“My novels point out that the world consists entirely of exceptions.” – Joyce Cary

“Herself Surprised” by Joyce Cary (1941)

Newest Cover

In “Herself Surprised”, Irish author Joyce Cary performs a high-wire act.  The entire novel is narrated by Sara Monday, a lively high-spirited maid.  I suppose it would be easier for a man to write a novel in a woman’s voice if the woman were perfect (a Madonna) in every way.  Sara Monday is by no means perfect.  In Sara’s own words, “I too was one of those who can put their conscience to  sleep when they like, just to please themselves.”  Thus Sara gets involved with a series of men throughout the novel, sometimes marrying them, sometimes not, sometimes on the side.

“But since Mr. Hickson had flirted so with me once, touching me, he had to do it again.  And this is the great difficulty for a woman.  How to put an uppish kind of man into his place without hurting him more than he deserves.  For after all, it was no great crime in Mr. Hickson to be a man and like me as a woman.  Or if it was so, then providence must answer for our shapes.”

Maybe now is the time to discuss the author Joyce Cary’s strategy.  ‘Herself Surpirsed’ is the first novel in Joyce Cary’s ‘First Trilogy’.  His idea was to take three people who knew each other well and have each one narrate their own novel.  In their own novel, perhaps the narrator won’t be completely truthful about their own behavior or they might minimize the extent of the problems caused by their behavior.  But by reading another novel narrated by someone close to them, we get a fuller picture.  Thus after reading all three novels we will have a full picture of all three people, faults and all.  Joyce Cary called this a “three-dimensional’ approach to novel writing.

I think this ‘three dimensional’ approach is very valid.  How many times have we read a novel where the narrator seems almost too good to be true, because we do not see this person as others see them but only through their own eyes with their own self-justifications for everything they do?

Not being a woman myself, I’m not the person to judge whether or not Joyce Cary captures a woman’s essence and being in Sara Monday.  Sara Monday has lots of faults not only with men but in her work as a maid where she sometimes steals stuff from the houses and sells it at pawn shops.  But I can say on Sara Monday’s behalf that one would be hard-pressed finding someone more likeable and appealing than Sara Monday.  Sara Monday says about one of her friends,

“Love was the source of all the trouble in the world, and she wished God had left Adam and Eve plain and not stuck the odd bits on them.”

Sara Monday has her own way of putting things.   She also has profound insights into the man and woman situation :

Original Paperback Cover

“Then we said no more for some time, and I saw that I had talked too much and abused him too much.  For to abuse a man is a lover-like thing and gives him rights, which Jimson felt very well.”

Will I read the other two books in the trilogy?  Yes, for sure, after some time spent recovering from and thinking about “Herself Surprised”. I will end with one more quote from Sara Monday.

“We were young together and did not know how to relish the sweet joys of only walking and talking and looking about us, and eating and sleeping in amity and kindness.”

11 responses to this post.

  1. I’ve never read Joyce Cary but this has intrigued me. I like the idea of three dimensional writing. I guess this has become more commonly done these days through multiple narrators in the one novel, like Perlman’s Seven types of ambiguity to name just one. I really like that approach – but probably like to have it one book rather than have to read 3!! (Love the new cover).


    • Hi Whisperinggums,
      Yes, I like the idea that Cary divided it up into three novels, so at least I can give myself credit for reading three. Also I can take a break with other books before going back to the trilogy. After reading Perlman’s Three Dollars, I want to, want to read Seven Types of Ambiguity’. It is on my long books TBR list which also seems to be getting longer and longer.


  2. The Horse’s Mouth is one of my favorite novels. Haven’t reread Herself Surprised in a while, but Sara Monday is a great character and Gully Jimson’s relationship with her amuses me.


    • Hi,
      Yes The Horse’s Mouth is really the most famous of the trilogy with the free spirit artist Gully Jimson as the narrator. I had such a good time with Herself Surprised, I’m even looking forward to the second book, To Be A Pilgrim. I just checked for the movie ‘The Horse’s Mouth’ on IMDB, and they give it a 7.6 rating which is very high.


  3. I’ve never heard of Joyce Cary, and if I had I probably would have assumed he was a she. Although I see on Wikipedia that Joyce is his middle name, his first being Arthur.

    As Whispering Gums points out, these days we get multiple narrators in the one novel, but I suspect in 1941, bringing out a trilogy of this nature would have been quite different and radical.

    Thanks for your review… must hunt this out at some point.


    • LOL Kimbofo. When I started hearing of Joyce Carol Oates, I, very embarrassingly, started confusing her with Joyce Carey and couldn’t remember which one was male, which one wrote The horse’s mouth. It took me years to work it out…mainly because I didn’t put enough effort into it! I probably would have worked it out sooner if I’d actually read The horse’s mouth!


  4. Hi Kinbofo,
    Especially knowing your interest in Irish literature, I think you will enjoy this novel. Yes, I probably should have pointed out early that ‘Joyce’ was a man. I had read and enjoyed his African novel ‘Mister Johnson’ a few years ago. Like Waugh, he spent quite some time in Africa.


  5. […] “My novels point out that the world consists entirely of exceptions.” – Joyce Cary… […]


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