He was born in Northern Ireland, where there is a strong tradition of Protestantism; he was brought up against a background of devout Anglicanism, lost his faith, and later constructed an unorthodox but strongly ethical faith of his own along Protestant lines. He came late to the writing of novels. He studied as an art student in Edinburgh and Paris before going to Oxford University. In 1912-13 he fought, and served in the Red Cross, in the Balkan War. In 1913 he joined the Nigerian political service, fought against the Germans in West Africa in World War I, and returned to the political service after it. His first novel, Aissa Saved, appeared in 1932. His subsequent works were: An American Visitor (1933); The African Witch (1936); Castle Corner (1938); Mister Johnson (1939); Charley is my Darling (1940); A House of Children (1941); the trilogy Herself Surprised (1941), To Be a Pilgrim (1942) and The Horse's Mouth (1944); The Moonlight (1946); A Fearful Joy (1949); another trilogy, Prisoner of Grace (1952), Except the Lord (1953), and Not Honour More (1955); The Captive and the Free (1959). Spring Song (1960) is a collection of stories. He also produced three volumes of verse, Verse (1908), Marching Soldier (1945) and The Drunken Sailor (1947), and a number of political tracts—Power in Men (1939), The Case for African Freedom (1941; revised 1944), Process of Real Freedom (1943), and Britain and West Africa (1946).
In the first 30 years of the 20th century novelists tended to be open to foreign influences and experimental in expression; Cary was among the first distinguished novelists to return to English traditions and direct narrative, although he here and there uses the stream of consciousness technique of narration evolved by novelists of the 1920s, notably James Joyce. He is one of the most eclectic of modern novelists, both in method and in subject. In his comedy and his loose, vigorous narrative he has been compared to the 18th-century novelists Smollett and Defoe; in his characterization, to Dickens; in his attitude to human nature, to D. H. Lawrence; in his concern with heroic morality, to Joseph Conrad; in his endeavour to present experience with immediacy, to Virginia Woolf and Joyce; in his interlocking of human destiny and social patterns he might be compared with George Eliot. His first three novels and Mister Johnson are products of his African experience; Charley is my Darling and A House of Children are novels of childhood, and his two trilogies—thought by some to be his major work—are attempts, in his words, to see `English history, through English eyes, for the last 60 years'.
Image: James Joyce in Zurich, 1918
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