Over the course of a long and generally successful career,J. B.Priestley was a journalist, novelist, playwright, travel writer, radio broadcaster, biographer, and autobiographer. It was as an essayist that Priestley first established himself, however, and the essay—particularly the familiar essay—was a genre to which he frequently returned.
Priestley’s first articles were published in local newspapers in his native Yorkshire while he was still in his teens, but his life as an author really commenced in the early 1920S when, following service in World War I and taking a degree at Cambridge, he began publishing essays in periodicals such as the London Mercury, the Nineteenth Century, the Outlook, and the Cambridge Review. He later called these early essays “mostly literary exercises,” saying that although he “took great pains with them,” they were like a musician’s practice pieces and therefore inconsequential. Priestley’s earlier essays are less focused than his mature pieces and exhibit a somewhat imitative and florid prose style; however, they are more than the “exercises” he dismissed them as, but are in fact wellcrafted and articulate essays. One of the most noteworthy characteristics of Priestley’s prose is its consistency—from the essays in the 1922, collection Papers from Lilliput to the short pieces collected in Outcries and Asides (1974) his prose is marked by a consistent tone of good humor, with unostentatious erudition and a sense imparted of a genial and unpretentious narrative persona.
Priestley called the short essay his “favourite literary form,” and it was the familiar essay in the tradition of Montaigne and Hazlitt that Priestley made his own. Although he contributed critical articles to the Times Literary Supplement beginning in the 19205, and was to turn to more polemical essays, primarily in the New Statesman, after World War II, Priestley saw the familiar essay as the only legitimate essay. Although most of his essays were issued in collected form, most originally appeared in periodicals. Priestley believed that an essayist who writes frequently for the same periodical develops a certain rapport with the reader; the essayist “tends to lose a certain stiffness, formality, selfconsciousness that would inevitably make its appearance if he were writing a whole book at a time.” This easy relationship with the audience was important, Priestley felt, because “the real essayist has no subject, or if you will, has every subject in the world at his command, for the simple reason that his business is to talk about himself or express the relation between any subject and himself” (introduction to the anthology Essayists Past and Present, 1925). The audience Priestley wrote for was the “middle brow” audience.
Although he assumes a certain level of knowledge of classical and contemporary literature, Priestley despised literary snobs, particularly academics, the “dons yapping at your feet.”
Priestley continually alludes to Romantic authors, especially Lamb and Hazlitt, and there are some clear traces of influence to be found in terms of theme and treatment. The gently quizzical treatment of the eccentric acquaintance in Priestley’s “The Editor” (1922) has echoes of Lamb’s similar subject in his “Captain Jackson” (1823).
“The Ring” (1932), Priestley’s essay on the old boxing hall in the Blackfriars Road, has several echoes of Hazlitt’s 1822 essay “The Fight,” both in subject matter, treatment, and general tone. He called Hazlitt “my favourite, my model author, and the only one who directly influenced my writing” (William Hazlitt, 1960). Although the direct allusions and echoes of the Romantics become fewer in the later essays, as Priestley developed his own voice and themes further, he remains grounded in this tradition of the Romantic familiar essay.
The topics and themes of Priestley’s essays are numerous: reflections on contemporary media (newspapers, radio, and later television); commentary on music, theater, and popular entertainment; remarks on the writing process and the profession of authorship; and many pieces musing on aspects of the English national character or recounting impressions of travel or the incidents of domestic life. All of these are typical of the English familiar essay, but there are certain threads, ideas, and themes throughout which
are distinctive to Priestley.
As a novelist and playwright, Priestley was interested in the nature of subjective reality, returning often to the ideas of time and human understanding of reality; these are frequent themes in his essays as well. Often, Priestley seeks to evoke the sense of transience, of the just vanished moment in depictions of the ephemeral nature of reality.
The theme of impermanence is worked out in essays such as “A Vanished Lodging” (1931), which describes Priestley’s response to news that his college in Cambridge was pulling down the cramped, “elfin” back gate lodge where he had lived in “the queerest rooms in all the University.” Now that the physical place he associates most strongly with his university experience is no more, he no longer feels connected to that past, declaring “I’ll to the Cam no more, the laurels all are cut.” Priestley explores the nature of dreams, and the shifting nature of apprehended reality in essays like “The Dream” (1922), “The Berkshire Beasts” (1927), and “Midsummer Day’s Dream” (1927).
The first is a nightmarish description of a dream of pursuit and danger, reminiscent of Thomas De Quincey’s descriptions of his opium dreams. In it, and in “The Berkshire Beasts,” a more whimsical account of an absurd dream, Priestley reflects on how the internal logic of dreams gives them a reality that, by implication, calls into question how authentic our perceptions in our waking moments are, a speculation he returns to in essays like “Midsummer Day’s Dream,” where he describes the dreamlike quality that can occur in the actual world. “The Strange Outfitter” (1928) is notable for being a nightmare rendition of another of Priestley’s favorite subjects, his difficulty in shopping for clothing. He discusses the seemingly random nature of insight in “A Road and Some Moods” (1922), of how “we realise the beauty and blessing of life itself only in rare, inexplicable moments, and then most keenly,” an idea he was to express again in “The Moments” (1966), where he describes how the “great blue bottle of happiness” comes upon us suddenly, seemingly unconnected to our physical reality, and we realize that our perceptions are shaped by “influences beyond our understanding.” In “This Insubstantial Pageant” (1923), he remarks that ideas “have a trick of taking to themselves some of the glamour of the time when they were first conceived,” that we may continue to cling to a foolish intellectual position merely because it was adopted when we were experiencing a period of happiness. The subjective nature of apprehension is also addressed in this essay, as Priestley describes how, in just the right light, from just the right angle, London becomes a place of ethereal beauty.
Although Priestley wrote a number of book reviews and essays on literary topics, he eschewed the critical or scholarly approach of those whom he frequently disparaged as “Eng. Lit. types.” His choice of subjects in The English Comic Characters (1925) and Figures in Modern Literature (1924) is generally canonical, and here, as in his other literary essays, he is less concerned with critical analysis and more intent on presenting a subjective “appreciation” of the work or author discussed. This approach is exemplified in the brief pieces on art, music, and theater in Particular Pleasures (1975), tellingly subtitled Being a Personal Record of Some Various Arts and Many Different Artists.
Priestley argued for a literature which was “extroverted” rather than “introverted,” believing that works of art should meet some need, spiritual or otherwise, for the reader, and should not be evaluated on narrow, programmatic grounds. Thus, in the ironic “Those Terrible Novelists” (1925) he laments what he saw as the “motiveless sneering and confounding” of writers in the 192.05, a concern echoed in “The Outsider” (1956), a critique of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and what Priestley saw in the postwar Angry Young Men as a fruitless alienation, “poisoned by an embittered egoism.” Writing in “Disturbing” (1967), Priestley again critiques contemporary playwrights and novelists for exacerbating contemporary problems, creating works that sought to “disturb” a reading public already disturbed by the myriad problems of the day. Rather than valuing literature which spoke to the common reader, Priestley argues, among contemporary critics and authors “a new snobbery of pessimism” had arisen. He frequently criticized what he saw as the arrogance of academic literary critics, who he remarked “seem to regard themselves as the ferocious theologians and grand inquisitors of art” (“Another Revolution,” 1957).
Although committed to a form of liberal socialism throughout his life, Priestley despised ideologues, declaring in Outcries and Asides that the “Iron Maidens of our age are ideologies, whether of the Left or Right.” He was also ambivalent about the writer’s role in the political arena, calling it in his autobiographical Margin Released (1962) a world that the writer enters “without confidence and probably with loathing.” While recognizing that the writer is a citizen, with the same rights and duties as any other, he believed that the professional writer should be wary of engaging in political activities, recognizing the danger of what he called the “ego-swelling ham Theatre” of political speaking. Despite this professed wariness of political action, Priestley wrote many polemical pieces, becoming increasingly politicized during and immediately following World War II. His pamphlet Letter to a Returning Serviceman (1945), for example, is somewhat Marxist in orientation, sharing the then common sentiment that Britain was obliged to rebuild after the war along socialist lines. In the 19505 Priestley became a director of the New Statesman, helping to shape its development as a “conscience” for the governing Labour Party. He wrote many articles for the journal, the most notable probably being “Britain and the Nuclear Bombs” (1957), in which he cogently refutes many of the arguments for Britain continuing to maintain a nuclear arsenal, arguing for the moral superiority that unilateral nuclear disarmament would bring. It is this article which is widely recognized as instigating the formation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Another of his New Statesman pieces, the frequently anthologized “Wrong Ism” of 1966, is a critique of current geopolitics, notably of nationalism, which Priestley likened to “the rotten meat between the two healthy slices of bread” that were regionalism and internationalism.
Priestley has not fared well at the hands of critics, and his contemporary reputation is negligible, with most of his works being out of print or difficult to obtain. At his peak, he was dismissed by critics such as F.R.Leavis and Virginia Woolf as a mere popular novelist; but he was never a deliberate “bestseller” author. In Margin Released he writes that “I am too conventional for the avant-garde, too experimental for Aunt Edna…a lowbrow to highbrows, a highbrow to lowbrows.” A few of his essays continue to be anthologized, although the majority are neglected. He should be considered important to serious students of the English essay, however—as Susan Cooper notes in her preface to Priestley’s Essays of Five Decades (1968), his essays reflect and helped shape a crucial stage of the development of this literary form, the transition from the “graceful and discursive” familiar essay that Priestley inherited from the Edwardians to the “more genuinely personal framework and mind” of the modern English essay.
JAN PETER F.VAN ROSEVELT
John Boynton Priestley. Born 13 September 1894 in Bradford, Yorkshire. Worked for wool traders, 1910–14. Served with the Duke of Wellington’s and Devon regiments, 1914–19. Studied at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, 1919–2.1, B.A. in history, 1921. Married Patricia Tempest, 1919 (died, 1925): two daughters. Journalist and reviewer for various newspapers and periodicals, including the New Statesman, from 1922. Married Mary Wyndham Lewis, 1926 (divorced, 1952): two daughters and one son. Founder, English
Plays Ltd., a production company for his own work; director, Mask Theatre, London, 1938–39; broadcaster of “Postscripts” for the BBC, 1940–41. Chair, president, or member of various organizations and conferences concerning theater; U.K. delegate to UNESCO conferences, 1946–47. Moved to Kissing Tree House, Warwickshire, 1959.
Awards: James Tait Black Memorial Prize, 1930; Ellen Terry Award, 1948; honorary degrees from three universities; Order of Merit, 1977. Died at Kissing Tree House, 14 August 1984.
Essays and Related Prose
Papers from Lilliput, 1922
Brief Diversions, 1922
I for One, 1923
Figures in Modern Literature, 1924
The English Comic Characters, 1925
Essays of To-day and Yesterday, 1926
Open House: A Book of Essays, 1927
Apes and Angels: A Book of Essays, 1928; as Too Many People and Other Reflections, 1928
The Balconinny and Other Essays, 1929
Self-Selected Essays, 1932
Postscripts (radio broadcasts), 1940; as All England Listened, 1968
Letter to a Returning Serviceman, 1945
The Secret Dream: An Essay on Britain, America, and Russia, 1946
All About Ourselves and Other Essays, edited by Eric Gillett, 1956
Thoughts in the Wilderness, 1957
The Art of the Dramatist, 1957
William Hazlitt, 1960
Man and Time, 1964
The Moments, and Other Pieces, 1966
Essays of Five Decades, edited by Susan Cooper, 1968
Over the Long High Wall: Some Reflections and Speculations on Life, Death, and Time, 1972
Outcries and Asides, 1974
Particular Pleasures, Being a Personal Record of Some Various Arts and Many Different
English Humour, 1976
Other writings: many plays (including Dangerous Corner, 1932; Laburnum Grove, 1933; Eden End, 1934; / Have Been Here Before, 1937; When We Are Married, 1938; An Inspector Calls, 1945; The Linden Tree, 1947), novels (including The Good Companions,
1929; Angel Pavement, 1930; Bright Day, 1946; Lost Empires, 1965), a few short stories, one collection of poetry, works on literature and politics, and several volumes of autobiography (including Margin Released, 1962). Also edited the anthology Essayists Past and Present (1925).
Day, Alan Edwin, J.B.Priestley: An Annotated Bibliography, Stroud: privately printed, 1980
Atkins, John, J.B.Priestley: The Last of the Sages, London: Calder, 1981
Braine, John, J.B.Priestley, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978
Brome, Vincent, J.B.Priestley, London: Hamilton, 1988
DeVitis, A.A., and Albert E.Kalson, J.B.Priestley, Boston: Twayne, 1980
Hughes, David, J.B.Priestley: An Informal Study of His Work, London: Rupert Hart- Davis, 1958
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