The International Anthony Burgess Foundation, with which The J B Priestley Society fruitfully collaborated on an event several years ago, recently posted on its website the original manuscript of Burgess’s obituary of Priestley (complete with handwritten amendments), which appeared in The Observer. It is perceptive, heartening and generous but it does contain one assertion with which we roundly disagree. Burgess states that ‘what is obviously missing in Priestley’s work is a strong sense of good and evil’ and cites only one really nasty intrusion, a character in They Walk In The City. But surely there are quite a lot of nasty, even evil, characters in Priestley’s work. Take Martin Caplan in Dangerous Corner for a start: although he never appears his manifest corruption plays havoc with the lives of some of the other characters. Then there is Ernest Beevers in Time and the Conways: the cruelty he shows towards his wife, the former Hazel Conway, is unforgivable and the sheer vindictiveness he exhibits to the rest of the Conways when they find themselves in a financial queer street is palpable. Again, Lost Empires has no fewer than three nasty characters, all of them hiding, insidiously, behind a facade of being ‘jolly good company’. Thus, the popular comic Tommy Beamish is revealed to be thoroughly malevolent, someone who does not hesitate to have the obviously decent young hero of the novel, Richard Herncastle, savagely beaten up by a ’bruiser’, while he himself attacks his mistress Julie Blane, with whom Herncastle is having an affair. Then there is that odious couple, Lily Farris and Otto Mergen, sickly-sentimental on stage, manifestly corrupt off it, who attempt to draw Herncastle (and another character, Phyllis Robinson) into that corruption. We could go on (there is a good deal of unpleasantness in, for example, Benighted, Angel Pavement and Johnson Over Jordan). With respect to a distinguished writer, we think he got one element in Priestley’s writing quite wrong.
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