The Unfashionability of JB Priestley
An author bullied out of print by the arrogance of the intelligentsia.
When I asked if my mother wanted something to read, she instantly requested JB Priestley.
‘The plays?’ I asked.
‘Of course not,’ she replied testily, ‘the novels.’
John Boynton Priestley is mainly known for his theatre work, but Priestley was remembered to an older generation for some 26 novels that contained an astonishingly rich amount of social realism. He first found fame as a master of the short essay, working in a wool firm by day and writing at night. He had grown up in a respectable suburb of Bradford, a graceful Victorian town whose destruction at the hands of rapacious developers he later decried.
The First World War broke out when Priestley was twenty, so he joined the Duke of Wellington’s regiment and was invalided by mortar fire, an event that inspired fierce criticism of the officer class in his autobiography ‘Margin Released’. Initially developing a reputation as a humorous writer, his novel ‘Benighted’ was transformed by James Whale into the bizarre Gothic satire ‘The Old Dark House’.
This was followed by the vast picaresque novel that turned him into a national celebrity, ‘The Good Companions’, about a trio of discontented lonely people who join the Dinky Doos, a failing concert troupe that tours around the rundown towns of Middle England. Beloved by the reading public, it received only lukewarm critical reviews, probably because it was written from a middle-class viewpoint at a time when the Great Depression proved so devastating to working class families.
Even so, ‘The Good Companions’ has proven remarkably durable, surviving two film adaptations, a TV series and its inevitable transformation into a rather charming musical by André Previn starring Judi Dench. Its period subject probably shortened the book’s shelf life, as the genteel Pierrots became part of a vanished world at seaside resorts, to be replaced by pinball machines, Mods and Rockers.
Priestley reached huge audiences on radio during WWII and continued to develop his playwriting career, delivering his best-known play ‘An Inspector Calls’ in 1946. It’s a deeply moral, supernatural-tinged work successfully restored in recent times by Stephen Daldry.
This difficult, generous, grand lover of life (and a great many women) is undergoing re-evaluation, but with hindsight it seems that Priestley was bullied out of print by the arrogance of the intelligentsia.
Andrew Marr said that Priestley was ‘once too much everywhere. Now he’s not anywhere enough.’ The critical darlings of academia, FR Leavis, Orwell, Greene, Woolf, Waugh and co., conspired to disdain and destroy Priestley’s reputation. He was blanked by them in analyses of great 20th century works for writing about the human condition from the ground, instead of tackling ideas at a more cerebral level. Priestley thought that novels should look to Dickens, Cervantes and Shakespeare – his social detail is extremely Dickensian – and paid the price for commercial success. He was disrespected by authors who never had to worry about finding work; Woolf considered him ‘a tradesman of letters’ – the Bloomsbury set loved mocking anyone who sold well.
While pejoratives for some bestsellers are often appropriate, Priestley’s victimization was wrong. Here was a theatrical giant who helped found the National Council for Civil Liberties, a radical wartime broadcaster and founding member of CND, who helped set up the Albany Trust during homosexual law reform. He was a popular and familiar figure, then too familiar not to be dismantled.
This would merely merit a historical footnote were it not for the fact that Priestley’s writing has proven extremely durable, even prescient.
My favourite of his novels is ‘Angel Pavement’ (1930), a densely detailed portrait of London seen by the employees of a veneer company, Twigg & Dersingham, when the genteel firm is upended by a tough new employee. The articles Mr Smeeth reads from his paper could be from today’s tabloids. He is concerned that his children’s growing independence and indifference to his values will damage them. His staff feel fear and exhilaration at the thought of sudden, irrevocable change. Presenting recognisable behaviour in characters is hardly a talent to be despised, but it would be dull if that were all; it’s not, because Priestley is presenting a forensic, damning, yet humane indictment of desperate lives under attack on all sides.
Ultimately Priestley’s own humanity and decency was considered to have undermined his work, a ludicrous idea that with his victorious re-emergence is now mercifully heading for history’s dustbin, returning ‘Angel Pavement’ to its rightful status as one of the greatest London novels.
NB It would appear from the cover showing Islington’s Upper Street that Angel tube is being built?