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Joyce Cary: To Be a Pilgrim

This book is the second in Joyce Cary’s trilogy, the first being Herself Surprised. Each book was planned to tell the story of the same group of people but from the perspective of three different people. The first book was narrated by Sara Jimson (formerly Monday). (She was not, in fact, Sara Jimson for, though she thought she had married Gulley Jimson, in fact he was already married, so the marriage was null and void. She still kept the name, however.) Both at the beginning and the end of that book, she was being sent to prison, for stealing from her employer Tom Wilcher. This book tells the story from Tom Wilcher’s point of view. The title comes from a hymn from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

The story starts where the previous one ended. Sara has gone to prison. Tom Wilcher, however, did not want her to go and, indeed, is prepared to wait for her to come out of prison and he will then marry her. He feels what she stole was only trivial and, indeed, she deserved the items, as he paid her badly. However, his heirs (his nieces and nephews), eager to protect their inheritance (Tom has never been married and has no children) pushed for the prosecution. Tom had spent most of his career managing the family estate. He had lived part of the time in their London property but that been badly burnt so he had now returned to the family estate in Devon, Tolbrook, where he is now living. He is under the care of his niece, Ann, daughter of his brother Edward, and his nephew, Robert, son of his sister, Lucy. Tom’s three siblings are all dead. Ann is a qualified doctor (Tom has heart problems) but he is not sure whether they are concerned with his health and well-being or are there to protect their inheritance.

While we follow Tom’s often eccentric behaviour as he is in the present (aged early seventies, setting shortly before World War II) and his relations with his family, we also follow his past life as he tells of his upbringing and his family. Tom had two brothers – Bill and Edward – and a sister, Lucy. Tom never married but the other three all did. The family had many faults and relationships were clearly one. Bill was an army officer and, on home from leave (for two weeks!) is in search of a wife. Jokingly, Edward and Tom suggest Amy, a shy, not very attractive young woman. Bill takes them seriously, seeks out Amy, proposes to her and marries her in a few days. Theirs is the only vaguely successful relationship of not only the four siblings but of all but one their children.

Tom is particularly close to Lucy and they have a love-hate relationship. At times they are very close but at times they fight. For example, there is an argument over the ownership of a chair which leads to their being estranged for several years. Lucy elopes with the local butcher who is leader of a small sect called the Benjamites (what we would now probably call a cult.) When Tom tracks her down, she is scrubbing floors, a very unLucy thing to be doing. Mr. Brown, the butcher, is the patriarch and all must obey him. When he takes Ella to his bed, Lucy leaves but returns when he comes to fetch her. Edward has a fairly successful career as a Liberal politician. Bill very much looks up to him and says the family must do all it can to support him. Tom is more cynical, not least because of Edward’s wayward love life. One of Edward’s lovers is an actress called Julie (he has several, often simultaneously). It is Tom who is in love with her and who looks after her (on and off) for much of the rest of his life, long after Edward has died. Tom’s career is as a lawyer and managing the family estate, which he ends up inheriting. Apart from Julie, his love life mainly consists, at least in later life, of accosting young women in the street, which eventually gets him into trouble with the police.

The key theme of this book is Tom’s views of the past and the present and how much things have changed. We see this particularly in two areas. (In the area of romance, it does not seem to have changed much as John, the son of Bill and Amy, Ann, the daughter of Edward, and Robert, the son of Lucy, all seem to do as badly if not worse than the previous generation.)

The first and perhaps key area where things have changed is religion. The father of Tom and his siblings insisted on evening prayers every day and, once back in Tolbrook, Tom revives this tradition. He clearly loves and respect the traditional Church of England approach to religion and is critical of his nieces and nephews who do not share his views. Indeed, he had considered being a missionary and only abandoned the idea when it was put to him by his family that he should become a lawyer and manage the family estate (duty to family being a strong as duty to God). The title of this book refers not only to his desire to be a missionary but also that, when younger, he felt he would like to move around, and not be tied down by possessions. Sadly, he has essentially been stuck in the two family homes for all his life.

Clearly, he has no time for the religion of Mr. Brown and Lucy and, indeed, despises it and is always criticising it, hence the frequent rows with Lucy, despite their closeness. He saw the devil in Lucy. (She was my sister. … That didn’t prevent her from having a devil and For what I loathed in her was the devil. That destroyer, when you see him face to face, is always terrifying and hateful.) He adds that he feels that Robert, Lucy’s son, also has the devil in him, like his mother.

He does try to keep up religion in the modern period, with family prayers, but clearly sees it as a lost cause, to his great disappointment, though he is very gratified when Ann starts going to church. However, when it comes to his will – and he has redone it many times – he seems to favour Blanche (wife of his nephew) who may be a prig but she’s a Christian at least. This issue of religion will come and go throughout the book.

The other area where great changes have taken place is what may best be described as agricultural and land management practices. Robert feels that times have changed and he tries to introduce what he sees as modern techniques, such as electrification of the agricultural labourers’ cottages to cutting down old woods and making large, productive fields. Tom is very much against this. He likes the old woods and feels electrification is too expensive for the cottage of one of the elderly labourers. Again, this issue will crop up throughout the book.

In the modern era – the late 1930s, with the rise of Hitler in the background and differing views on whether Britain should fight or accommodate Hitler and whether, indeed, there will be a war – Tom has heart problems and is stuck at Tolbrook (though he manages to escape a few times). Ann and Robert look after him and to his shock they start a relationship and eventually get surreptitiously married, though their marriage is no more successful than that of their respective parents. Tom is looking back, reminiscing, trying to resist the changes that Robert tries to bring about (and sometimes succeeds in doing so). His heart is still set on Sara Jimson and he changes his will or, at least, considers doing so several times during the course of the book. He knows (thinks he knows) that he is dying but still keeps going, the last survivor of his generation of Wilchers and, as he sees it, the upholder of certain family values which the next generation does not really share.

I thought that this was a really fine book, much better than its predecessor, as Tom is superbly drawn by Cary and there is a rich cast of characters, each one distinct in her/his own way. It is also a book about how England has changed over the years (yes, I know Cary was Irish but this is an English novel, written by an Irishman), along the lines of Brideshead Revisited, The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, Howards End and Ulverton, and Cary does this as well as anyone. It does notseem to be in as much favour as it should be, though is still in print in both the UK and US and deserves to have a greater reputation.

Publishing history

First published 1942 by Michael Joseph