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Why JB Priestley matters

He is now best known for that dramatic pot-boiler, An Inspector Calls. But Priestley’s gripping novels show an instinctive understand of England and a faith in the power of literature.

Writers want to find readers, wrote Philip Roth; then they long to escape them. Nothing escapes a general readership more completely than death, when reputations are revised in ways that are often baffling. Kingsley Amis and Iris Murdoch, major figures in postwar fiction, are now read less widely than they were. William Golding, a Nobel laureate, also seems to have fallen from critical favour.

Modern university courses in “Eng Lit” appear to have dispensed with DH Lawrence, which is less a shift of the scholastic tide than a profound error of judgement. How can any serious survey of the 20th-century novel exclude Lawrence? But the most remarkable revision is surely the case of JB Priestley. Acclaimed for most of his life as a writer of hugely popular books and plays, which became part of the national imagination, he is now best known for that dramatic pot-boiler, An Inspector Calls (1945) and as a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (launched after Priestley wrote an article in this magazine).

To a modern readership his novels are – if they are considered at all – period pieces. Even The Good Companions, his breakout hit of 1929, adapted many times for stage and screen, has fallen by the wayside. There are writers of the recent past who are not particularly well-read, but who are nevertheless well-considered: Patrick Hamilton, for example. Priestley is neither well-read nor fashionable. For many readers, who would consider themselves well-informed, he never existed.

In truth, he was never fashionable. Born in Bradford in 1894, John Boynton Priestley came to prominence in the Twenties, that high watermark of literary modernism. It was the decade of Ulysses and The Waste Land (1922), The Magic Mountain (1924), To the Lighthouse (1927), the complete Proust (1927) and The Sound and the Fury (1929). Compared with such exotic fare – which still seems exotic 90 years later – Priestley was the literary equivalent of Brown Windsor soup.

Even more conventional writers were treading a different path. In 1928 Evelyn Waugh began with Decline and Fall, Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Aldous Huxley published Point Counter Point, with its affectionate portrait of Lawrence. Set in that context The Good Companions looked back to the 19th century, where Priestley felt at home. It was noted. Graham Greene and George Orwell, among others, couldn’t take him seriously, a disregard that was not always allievated by the palliative of commercial success.

Perhaps the choicest comparison is with William Faulkner. The Sound and the Fury is considered one of the great novels of the past century. Yet it is wilfully obscure. The Good Companions, by contrast, is a rollicking adventure that grips the reader throughout its 600 pages. Thanks to Great Northern Books, which has republished this neglected masterpiece, along with Angel Pavement, Bright Day and Lost Empires, a new generation of readers may acquaint themselves with the qualities that made Priestley so popular.

The Good Companions is, above all, a novel of provincial England. Priestley knew well the seedy boarding-houses and music halls that Jess Oakroyd, Inigo Jollifant and Elizabeth Trant stay and perform in as they take to the king’s highway to entertain audiences in small towns a long way from any magic mountain. It is a fantasy, but novels are fantasies of “that inner world”, as Priestley wrote, “in which we have our real being”.

“These stumbling chronicles of a dream of life,” Priestley called the comic adventures of those companions, and dreams, magic and enchantment animate his novels. In Angel Pavement (1930) the men and women who work in London, which is portrayed as “an illuminated jungle”, loiter on “the dreamlike fringe of life”. Bright Day, from 1946, offers the author’s credo: “life without magic soon begins to wither”.

Lost Empires, a ripping read from 1965, might be dubbed The Good Companions Revisited – though the tale, which features murder, is darker. Of Uncle Nick, the ageing illusionist whose world-weariness gives the novel much of its salt, Priestley writes that his act “might be cheap and silly, his clear hard brain might be devoted only to deceiving them [the audience], but he did bring them wonder and perhaps a moment or two of wild joy when the impossible, the miraculous, seemed to happen”.

Priestley knew the world he wrote about and caught its dying moments. After leaving school at 16 he had spent four years as a clerk in a wool merchants. Having survived the First World War, in which he was gassed, he went up to Cambridge as a mature student. So he had seen rather more of the world that most people lived in than Joyce or Eliot. Where Eliot saw London as an “unreal city”, for Priestley it was all too real. In Angel Pavement it was a place where workers toiled for £3 a week and lived flesh-and-blood lives in Camden Town and Stoke Newington.

As a writer, and a public man, famous for his wireless talks during the Second World War, Priestley had little time for intellectual abstraction or literary trickery. He was not, as that dishonest phrase has it, a man of the people. Writers never are. But he had an instinctive understanding of England, and English customs, rooted in provincial soil.

English Journey, which he wrote in 1934 during that first intoxicating flush of literary recognition, has been reimagined several times by other authors, not all of whom shared Priestley’s sympathy. He wrote, for instance, that while he would prefer to take his holidays in Tuscany than the Black Country, he would rather live in West Bromwich than Florence. It’s hard to imagine, say, Ian McEwan writing something like that.

Priestley was no Little Englander. He travelled widely and had many interests. Yet, like many Englishmen brought up beyond London, he found it all too easy to avoid the embrace of metropolitan types with high opinions of themselves. Though he was left-leaning he would not have thought much of the modern Labour Party, with its ahistorical zealotry.

“The worst thing to do,” he writes in Bright Day, “is to turn your face away and hold yourself rigid and not let life go flowing through you.” That is how Priestley forged his own life, through the transforming power of literature. Not everybody can be a published author, he knew that. But people can liberate themselves just as fully through the imagination as through political action.

“If you’ve got summat in you that wants to be let out… then you let go of everything else an’ get it out… if you do, even if you ‘ave nowt for dinner but tea an’ bread an’ drippin’, you’re alive.”

To some ears that may sound banal. In Bright Day, written, like his play The Linden Tree, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, it carries a message of hope.

Priestley wasn’t a great writer in the way that Lawrence and Arnold Bennett were. There are times in Angel Pavement, a thin tale that could have been told in 200 pages rather than the 400 Priestley required, when the reader tires of unnecessary dialogue. As a London novel it is manifestly inferior to Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky.

But we don’t read only great writers. There must be room for the great entertainers, of whom Priestley was one. Start with The Good Companions, which is the best known of his novels for a very good reason. Few books of the last century convey with such vigour what Larkin called “the million-petalled flower of being here”. 

JB Priestley’s “The Good Companions”, “Angel Pavement”, “Bright Day” and “Lost Empires” are published by Great Northern Books at £9.99 each

This article appears in the 15 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The revolution that fuelled radical Islam