British novelist of Anglo-Irish descent.
Cary was born in Londonderry but brought up in England. Despite his mother's death (1898) his childhood was mainly happy, with memorable holidays spent in Ireland with his grandmother, as Cary later described in A House of Children (1941). He studied art at Edinburgh (1907–09) before going to Oxford to read law. In 1912 he served in the Balkan War, and then joined the Nigerian civil service until forced to retire (1920) by ill health.
During the 1920s Cary read and wrote in Oxford, honing his skills as a novelist but publishing nothing. Africa was the setting for his first novels, which included Aissa Saved (1932) and Mister Johnson (1939). His sensitivity in writing about women is shown in The Moonlight (1946) and A Fearful Joy (1949). His major works were two trilogies, each with subtly interlocking characters. The first, concerned with art, comprises Herself Surprised (1941), To Be a Pilgrim (1942), and The Horse's Mouth (1944); the second deals with the nature of political life and comprises A Prisoner of Grace (1952), Except the Lord (1953), and Not Honour More (1955). The quality of family life, the relationship between mothers and children, and an intense philosophical quest for ‘the state of grace’ mark all Cary's major works.
In his last years he suffered a generalized paralysis, which forced him to accept that he would never complete his projected third trilogy on religion. The Captive and the Free (1959), which is all that survives of this trilogy, was left unfinished at his death.