Joyce Cary was a man of contrasts. As a child, his life was marked by family misfortune and tragedy, instilling into him a yearning for a tranquil, ordered existence. Yet he also had a restless, indecisive nature, and spent much of his early adult life switching from one career choice to another, and travelling widely.

Cary himself put this paradox down to inheriting contrasting qualities from his parents - his father was "the sportsman, the pneumonia in 1898, when he was nine years old; a few years later his stepmother, to whom he became devoted, also died while he was still at school. This double tragedy affected him deeply.

But there were some happy times during his childhood, particularly some memorable summer holidays at his grandmother's home in Ireland, which inspired two of his novels, Castle Corner (1938) and A House of Children (1941), the latter winning the James Tait Black Memorial prize.

A small legacy from his mother enabled him to pursue his dream of becoming an artist, and he studied in Paris and Edinburgh. But in 1909, at his father's instigation, he came up to Oxford to read Law at Trinity College. He was a reluctant student; his heart was not in his subject, and he preferred socialising to studying, becoming an enthusiastic member of the Boat Club. He graduated in 1912, scraping a miserable fourth class degree.

Seeking adventure, Cary went to Montenegro, where he served as a Red Cross orderly during the Balkan Wars. His record of his experiences, Memoir of the Bobotes, was published posthumously in 1964.

After a failed attempt to secure a post with an Irish agricultural cooperative project, Cary enlisted with the Nigerian political service in 1913, and served with one of the Nigerian regiments in the Cameroons during the First World War. He was wounded in 1916, but continued to work in Nigeria in a variety of posts, including colonial officer, magistrate and executive officer.

His years in Africa inspired several of his novels, including Aissa Saved (1932), An American Visitor (1933), The African Witch (1936) and Mister Johnson (1939).

In 1920, Cary resigned from the Nigerian service to settle down to a life of writing. By this time he had married his long-time sweetheart, Gertrude Ogilvie, and had two sons, Michael and Peter. Michael later followed his father to Trinity College, where he excelled at lacrosse, and surpassed Joyce's academic achievements by graduating with first class honours.

It was largely at Gertrude's insistence that Cary left Africa, despite his doubts about their financial security. The family settled at 12 Parks Road, Oxford, where two more sons were born - Tristram and George. An initial run of literary success saw Cary selling a number of stories inspired by his Nigerian experiences to the Saturday Evening Post, published under the name of Thomas Joyce. A barren period followed, during which the Carys were forced to rent their house out and lodge with family members.

Cary's debut novel, Aissa Saved, did little to alleviate the situation, while An American Visitor fared even worse. It was the publication of The African Witch in 1936 that finally allowed the Carys to return to their home in Parks Road. But Joyce continued to struggle to attain literary success; Castle Corner, intended to be the first of a trilogy, sold so poorly that Cary abandoned the idea of writing the sequels. Mister Johnson, now regarded as one of his finest novels, met with an equally meagre response.

Finally, in 1940, Cary found the success that he craved with Charley is My Darling, which focused on the displacement of young people at the onset of the Second World War. A House of Children in 1941 met with equal acclaim.

But it was his first trilogy, published between 1941 and 1944, that provided him with the financial security that had eluded him for so long. The trilogy follows the lives of three characters in Edwardian England, with each book presented as a first-person narrative by the main character, and sealed Cary's reputation as a distinguished writer of social commentary. The final book, The Horse's Mouth (1944), remains one of his most widely acclaimed novels.

In 1943, the publication of Cary's pamphlet The Case for African Freedom resulted in an invitation from film-maker Thorold Dickinson to help with a film set partly in Africa, Men of Two Worlds. Two further novels followed - The Moonlight (1946) and A Fearful Joy (1949).

It was a particularly fertile period for Cary, but in 1949 his happiness was shattered by the death of his wife from cancer. Four years later, his youngest son also died. Despite this double tragedy, Cary set to work on his second trilogy, a political commentary published between 1952 and 1955.

By now Cary was at the height of his fame. But cruelly, in 1955, he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, and the disease progressed rapidly. Undeterred, he continued to write, helped by a device of his own invention which supported his right arm as he worked.

His final two novels, Art and Reality and The Captive and the Free, were published posthumously in 1958 and 1959, along with the short story collection Spring Song and Other Stories (1960).

He died at his Oxford home on March 29, 1957, and the house is now marked with a blue plaque. Half a century later, he is still widely regarded as one of the finest novelists of the early 20th century.

practical man", while his mother "had the Joyce dreaminess and reflectiveness". The tension between Cary's conflicting needs for tranquillity and activity shaped both his life and his writing.

He was born Arthur Joyce Lunel Cary in Londonderry on December 7, 1888. His father, also called Arthur, was an engineer, and his mother, Charlotte, the daughter of an eminent bank manager. Once a wealthy and powerful dynasty, by the time Joyce was born the Carys had become victims of the Irish Land Act of 1882, which resulted in the loss of the last of the Cary strongholds, including Cary Castle, where Joyce's father was born.

The family settled in London shortly after Joyce's birth, but the lingering sense of displacement and injustice had a profound effect on him. The themes of displacement and loss, together with an awareness of the transient and elusive nature of happiness, are dominant throughout his novels.

As a child, Cary suffered from asthma and poor eyesight, the latter leading him to adopt the wearing of a monocle in his twenties. His mother died suddenly from