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Joyce Cary: Prisoner of Grace

Joyce Cary’s second trilogy, written late in life, was quite different from his first. Cary himself mentioned a US critic who said that Gulley Jimson, of the the first trilogy was a politician in art while Chester Nimmo, whom we meet here, was an artist in politics. That Cary does not have a very high respect for politicians is clear, when he says Probably no man would give himself to that craft… without a great deal of conceit. The only modification we might make to that statement in this day and age is to say No man or woman…..

This book is narrated by Nimmo’s ex-wife, Nina née Woodville, to defend him from charges that are about to appear in the press. Nina was orphaned at the age of four when both her parents died of cholera in India. As a result she was brought up by an aunt, whom she refers to as Aunt Latter (Latter is her surname). Aunt Latter also brought up Jim, Nina’s cousin. His mother had died and his father travelled around with his eldest son and various lady friends, leaving Jim to the care of Aunt Latter. Not surprisingly, Jim and Nina became close and, indeed, had something of a love-hate relationship. One day, the love won out and Nina ended up pregnant. Jim could not or would not marry her as he was a subaltern in a military regiment and he would have had to resign in order to marry. Fortunately, Chester Nimmo, though much older than her, and still a fairly lowly clerk, had fallen in love with her and had proposed to her and been rejected. He was now accepted.

While he clearly did adore Nina, the fact that she had five thousand pounds from her parents did not hurt. Indeed, it was this money that helped launched his political career. He took a radical view (what we would call left-wing), being opposed to the Boer War and highly critical of slum landlords. His views on the Boer War, in particular, got him into a lot of trouble. Indeed, at one meeting he attended, there was a riot and Nina was hurt. It also cost him a parliamentary seat.

The book follows Chester’s political career. It certainly has its ups and downs but, with a combination of luck, Chester’s political manoeuvring, Nina’s (at times reluctant) involvement and a little help from friends, he manages to move up. In particular, in the 1996 general election, a landslide victory for the Liberals, Chester ends up as a minister.

Nina says that following the rise of a political man from his start to his success is fascinating and, indeed, in this case it is and part of the success of the book. However, as she is writing with hindsight, she also lets us know that he is going to fall and tries to justify some of his behaviour (part of which involves their marital relations). To a certain degree he sells his soul to the capitalists, though, as Nina admits, he was good at business and did nothing illegal or immoral. He also sees plots everywhere, only a very few of which are genuine. She also says that he only lives for his career and, while there is an element of truth in this, he does seem to care for her. However, he is certainly not the first man to put his career first in his list of priorities.

However, we are also following the fairly complex relationship involving Nina and Chester, Jim (who, like Cary, has gone off to Nigeria, though in Jim’s case to escape his debts) and Nina’s extended family, particularly Aunt Latter. Nina threatens to leave Chester more than once. She has another baby, with Jim almost certainly the father. As Aunt Latter says None of the Woodvilles were ever good for anything except amusing themselves at other people’s expense.

However, Chester’s career is also having its problems. World War I is approaching and Chester takes a strong pacifist stance, as do many of constituents, particularly those who are strongly Christian. There is a also a strong element within the Liberal Party that is also pacifist. So when Germany invades Belgium, what are they to do, especially as many British people feel that fighting the Germans is the only answer?

This book is essentially about two things. The first is about politics or what we might call the politics of politics. We follow Chester’s career, his rise and fall, but more particularly his struggle with his principles. These struggles involve struggles with himself (how and where should he compromise), with Nina and other family members, with his own party, with his constituents and with the rest of the country. He gets abused, attacked (including physically), condemned and voted out. Nina, however, who is writing this account, defends him many times. Though she does not use the phrase, politics is the art of the possible, as Bismarck famously said. Politicians have to compromise if they are to achieve anything and this includes a man like Chester who has very strong principles. We see him compromising on several occasions and, not surprisingly, getting roundly condemned for it, though Nina justifies and rationalises most of his compromises. Indeed, as we read her explanations, we can, if we are reasonable people, sympathise and even agree in a way in which we might not agree with our current politicians, who are often doing no more and no less than Chester.

The other key subject is also politics but, in this case, what can best be described as the politics of marriage. The marriage of Nina and Chester as, I imagine, with many (most?) marriages, involves politics – compromises, disagreements, clever manoeuvring by one or both parties, innocent victims (usually the children) who get caught up in the politics and, finally, failure. All of these and more are components of the marriage of Nina and Chester. Ultimately, Chester fails at both politics and marriage but has a good run at both. Following his attempts, his successes and his failures at both make this another first-class novel from Cary.

Publishing history

First published 1952 by Michael Joseph