J B Priestley's works: part one.
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Priestley had a sense of the magical, which may be related to the show-man in him. Of his works that may be crudely so classed, the jeu d'esprit, The Thirty First Of June, need not detain us. You get a character from the middle ages remonstrating about our shambles of a political system, run by various ad hoc bodies.
Not that this little satirical thrust is typical but it does point to T H White as the source of this topsy-turvy fairy tale genre. White did it sooner and better in his long novel series based on the Arthurian legends, The Once And Future King. He could put you in the picture of the dark ages with his word paintings and confide in the reader, as tho he knew something about those obscure times.
His Merlin is a sort of anticipation of a Dr Who time-lord. After all, he is the magician for the once and future king. He is also a bit of a clown and absent-minded professor, like some of the Dr Who actors were to be. The resulting culture clash and future shock, White's fantasies achieve, must have been achingly funny, when they first came out, but perhaps only to an avant-garde. If White never became a house-hold name, because he was too much of a pioneer, later imitators have done his novelties to death. This can make him tiresome reading, where once he was relatively original -- like a prequel to 1066 And All That written by a disarmingly eccentric literary scholar.
White was writing during the second war, and his whimsy co-exists with a serious intent. Merlin is an amusingly exasperated tutor to his monarch on questions of who is an aggressor and the difference between hypocritical war-mongering and self-defense.
White had a historical sense of great gaps in civic morality, that we nowadays take for granted.
A friendly critic of Priestley's novels admitted you can skip fifty pages
at a time without losing the plot. He belongs to a more expansive age. But
this doesnt make them memorable. A few of his novels show an awareness of the
growing power of science and turn a plot on it.
Wonder Hero follows Dickens' Little Dorrit in featuring an invention. Nevertheless, what Priestley said of Wells is much truer of himself: his mind was almost wholly literary rather than scientific.
Quite late in his writing career, Priestley embarked on a Wellsian collection of short science fiction stories. There are some enjoyably creepy stories among them. He doesnt make a radical departure from Wells' themes, tho, of course, the SF genre had moved on considerably since the master's time.
The title story, The Other Place, is the longest and best. The idea comes from Wells' The Door in the Wall. Priestley gives ampler treatment to what's on the other side. There is a clever twist. The narrative character enters the other place by accident and is entranced, in the full sense of the word. In his determination to regain the experience, he finally manages to force his way back in. The state of mind of the inhabitants is appallingly changed, reflecting his own changed mentality.
It is reminiscent of Aldous Huxley's Heaven and Hell, whereby a mind-enhancing drug can enhance a bad as well as a good frame of mind. The Other Place is a rare example of Priestley's writing taking on an enhanced poetic power. Another is The Magicians. I remember being moved by sheer force of style. The plot turned into a super-natural thriller against the reduction of mankind into the uniformity of an insect colony.
Priestley also wrote thrillers about the world put in danger by natural means. These Ian Fleming type plots didnt have the epicure's snobbery or sexual and aggressive indulgence associated with the James Bond spy genre.
Priestley not only shuns these sub-literary expedients for stimulating the reader. The Doomsday Men is infiltrated with his travel book wonder at the chromatic strata of the Grand Canyon.
Why Priestley doesnt often achieve the power of The Magicians is easily
explained. As he admitted once, he never revised his work. Apparently his
type-writer was a conveyor belt, which his works passed straight thru, as
earnings depended on production. It sounds a working class idea. That is where
Priestley came from and he didnt have any option but to work.
The lack of quality control must have become a habit he didnt break even when better-off. By then, he may have lacked the mental energy to take a new direction.
He was gracious enough to say he thought poets were 'the best people'. In a charity shop's second-hand book section, I came across a nineteen twenties anthology of contemporary poets. It seemed a show-case for up-and-coming authors. Priestley had a token presence with a romantic rhyme about Elsinore.
There is another Priestley novel of some magical power, tho less obviously
a fantasy. This is a post-war work, Bright Day. The cultured working
class city of Edwardian Bradford, provincial but cosmopolitan, is the scene of
Priestley's childhood, when reality hasnt lost its air of fantasy. Hence, the
spell the author is able to cast over the reader.
The narrative character, who found himself being schooled in the Bradford woolen trade, is himself under a spell, especially of a family of three sisters. He is projecting feelings which originate in himself. A supporting character tries to tell him something of the sort, before reality brings him too traumatically to his senses. Priestley's title page quotes the Shakespearian moral: 'it is the bright day that brings forth the adder'.
Adders would be found on the moors, where the citizens of Bradford went for walks en masse. Priestley requested his ashes
be scattered on his beloved Yorkshire moors.
There is already a serpent in the Eden garden that will be lost forever with the Great War. One of Priestley's plays is called Eden End.
A clairvoyant woman predicts a monstrous future. This is no mere sensational ingredient. Priestley had come across something of the sort in real life. He always had time for the intuition of a scheme of things beyond our normal observation of the senses.
Edwardian disbelief in another war is an opening remark by a less-than-intuitive representative of business in the play
An Inspector Calls. This was not a very reassuring remark in the film
appearing after the second world war.
This play gives a nod to the acute social tensions in the 'golden age' before the great war.
Alistair Sim successfully lost his comic persona as an inspector enquiring about 'trouble at t'mill'. Not merely a factory inspector -- the trouble has gone beyond that -- but a police inspector. Or so we assume, as he probes the cast about a dead young woman. All the failures in responsibility, towards a fellow human being, emerge.
But as they turn back to confront the inspector, they are met by the empty, but still moving, rocking chair he was in, a moment ago. This one fantastic touch to the play transforms the inspector into a sort of recording angel. In effect, the actors have been confronted by their own consciences, in the vision of the inspector.
Priestley's contribution to the Festival of Britain, amidst the post-war
rationing, was his longest novel to date, Festival At Farbridge. One
of his biographers, Susan Cooper thought it almost as funny as Lucky
Jim. This beautifully misses the point -- the point of time's arrow,
which tells us that Kingsley Amis' book is not much funnier than Priestley's,
even tho he had the benefit of the older man's comic inventiveness before him.
Both books are about getting the girl. Both authors are 'on the Left'. ( Later 'Lucky Jim went Right', Amis meaning himself with his alter ego. )
Funnily enough, Ive read Cooper's remark said about John Wain's Hurry On Down compared to Lucky Jim. Jim really was lucky. It appears he had not one but two comic models to learn from and take the credit for! Amis avoided Wain's depressing ending but Jim, too, was pre-occupied with what to do after university and how to get the girl.
The same old Amis anti-hero starts off The Old Devils. The typical Amis patter runs to the effect: He's a charlatan.
Response: Of course he's a charlatan but he's a charlatan with flair.
This line admirably catches the sense of a standard Priestley lead. If Amis takes a direct literary descent from Priestley's comedies, these rather pathetic ideals of human behavior are not a flattering comment on his influence.
One might repeat the remark of the dancing heroine, in The Good Companions, that so surprised her suitor, the song-writer: You're so feeble.
In Jung's psychology, the Trickster is a characteristic stage of development in human personality, to be found in all societies. It is a resort of youth, rather than an accomplishment of maturity.
John Wain read Priestley, as may be gathered from a passing comment that opens The Contenders. The narrator dismisses the notion of calling his town the likes of 'Bruddersford'. This fictional place is a typical Priestley anti-litigation ploy, implicating Huddersfield in a story presumably inspired chiefly by Bradford.
Priestley prefaced several novels with the plea not to mistake any of his characters for real people. John Braine's book on the novel cautions against falling foul of defamation suits from people who are after money. Extreme caution was the order of the day from both Bradford authors, who no doubt found earning a literary living hard enough, without the severe English legal constraints.
One of Cooper's laughter-quakes, at Festival at Farbridge, prompted Priestley to tell
her: You over-rate that book.
One can just imagine him taking the trouble to release the pipe and turn his head to impart that laconic remark.
It is his most determinedly -- relentlessly -- funny novel, mainly observational humor, in the small change of human relationships. Reading Festival at Farbridge absorbed me more than a successful comic play like When We Are Married, which I didnt think carried its length too well.
Some middle-aged couples at a re-union discover that they were not legally
married. This plot is a bit like one of the time plays, in which the
characters start all over again, at a crucial point in their lives, with the
chance to make a new beginning. Except in the comedy, they dont have their
youth back. They dont have any illusions back about their partners, either.
Of course, there are some rueful reckonings of the marital state.
Like other Priestley novels, Festival has a flimsy plot. The characters converge, as in The Good Companions. I can't say that I took to any of them. Their leader is one of Priestley's favored dubious characters, moreover, with a dubious cause -- a bit of a charlatan and an actor. They decide to raise enough money to blow on a fire-works display -- a less than inspirational movement for a repeat of fire-works night -- despite objectors ( in authority, as usual ) against the waste.
Perhaps, it is not too unfair to suggest that the good and bad points of
this legacy of Priestley can be discerned in contemporary society. The tone of
his novels challenges authority, instead of the customary English deference. ( This may have had something to do with why I read so many of them. ) Even a
writer in a right-wing newspaper, deploring our anti-social society, will
admit that, on the whole, we are better off without the unquestioning
acquiescence towards authority figures.
The question remains where do the British people now place their respect, after the too often misplaced respect for authority?
This defiance of authority links Priestley to the next literary generation of the nineteen fifties -- much more to Wain and Amis, tho, than John Osborne. Amis denied he was one of the angry young men, granted the more or less suppressed anger in his humor.
Osborne's ranting makes Priestley's rhetoric seem substantial in comparison. Also, Priestley has none of Osborne's phobia of his country. He volunteered his life for it, before he had had a life.
If anything, he was too indulgent of his country. Hearing Tory politicians say the world doesnt owe us a living, the controversial essayist, one supposes clamping his pipe dogmatically, had to argue they did, lauding Britain's undeniable achievements, and forgetting how very well some did to others' misfortune.
Of course, Mrs Thatcher or whoever it was -- it sounds like her -- was right. No country that expects a free ride can prosper. The real objection to the enterprise system, in the UK, USA and indeed the whole world, is how unequally and unjustly distributed its rewards -- without an economic parliament to regulate it.
Priestley has got to be a strong influence on John Braine. Then again, Braine is an angrier writer. Or rather, Braine's Room At The Top has a cynicism of brutal power. Priestley was never this formidable, except in Out Of The People reacting to the war as the ultimate attack on democracy. He was typically English in taking some rousing.
Braine swung Right before even Amis did. Lesser novels, in his 'reactionary' phase, had an outspokenly hostile attitude. Priestley could be combative enough, but the conflict was always mellowed by humor, which he cherished as an English trait.
Priestley admitted a host of biographies found him objectionable. He didnt make the excuse of the abrasive northerner in the genteel south. A funny essay called The Yorkshire Grumbler describes his Yorkshire regiment grumbling their way thru the trenches and the successive catastrophes of the twentieth century.
This fundamental good-naturedness may explain why critics dubbed John Priestley as 'Jolly Jack'. In his old age, he said he didnt care what they made of his literary reputation.
Reading between the lines, he would perhaps have liked his best works to be read for a couple of hundred years after his death. This wish is a credit to Priestley's realism. Bernard Shaw once defined artistic 'immortality' as: in other words, a couple of hundred years.
Priestley was undogmatic about life after death. His essays, as well as the time plays, speculate -- the field is open. He doubted death was an easy way out for wicked deeds in this life. Without pretending to know the truth of this, it is a reasonable assumption that death is no more an easy option than life.
One genre, we havent mentioned Priestley write, is the murder mystery. In Salt Is Leaving, the nature of the crime is far-fetched enough. At the resolution, Salt, the amateur sleuth, reveals his investigative method. He didnt guess the criminal by the kind of hard evidence that would hold up in court. Rather, he pondered the suspects' little emotional over-reactions, an unnecessary remark trying to distract from a clue...
It's perhaps worth adding that such depth psychology, which Priestley studied, is only as good as the man who does it.
Priestley's thoughts on angered youth may be infered from the end to his longest and nearly his last novel, which therefore had a special place in his affections: The Image Men. The characters decide more than enough attention has been given to the needs of youth and it is time something was done for the old. Priestley anticipates a university of the third age, as it came to be called.
Another prophetic touch may be mentioned. One of his minor late novels anticipates pirate radios, before Radio Caroline. It was still many years before BBC radio officially lost its broadcasting monopoly.
That idea didnt appear till towards the novel's end. I got the impression that the aging author, sticking to his type-writer as tread-mill, was himself dissatisfied with this lack-lustre work. I guess he took a break to have a drink. Then some Danish schnapps found its way into the story.
In an earlier novel, Priestley naively preached the virtues of drink, by having an adjudicator's cold personality humanly transformed into a no-nonsense common sense, refusing to be detered by dire warnings and prohibitions against a popular cause.
Like Churchill, Priestley's indulgences didnt prevent him reaching a big age.
It's An Old Country moves from Australia to the old country. The author suggests the former is less weighed down by tradition preventing change. But the point is made, to any one with wonderlust, that the world-over is coming to look the same. One could forget where one is, from one's surrounds.
One feels much the same about too many of those type-writer travels, that are Priestley's novels.
It's An Old Country rehearses the story-line ( less well than in an earlier novel ) of a man on the shelf, like a magnificent railway engine shunted off onto a siding. It's right for some people but not for you, he is told, and finds in middle age, a marital partner.
The Image Men is not a great late work, except in length. The short fat one, of the two image men, is an obvious alter ego, not quite so aged. In the end, he gets the girl, younger than himself, with 'eyes like head-lamps'. Priestley seems to have misread this, his own character as a heroine. The two male leads are the familiar benign rogues. They infiltrate the academic world as pretentious experts on 'image'.
The shallowness of this contemporary reverie is shown-up by a reminiscence, shortly preceding it: Lost Empires begins with characters meeting in London 'amidst the ruins of empire'. The title is a pun on the loss of the British Empire and the loss of the old theatres, many of which were called out of patriotic pride, The Empire.
By now old, Priestley takes a last deep plunge into his youthful frequenting of the music halls, which made such a profound effect on him as an artist. This story is something of a companion early-life novel to Bright Day.
It was not to be quite the last time he reminisced on theatrical comedy tho. Priestley managed one last phase, as an author of lavishly illustrated coffee table books. One title, Particular Pleasures was recommended by Mr Showbiz himself, Max Bygraves. It largely celebrated the post-war era, itself a golden age of British comedy. For instance, Priestley allowed that Jimmy Edwards could have held his own with the best of the vaudeville acts.
Another Priestley theme was given a last airing, in over-size glossy form: The English -- as distinct from Irish playwrights or Scottish engineers. This was timely during the then government's marathon pre-occupation, to no purpose, with Scottish and Welsh devolution.
One has to be impressed that Priestley kept himself in harness almost to the end, when, he admitted, he sometimes let himself off.
The down-side of this rigid discipline was that it didnt allow him to do less, better, when he perhaps could afford to. This was, and probably still is, a fault of writers of all abilities. Contemporary publishers are partly to blame, when they promote 'a name' that the public will recognise thru quantity rather than quality of out-put.
Priestley knew the limits of his own abilities. He refered to Shaw and Wells as 'my elders and betters'. The Left writers of the fifties, 'The Movement', alias angry young men, might have said he was their elder and better.
Priestley had some opinion of himself as a political influence. Perhaps, this was a warm vanity rather than a cold conceit, to use his own distinction.
And he was a possibly under-rated literary influence on the post-war Left.
A university authority, on Priestley, said only about two or three of his books would last: It was some such pitiful estimate. His writings were much fresher in my mind then, when I would have put the estimate at five or six.
One thing that can be said for sure is that Priestley didnt approve of literature degrees. He had come across this phenomenum in the colleges of America, where they always seem to do things, good or bad, before Britain does.
One cannot measure literary merit, as one can and must lay down scientific and engineering standards. This is the starting point of the film Dead Poets Society, with Robin Williams, as the eccentric professor, who has his new class literally tear out a merit-measuring introduction to a poetry anthology.
J B Priestley made the most telling criticism of himself as perhaps a Jack of All Trades and a master of none.
I agree with the critical regard for Bright Day. Priestley's writings as a literary critic provide a Wordsworthian explanation why this is perhaps his best novel. He said of Dickens that he was one of those rare writer's whose perception did not dim with childhood. One might add that even Dickens constantly went back to his childhood, to re-new his imaginative vitality. The English novel, since Defoe, has tended to root itself in childhood to grow a distinctive individual world view.
Priestley's great work in literary criticism, Literature and Western Man didnt come out till he was past the usual age of retirement. Priestley knew he would be regarded as 'past it' by then as a writer, anyway. He pointed out, very reasonably, that a young man couldnt have written this work, because he wouldnt have been able to read as much. He makes the claim, less reasonably, that all the main writers are included. He is easily refuted.
At the end of the twentieth century, a list appeared in book-shops, of the top hundred novels of the century. Tolkien claimed the first place and Orwell the next two positions. Neither, if I remember rightly, are included in Priestley's survey.
I must say that I thought such a list pretty worthless. It seemed neither to properly reflect the best or the most popular works. It also seemed to suffer from too short a memory to do justice to earlier writers in the century.
Literature and Western Man helps to remedy such short-sightedness and will remain a useful reference book whatever fate Priestley's own literary reputation suffers. One can say this of his other non-fictional source books and his sociological novels. He will remain read because he will remain useful. Perhaps, that would please this no-nonsense writer. He liked criticism but with 'not too much sugar'.
Literature and Western Man tells us that the printing press was suppressed almost as soon as it was invented. 'Power has its intuitions', Priestley comments. And he inadvertently gives us an insight into his own frame of mind, when he discusses the Romantic movement. He conjures up its castles in the air and demolishes them with the problems of paying the bills and finding one's next meal.
There was a romantic Priestley, but realism kept him in stern check.
Whereas, with G K Chesterton, the romantic kept the realist in stern check. Priestley met many of his contemporary artists. He wondered why the musicians bothered with his lowly art of writing. His comment on Chesterton was that, to all appearances he was lacking in the fantastic drollery he preached. Manalive he was not. But then this verdict would suit the dominant realist in Priestley. Looking at Chesterton, you wouldnt take him for a mental gymnast.
Chesterton was also one of the most prolific writers, who spread his talents much too thin.
Like Chesterton, Priestley may never have written an indisputable master-piece. But twice in his life -- as a novelist and as a broadcaster -- he achieved national celebrity. He has a permanent place in Britain's social history.
From his books mentioned in this review, I would consider more than a dozen are of lasting value. And there will surely always be a place in the theatre for mind-expanding plays, that the playwright takes care the audience will follow.
Richard LungTo top of page.