About J.B. Priestley: The Last Great Man of English Letters
John Priestley (he added Boynton later on) was born in Bradford in the West Riding of Yorkshire on 13 September 1894. His father, Jonathan, was a pioneering schoolmaster, his mother, Emma, had been a mill girl. Emma died when he was very young, but fortunately his stepmother, Amy, was very kind. Jack, as he was known to the family, enjoyed the rich cultural and social life of prosperous, cosmopolitan and relatively classless Bradford: music hall, football, classical music concerts and family gatherings. Many of his finest novels, plays and memoirs draw on his feelings about this vanished time, particularly “Bright Day” (1946), in which a disillusioned scriptwriter looks back at his golden Bradford adolescence, and “Lost Empires” (1965), recreating the 1913 variety theatre.
Priestley was educated at Belle Vue School, and then worked in a wool office in the Swan Arcade. His main interest by this time however was writing: his first publication was “Secrets of the Ragtime King” for London Opinion, then a series of articles, “Round the Hearth”, for Independent Labour Party publication, The Bradford Pioneer. When the Great War broke out, Priestley volunteered, joining the Duke of Wellington’s West Yorkshire Regiment. After a year of training in southern England, he was sent to the Front in 1915. In “Margin Released” (1962), he reflected on his hellish experiences and the loss of his friends. Seriously injured in June 1916, Priestley returned to England to convalesce, and then trained as an officer. Sent to the Front a second time in 1917, he was gassed and spent the rest of the War in administrative jobs. Although he never wrote in great detail about his war experience it haunted him all his life.
After the War, Priestley studied at Trinity Hall, Cambridge University, thanks to a very small ex-officer’s grant. He excelled academically, but decided to make a career as a writer. With the exception of a book of poems “The Chapman of Rhymes” (1918), which he later denigrated, he had not been in a position to write much during the War years. He moved to London and wrote essays and book reviews for the London Mercury and other periodicals, and published works on literature and a couple of short novels. Collaboration with well-known historical novelist Hugh Walpole on “Farthing Hall” (1929) gave Priestley the financial freedom to write a long picaresque novel, “The Good Companions” (1929). The book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction and earned him an international reputation. His follow-up novel, the darker, London centred “Angel Pavement” (1930), is also much admired.
In the 1930s, Priestley began a new career as a dramatist, a form of writing many have considered best suited to his great talents. His plays were impeccably crafted, sometimes experimental and are characterised by pre-War settings and various perspectives on time, they include: Dangerous Corner” (1932), the Yorkshire comedy “When we are Married” (1938), “I Have Been Here Before” (1937), and, his most famous play, “An Inspector Calls” (1945). The latter combined his fascination with the nature of time with his ideas about society. Priestley’s social conscience was awakened by growing social inequalities in the 1930s, which were unforgettably outlined in “English Journey” (1934), where he raged at the treatment of veterans and the desolation of places like Rusty Lane.
During World War 2, Priestley achieved the peak of his fame and influence in his BBC “Postscripts” broadcasts (1940), in which he inspired many in difficult times by reflecting on the beauty of the English landscape, the gallant little ships at Dunkirk, and a steaming pie in a shop window defying the bombers. However, controversially, he called for social change after the War, so the mistakes made after the previous one and the poor treatment of the returning soldiers would not be repeated.
In the 1950s, Priestley became increasingly politically disillusioned, as the promise of the Labour success in the 1945 election seemed betrayed. In 1957, he once again articulated the mood of many when he wrote “Britain and the Nuclear Bombs” for the New Statesman, expressing his concern at Britain’s development of its own hydrogen bombs, and calling for unilateral nuclear disarmament. The huge postbag received by the paper as a result led to the founding of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Priestley became vice-president, and contributed by writing, broadcasting and public speaking, but he hated committee work, and gratefully took the opportunity to give this up when the president, Bertrand Russell, resigned over the issue of direct action.
Priestley married three times: to Pat, who died tragically young, to Jane, from whom he was divorced, and to archaeologist and poet Jacquetta Hawkes. His marriage to Jacquetta was very happy: they collaborated on books such as “Journey down a Rainbow” (1955), and worked together in CND. “Time and the Priestleys” (1994), by their friend Diana Collins, gives a vivid picture of their later married life and their home at Kissing Tree House near Stratford-on-Avon.
Priestley continued to publish well into the 1970s. He received several honours late in life, including (belatedly) the freedom of the City of Bradford and an honorary degree from Bradford University. He had previously declined both a knighthood and a peerage but in 1977 accepted the Order of Merit, as this was the gift of the sovereign, not party political. He died in 1984.
It is difficult to do justice to the size and range of Priestley’s writings. Alan Day’s bibliography lists over 150 individual published works by him, plus many contributions, prefaces and newspaper articles. While certain themes recur throughout his writing (the danger of the mass media, the delights of music and art, the nature of time), Priestley was always ready to experiment with new formats and genres, from science fiction for children like “Snoggle” (1971), social history such as “The Prince of Pleasure and his Regency” (1969), expressionist drama epitomised by “Johnson over Jordan” (1939), and deep philosophy in “Over the Long High Wall” (1972).
In recent years, there has been a surge in his popularity, thanks among others to the work of the J.B. Priestley Society and to the impact of the astonishingly successful National Theatre production of “An Inspector Calls”. Now Great Northern Books are reprinting his works, scholars are researching his role in shaping Englishness, and his plays are being produced more widely than ever.
Below is a select bibliography of his most important and in some cases his most popular works. For a complete bibliography please visit www.jbpriestley.co.uk
An Inspector Calls
When we are Married
The Linden Tree
Time and the Conways
I Have Been Here Before
Johnson over Jordan
A Severed Head (with Iris Murdoch)
Margin Released – A Writer’s reminiscences
Essays of Five Decades
Literature and Western Man
Journey Down a Rainbow
Please note that new augmented editions of The Good Companions, Bright Day, English Journey and Delight are available at www.gnbooks.co.uk, as is Priestley’s Wars, a compendium of his writings on both World Wars and the founding of CND. Also now available, Modern Delight, a collection of essays by best-loved authors and entertainers following Priestley’s model in Delight. Created for charity, it is available from Waterstones and other booksellers.