“Herself Surprised” by Joyce Cary (1941)
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 :
“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.”