The Good Companions is best described as a comic or romantic picaresque novel, although some commentators complain that, technically, it is not. J. B. Priestley’s characters are not rogues, vagabonds, or rascals but simply an unlikely collection of individuals who join together to fight life’s battles while wandering, trying make a success of a Pierrot troupe called The Good Companions. In this, his fourth novel, Priestley perfects one of his favorite devices, that of uniting a disparate group through a common goal. In describing the struggles of his characters, Priestley develops his theme that individual fulfillment results from helping others. They learn the importance of community, the individual’s responsibility to others, and the lesson that happiness can be found only in the heart.
As a novelist, Priestley is difficult to categorize because he never was identified with a particular literary movement. He enjoyed the technical challenge of writing in various genres and styles. In The Good Companions, he succeeds in writing an old-fashioned novel that most closely resembles the Victorian style, including such outward trappings as humorous chapter subtitles such as “In Which Colonel Trant’s Daughter Goes into Action, Sticks to Her Guns, and May Be Considered Victorious.” The novel’s style and popular success placed Priestley in the company of such masters of the traditional long English novel as Henry Fielding, Charles Dickens, and William Makepeace Thackeray.
In order to negotiate successfully the challenges of writing a novel twice the length of the usual British novel of its day, Priestley hit upon the device of constructing The Good Companions like a three-act play. In book 1, strangers meet and band together. In book 2, they set out to tour the provinces together, and there follows the chronicle of their dreams, frustrations, hard work, joys, and sorrows. In book 3, the inevitable demise of The Good Companions occurs and members of the troupe disperse. An epilogue concludes the novel, addressing “Those Who Insist Upon Having All the Latest News.”
In The Good Companions, Priestley perfects another stylistic aspect that became a trademark in his novels and plays: He develops a remarkable ability to capture the mood, personality, rhythm, and dialect of particular locales and characters. His ear for language became a distinguishing feature of his characterizations. In fact, his ability to describe locale sometimes led to the criticism that his novels were no more than “reporting.” These detailed descriptions are, however, at the heart of the storytelling in The Good Companions. Priestley’s early readers recognized their own experiences in his descriptions, while in later years his readers relied upon these works to bring to life English society of the late 1920’s.
Priestley begins this novel from a vantage point high above the Pennine Mountains, from where the camera moves down to the towns of West Riding and on to Bruddersford (a thinly disguised Bradford, the town of Priestley’s own youth). There the reader is introduced to Jess Oakroyd in the crowd leaving the football grounds. The descriptions of locale and character merge to become one, each helping to define the other. This same technique of merging the individuals and their environs is used to introduce the other main characters as well. The novel comes full circle at the end, with the sequence reversed. Jess is again described leaving the football grounds in Bruddersford, after which the narrative soars over the Pennines, symbolizing the author’s view, that the story is not limited to its characters but extends to and includes all of England. This is not merely a tidy literary device in an otherwise tidy literary structure. Rather, it...
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establishes Jess as the backbone of the novel. Miss Trant is the central character, but nothing can happen without Jess.
Throughout the novel, but especially in book 2, no character, major or minor, appears without being given a detailed description. The details become a mosaic through which Priestley accomplishes a social analysis of the society and culture of the time. It is the great accomplishment of the novel that this analysis is delivered subtly and without extraneous comment. Priestley’s England between the wars is as clearly presented as the England of Dickens’ era is presented in that author’s novels. Indirectly, Priestley depicts how hard life was at the time, how hard people had to work, and how close many of them lived to ruin, yet how much joy some were able to find in life. The theatrical world of The Good Companions becomes a supporting metaphor for the illusion and romance of their lives.
Priestley valued clarity. He wanted to tell a story, to cause his reader to laugh, to cry, and even to think, but he always started writing from the belief that people read primarily to be entertained. Priestley’s own enthusiasm for life and his tendency toward sentimentality are reflected in the romantic view of life in The Good Companions, his seventeenth book, which became a best-selling phenomenon and catapulted Priestley into the role of celebrity. For almost three decades after that, his novels were more widely read and his plays more often produced than those of any of his English contemporaries. Although some of his more than thirty other novels achieved immediate success, none of them enjoyed the lasting popularity of The Good Companions.