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||J(ohn) B(oynton) Priestley (1894-1984)|
British journalist, novelist, playwright, and essayist. Priestley's output was vast and varied – he wrote over one hundred novels, plays, and essays, and is best known as the author of the novel The Good Companions (1929). A man of versatility, he was a patriot, cosmopolitan Yorkshireman, professional amateur, cultured Philistine, reactionary radical, and a common-sense spokesman for the ordinary man-in-the-street. Priestley refused both knighthood and peerage, but accepted in 1977 the prestigious Order of Merit.
"I can't help feeling wary when I hear anything said about the masses. First you take their faces from 'em by calling 'em the masses and then you accuse 'em of not having any faces." (in Saturn Over the Water, 1961)
J.B. Priestley was born in Bradford, West Yorkshire, in the north of England. His father, Jonathan Priestley, was a prosperous schoolmaster; his mother died when he was an infant. Priestley attended Bradford Grammar School, but left his studies at the age of sixteen and worked as a junior clerk in a firm (1910-1914). In Bradford Priestley began to write poetry for his own pleasure and contribute articles to local and London papers.
During WW I Priestley served with the Duke of Wellington's and Devon regiments, and survived the front lines in Flanders. He was wounded several times. In 1917, when he took an officer's commission and returned to France, he was severely gassed. "I was lucky in that war," Priestley later said, "and have never ceased to be aware of the fact."
From 1919 Priestley studied literature, history and political science at Bradford and at Cambridge, receiving his B.A. in 1921. From 1922 he worked as a journalist in London, starting his career as an essayist and critic at various newspapers and periodicals, including the New Statesman. His first collection of essays, Brief Diversions, came out in 1922.
Priestley gained international popularity with his novel The Good Companions, a tale about the adventures of a troop of traveling players. "To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink. For a shilling the Bruddersford United AFC offered you Conflict and Art." (in The Good Companions) It was followed by Angel Pavement (1930), depicting the people of London and what happens to them when an adventure comes to them in the person of the mysterious Mr Goldspie. In the early 1930s, Priestley was Heinemann's most popular novelist.
As a playwright Priestley started in the 1930s with such popular comedies as Dangerous Corner (1932), based on the idea that telling the whole truth is like rounding a corner on two wheels. It was the first of his 'Time' plays. In Time and the Conways (1937) Priestley drew his ideas of time from J.W. Dunne's An Experiment with Time (1927). The third play in the series was I Have Been Here Before (1937), inspired by theories of P. D. Ouspensky, and the fourth, An Ispector Calls (1946), was a detective thriller about the suicide of a young woman and a mysterious Inspector, who seems to be all-knowing. The play was first produced in 1945 in Moscow, simultaneously in two theatres, and then at the New Theatre in London during the following year. Laburnum Grove (1933), produced by J.P. Mitchelhill, owner of the Duchess Theatre, was an unmasking of hypocrisy behind a façade of respectability. Priestley also founded his own production company, English Plays, Ltd., and in 1938-39 he was director of the Mask Theatre in London. His financing of the theatre was interrupted by the war, then Mitchelhill became the chair of the company. Priestley earned well as a producer, and he actively reinvested money in the theatre, proving that G.B. Shaw, who declared that management would ruin him, was quite wrong. Altogether Priestley wrote about 50 plays.
Among Priestleys's other books were English Journey (1934), a seminal work in arousing social conscience in the 1930s; it also inspired George Orwell's The Road To Wigan Pier (1937), Literature and Western (1960), a survey of Western literature over the past 500 years, and his a book of memoirs, Margin Released (1962). Priestley's novel The Magicians (1954) showed the influence of the Swiss analytical psychologist Carl Jung. The last of his novels was Found, Lost, Found (1976), an old-fashioned fairy tale and love story in a modern setting.
After the outbreak of World War II Priestley gained fame as 'the voice of the common people'. He was a patriotic radio broadcaster, second only to Churchill. Priestley's broadcasts, following the nine o'clock Home Service news on Sunday nights in 1940, and his 1941 series 'Make it Monday', spread the ideology of the 'people's war': "... we're fighting not merely to keep the German jack-boot off our necks but also to put an end once and for all to that world, and to bring into existence an order of society in which nobody will have far too many rooms in a house and nobody have far too few." Evelyn Waugh, who made fun of Priestley, later quoted against him a passage from the thriller Blackout in Gretley (1942), in which one of the characters suggested, that the country should take "a firm grip on about fifty thousand important, influential gentlemanny persons" and tell them firmly "to shut up and do nothing if they don't want to be put to doing some most unpleasant work". At the early stage of the Cold War, Priestley became known for his support for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In 1946-47 he was a U.K. delegate to UNESCO conferences.
Priestley married three times, for the first time in 1919 with Emily “Pat” Tempest, who died from cancer in 1925, then with Mary ('Jane') Wyndham Lewis, the former wife of the biographer and satirist D.B. Wyndham Lewis. In 1953 he married the archaeologist and writer Jacquetta Hawkes, whom he had met at the UNESCO conference in Mexico City in 1947. They lived in Warwickshire in Kissing Tree House, situated near Stratford-upon-Avon. Priestley wrote with her the travel book Down a Rainbow ( 1955), which was based on a journey in New Mexico.
During his career Priestley published over 120 books, usually light and optimistic in their tone. Priestley wrote – with his ears blocked – every morning, after lunch he took a break, and then continued after tea for another two to three hours. A number of his works have been adapted into feature films and TV productions, Priestley also wrote directly for the screen. The Good Companions was adapted in 1974 into a London musical, the music and lyrics by André Previn and Johnny Mercer, starring Judi Dench, John Mills and Christopher Gable. For the Alfred Hitchcock film Jamaica Inn (1939) he wrote additional dialogue to beef up Charles Laughton's part as smuggler Sir Humphrey Pengellan. Laughton had earlier cooperated with Priestley in the horror comedy The Old Dark House (1932), based on Benighted (1927).
Priestley's prolific production continued nearly sixty years. From the age of 70 to 84 he produced 21 books. Priestley died on August 14, 1984, at his home in Stratford-upon-Avon. Quin Savory, a popular novelist ruined by his own success in Graham Greene's novel Stamboul Train (1932), was modelled on Priestley; the author recognized himself in the character and threatened legal action. Savory has won his fame for his epic The Great Gay Round, which is half a million words long and has lots of Cockney dialogue. The affair was settled when Greene made the changes demanded. Moreover, it was not in Priestley interest to destroy financially a young author. His portrayal in the book was less flattering: Greene had suggested that Priestley was a potential sex-offender.
As an essayist Priestley wrote for the 'middle brow' audience. The topics and themes are numerous. In his pamphlet Letter to a Returning Serviceman (1945) Priestley shared the common sentiment that Britain was obliged to rebuild after the war along socialist lines. Concerned by the decision to test a hydrogen bomb at Christmas Island in 1957 he argued in 'Britain and the Nuclear Bomb' (1957) for the moral superiority that unilateral nuclear disarmament would bring. 'Disturbing' (1967) criticized contemporary playwrights for creating works that sought to 'disturb' a reading public already disturbed by their own problems, and in Particular Pleasures (1975) he stated that works of art should meet some need, and not be evaluated on programmatic grounds. Priestley's highly enjoyable essay 'The Toy Farm' (1929) tried to answer why toys enchant even adults: "These toys transform you at a stroke into a god, and a happier god than any who looks down upon our sad muddle. It is, of course, the more poetical of our activities that are chosen as subjects for these bright miniatures of the nursery, yet there is so much poetry in the toys themselves that even if they mirrored in little even the most prosaic things, they would still be satisfying."
For further reading: J.B. Priestley: An Informal Study of His Work by David Highes (1958); J.B. Priestley by John Braine (1978); J.B. Priestley by Vincent Brome (1980); J.B. Priestley: The Last of the Sages by John Atkins (1981); J.B. Priestley by K.J. Young (1984); J.B. Priestley's Plays by H.M. Klein (1988); J.B. Priestley by Vincent Brome (1988); Time and the Priestleys: The Story of a Friendship by D. Collins (1994); J.B. Priestley by Maggie B. Gale (2008)