nimmo Senior is struggling. This is not helped by his wife’s tuberculosis, a common scourge for people of the village, before the days of antibiotics. They have to give up the farm and move into the village, where they are somewhat mocked for being upstarts. Their religion does not help and Mrs. Coyte, their new landlady, a strict Wesleyan, is opposed to Nimmo Senior preaching.

There are five children, including Chester (one child died at the age of three) and all struggle somewhat. Richard, the oldest, is the most intelligent and the focus of education is on him. Georgina, the next oldest, is a fierce tomboy. Chester joins a local gang, which poaches and steals apples. Things get a bit worse when Mrs. Nimmo does die, so much so that the youngest, Dorothy, follows her five months later.

Though narrated by Chester himself and focussing on his life, he goes into some detail about the life of his siblings, particularly his sister, Georgina. She works in a local shop at around the age of eleven and is clearly subjected to sexual abuse by G., the owner. Though we receive no details, she leaves the shop and goes to work in the local pub (to her father’s horror), owned by Mrs. G. The issue of sexual abuse does occur at other times during the book.

As Chester is writing this himself, presumably for his ex-wife Nina, who he is trying to woo back, we must consider him, at least in part, an unreliable narrator. On several occasions, he tells us what he did in certain circumstances and then tells us what lessons he learned from his actions and the consequences. He is very self-critical, presumably to show Nina how he has changed (presumably for the better).

As mentioned, religion is key in their world. Not only is his father a preacher but most people in the village attend some sort of religious event on a weekly basis or even more often. Naturally the Nimmos have to follow their father’s religion but they gradually become sceptical, particularly when a date is announced for the Second Coming of Christ. A fellow preacher announces a date but Tom Nimmo, who has been studying the matter in some detail, disagrees with his assessment and estimates it will happen two weeks later. Obviously, both are wrong but the Nimmos attend both ceremonies, where the flock waits at night for Christ’s coming. Despite this, as we know Chester will become very religious and will become a preacher, though, on the way, he espouses left-wing, union politics, which does not go well.

There is a key event in his life. There is a fair in a nearby town and all the children want to go but there is currently a miners’ strike on and they feel the need to support that. However, eventually a friend is able to finance their travel and entry and off they go (without telling their father). On the way out, they see that a play is to be put on. Older brother Richard has already seen a play so is happy to be on a way but is happy to pay for his younger brother to go. The play is Maria Marten and it makes a huge impression on Chester. Firstly, it shows the cruelty of the powerful classes against the working classes and awakes in him a sense of injustice to his class, which will lead him to his eventual career. However, it also shows him both the evil but also the seduction of power as the actor playing the murderer conveys this sense to the audience. These two issues will stay with him but also put him off theatre, as he does not go to the theatre for another thirty years.

There is another key theme in this book – the interaction of the people. He strongly points out that even in the small village in which Chester lives people are not a homogeneous mass but are all different – different in politics, religion and in personality. Moreover, people change and he particularly shows this with his family (including himself). He does admit though, that, at that, age he knew little of the real world.

I must say that I did not enjoy this novel as much as the previous one. Nevertheless, it is interesting as the Bildungsroman of a character whose subsequent life we more or less know from the previous book. We can clearly see why he became the man he did though, to Cary’s chagrin, critics did not understand this book any more than they understood the previous one. They felt this book showed Chester as a hypocrite, a charge Cary did not accept. Like many of us, even politicians, Chester is a complex man, driven by different impulses, and realises that to succeed, people sometimes must compromise and they must also change. Cary is convinced that that is what he portrays in Chester and I am inclined to agree with him.

Publishing history

First published 1953 by Michael Joseph