Arthur Joyce Lunel Cary was born in a hospital in Derry, Ireland in 1888. His family had been landlords in Inishowen, County Donegal since Elizabethan times, but lost their property after passage of the Irish Land Act in 1882. The family dispersed and Cary had uncles who served in the frontier US Cavalry and the Canadian North-West Mounted Police. Most of the Carys wound up in England. Arthur Cary, his father, trained as an engineer and married Charlotte Joyce, the well-to-do daughter of a Belfast banker. After his son was born in 1888, Arthur moved his family to London.
Throughout his childhood, Cary spent many summers at his grandmother's house in Ireland and at Cromwell House in England, home of his great-uncle, which served as a base for all the Cary clan. Some of this upbringing is described in the fictionalised memoir A House of Children (1941) and the novel Castle Corner (1938) – i.e., Cary Castle, one of his family's lost properties. Although Cary remembered his Irish childhood with affection and wrote about it with great feeling, he was based in England the rest of his life. The feeling of displacement and the idea that life's tranquility may be disturbed at any moment marked Cary and informs much of his writing. His health was poor as a child. He was subject to asthma, which recurred throughout his life, and was nearly blind in one eye, which caused him to wear a monocle when he was in his twenties. Cary was educated at Clifton College in Bristol, England, where he was a member of Dakyns House. His mother died during this period, bequeathing him a small legacy which served as his financial base until the 1930s.
In 1906, determined to be an artist, Cary travelled to Paris. Discovering that he needed more technical training, Cary then studied art in Edinburgh. Soon enough, he determined that he could never be more than a third rate painter and decided to apply himself to literature. He published a volume of poems which, by his own later account, was "pretty bad," and then entered Trinity College, Oxford. There he became friends with fellow-student John Middleton Murry and introduced Murry to Paris on a holiday together. He neglected his studies and left Oxford with a fourth class degree.
Seeking adventure, in 1912 Cary left for Montenegro and served as a Red Cross orderly during the Balkan Wars. Cary kept and illustrated a record of his experiences there, Memoir of the Bobotes (1964), that was not published until after his death.
Returning to England the next year, Cary sought a post with an Irish agricultural cooperative scheme, but the project fell through. Dissatisfied and believing that he lacked the education that would provide him with a good position in Britain, Cary joined the Nigerian political service. During the First World War Cary served with a Nigerian regiment fighting in the German colony of Cameroon. The short story "Umaru" (1921) describes an incident from this period in which a British officer recognises the common humanity that connects him with his African sergeant.
Cary was wounded at the battle of Mount Mora in 1916. He returned to England on leave and proposed marriage to Gertrude Ogilvie, the sister of a friend, whom he had been courting for years. Three months later, Cary returned to service as a colonial officer, leaving a pregnant Gertrude in England. Cary held several posts in Nigeria including that of magistrate and executive officer in Borgu. Cary began his African service as a stereotypical colonial officer, determined to bring order to the natives, but by the end of his service, he had come to see the Nigerians as individuals facing difficult problems, including those created by colonial rule.
By 1920, Cary was concentrating his energies on providing clean water and roads to connect remote villages with the larger world. A second leave in England had left Gertrude pregnant with their second child. She begged Cary to retire from government service so that they could live together in England. Cary had thought this impossible for financial reasons, but in 1920, he obtained a literary agent and some of the stories he had written while in Africa were sold to The Saturday Evening Post, an American magazine, published under the name "Thomas Joyce". This provided Cary with enough incentive to resign from the Nigerian service and he and Gertrude found a house in Oxford on Parks Road opposite the University Parks (now with a blue plaque) for their growing family. They would have four sons, including the composer, Tristram Cary.
Cary worked hard on developing as a writer, but his brief economic success soon ended as the Post decided that his stories had become too "literary". Cary worked at various novels and a play, but nothing sold, and the family soon had to take in tenants. Their plight worsened when the Depression wiped out the investments that provided them with income and, at one point, the family rented out their house and lived with family members. Finally, in 1932, Cary managed to publish Aissa Saved, a novel that drew on his Nigerian experience. The book was not particularly successful, but sold more than Cary's next novel, An American Visitor (1933), even though that book had some critical success. The African Witch (1936) did a little better, and the Carys managed to move back into their home.
Although none of Cary's first three novels was particularly successful critically or financially, they are progressively more ambitious and complex. Indeed, The African Witch (1936) is so rich in incident, character, and thematic possibility that it over-burdens its structure. Cary understood that he needed to find new ways to make the narrative form carry his ideas. Mister Johnson (1939) was written entirely in the present tense. George Orwell, on his return from Spain, recommended Cary to the Liberal Book Club, which requested Cary to put together a work outlining his ideas on freedom and liberty, a basic theme in all his novels. It was released as Power in Men (1939) [not Cary's title], but the publisher seriously cut the manuscript without Cary's approval and he was most unhappy with the book. Now Cary contemplated a trilogy of novels based on his Irish background. Castle Corner (1938) did not do well and Cary abandoned the idea. One last African novel, Mister Johnson (1939), followed. Although now regarded as one of Cary's best novels, it sold poorly at the time. But Charley Is My Darling (1940), about displaced young people at the start of World War II, found a wider readership, and the memoir A House of Children (1941) won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for best novel.
Cary now undertook his great works examining historical and social change in England during his own lifetime. The First Trilogy (Herself Surprised -1941, To Be a Pilgrim - 1942, and The Horse's Mouth -1944) finally provided Cary with a reasonable income, and The Horse's Mouth remains his most popular novel. Cary's pamphlet "The Case for African Freedom" (1941), published by Orwell's Searchlight Books series, had attracted some interest, and the film director Thorold Dickinson asked for Cary's help in developing a wartime movie set partly in Africa. In 1943, while writing The Horse's Mouth, Cary traveled to Africa with a film crew to work on Men of Two Worlds.
Cary traveled to India in 1946 on a second film project with Dickinson, but the struggle against the British for national independence made movie-making impossible, and the project was abandoned. The Moonlight (1946), a novel about the difficulties of women, ended a long period of intense creativity for Cary. Gertrude was suffering from cancer and his output slowed for a while. Gertrude died as A Fearful Joy (1949) was being published. Cary was now at the height of his fame and fortune. He began preparing a series of prefatory notes for the re-publication of all his works in a standard edition published by Michael Joseph.
He visited the United States, collaborated on a stage adaptation of Mister Johnson, and was offered a CBE, which he refused. Meanwhile, he continued work on the three novels that make up the Second Trilogy (Prisoner of Grace -1952, Except the Lord -1953, and Not Honour More -1955). In 1952, Cary had some muscle problems which were originally diagnosed as bursitis, but as more symptoms were noted over the next two years, the diagnosis was changed to that of motor neuron disease (known as Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS) in North America), a wasting and gradual paralysis that was terminal. As his physical powers failed, Cary had to have a pen tied to his hand and his arm supported by a rope to write. Finally, he resorted to dictation until unable to speak, and then ceased writing for the first time since 1912. His last work, The Captive and the Free (1959), first volume of a projected trilogy on religion, was unfinished at his death on 29 March 1957, aged 68.
He had appointed his close friend Winnie Davin as his literary executor, and she supervised the transfer of his library to the Bodleian Library, posthumously published some unfinished works, and supported scholars who studied his papers. She also wrote Cary's entry for the Dictionary of National Biography.