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Joyce Cary: Herself Surprised

This novel is the first in a trilogy which also consists of To Be Pilgrim and The Horse’s Mouth. The purpose of the trilogy was to tell the story of three different people, whose lives intersect. Each trilogy would tell the story from the point of view of one of the three characters in turn though, as Cary explains in his introduction, it did not quite work out like that. Nevertheless, this story is told from the point of view of Sara Monday.

The key character of the trilogy is Gulley Jimson, one of most brilliant portrayals of an artist in the modern novel. He is a reprobate, potential bigamist, wife-beater, scrounger, totally irresponsible and, at least to the reader, fairly unlovable. Moreover, his paintings are painted according to his taste and definitely not according to the taste of much of the public, including many of his clients and potential clients. As, obviously we cannot see them (except in the film of The Horse’s Mouth, where the paintings used were actually done by John Bratby), it is difficult to judge but some of the descriptions we are given leave the impression that Jimson uses a somewhat childish style.

When we first meet Sara, at the beginning of the book, she is being sentenced to prison. We do not know why but we do know that she does not recognise the woman the judge is describing her as. The rest of the book, of course, is a flash-back to learn why she is is going to prison.

Sara had been a cook to a well-off family, the Mondays. The adult son was called Matt and he pursued her. At first, she resisted but then succumbed. He offered to marry her, they ran away and were married. To her surprise when they went back home, her new mother-in-law was not as opposed as she might have expected, though her new sister-in-law, Maul (sic), was quite critical. She soon, more or less, fits in. Many though by no means all of the locals more or less accept her. In particular, Mr. Hickson is attracted to her. He has business dealings with Matt, and is a councillor and millionaire so is quite influential. Indeed, once he starts pursuing Sara, other people seem more willing to accept her.

We follow her life. She had four daughters as well as a son who dies as a baby. Mr. Hickson continues to pursue her and Matt seems to do quite well, becoming a councillor. When the town hall is to be painted, Matt and Mr. Hickson are involved and they choose Gulley Jimson to paint the entrance hall. When the Committee see examples of his work, they do not like it, so it is suggested that there be a competition and the commission be given to the winner. As Mr. Jimson has nowhere to paint and is not well-off, it is suggested that the Mondays put him up, to which they agree. This is the start of Sara’s relationship with him.

That he is a difficult man can be seen from the very beginning. When he comes to stay with them, he chooses the room where he will paint, not the Mondays. He chooses their morning room. His paintings are peculiar. He paints a portrait of Matt which is not really like Matt and then, contrary to their wishes, puts it into a local exhibition, making Matt something of a laughing-stock.

His behaviour continues to astound. He disappears for two months and then suddenly reappears, accompanied by a wife, Nina (to whom he is not actually married). Nina is his victim. She tries hard but he beats her. Despite this, Sara becomes closer to him and, eventually, even allows him to paint her topless. Matt, not surprisingly, becomes somewhat jealous.

Again he disappears and for the period of World War I, they do not see him. But again he returns and hangs around Sara. Her daughters are highly critical of him. However, when Matt dies, the whole situation changes. Matt had huge debts and Sara is left with little money. She plans to open a hotel with her friend, Rozzie, but Rozzie prevaricates and it does not come off.

Much of the rest of the story is about Sara’s on-again, off-again relationship with Jimson. They plan to marry till he reveals that he is already married (not to Nina) but they do live together for a while. He has a commission to paint the entrance to a new hall for the local church, and, not surprisingly, he takes a long time over it and many people hate it.

When, one more time, he disappears, she is left alone and broke. She bounces some cheques and is put on probation. This makes it difficult to get employment and the only job she can get is a remote place called Tolbrook Manor. This introduces us to the third key character of this trilogy, Wilcher. Wilcher is a bachelor and lawyer, who has Tolbrook Manor and a house in London. He has a Saturday friend, (i.e. a mistress) and is not averse to interfering with the female staff, despite having been warned off by the local vicar and relatives. Sara does very well there, so much so that Wilcher promotes her to cook/housekeeper for both houses (which means, she feels, that she is doing the job of four people for the pay of one). She also gets promoted to Saturday friend as well (for no extra money).

But things go wrong. The wife of Wilcher’s nephew, Blanche, is eager to inherit and cannot brook a rival. Sara is continuing to help Jimson and, indeed, steals from her employer to do so.

Cary does tell an excellent and complex story, giving us Sara’s point of view on life. She sees herself as a good woman and, on the whole she is, despite her petty theft, which can at least be partially justified by the way she is exploited by her employer. Indeed, though she is a fairly strong woman, she is exploited by both Wilcher and Jimson. However, the key to this book (and the other two in the Trilogy) is is the character of Gulley Jimson. He is a rogue, a womaniser, a crook, a scrounger, a liar and a cheat. Despite this, women seem to like him as he has several “wives” (none of him he is married to) during the course of this book. Indeed, Sara gets on well with two of them, Nina and Lizzie.

Is he a genius? Hickson says to Sara To be quiet honest, I don’t know and I can’t tell. I don’t think anyone can. We’re too close to him. In a hundred years perhaps or even fifty, it will be quite obvious. He is fiercely independent, doing what he wants and is little concerned for what others think. While not too averse to fame, he does not court it and is not bothered when he does not get it. He does get a picture in the Tate Gallery by the end of the book, but that might not make him a genius. Genius or no, from our point of view, he is a wonderful literary creation.

Publishing history

First published 1941 by Michael Joseph