In The Good Companions, Priestley perfected a favorite device of throwing together a disparate group of people who attempt to achieve a common goal. He succeeded in his intent to write a long, old-fashioned novel, creating a relaxed, bittersweet tale, told in good humor. His most popular novel, The Good Companions has remained in print since its first publication. Its style and popular success place Priestley alongside the masters of the long English novel, Henry Fielding, Charles Dickens, and William Makepeace Thackeray. It most closely resembles the Victorian style, with its humorous chapter subtitles, for example: “Inigo Jumps Out of a Train and Finds Himself in Love.”
Priestley constructed The Good Companions like a three-act play. In Book One, strangers meet and band together. Mr. Oakroyd is escaping the burden of job and family. Elizabeth Trant is on her own after years of nursing her sick father. Inigo Jollifant is a former schoolteacher with a knack for knocking out a quick tune on the piano. United by a need to flee responsibilities and to find happiness, they befriend a broken-down theatrical troupe called the Dinky Doos.
In Book Two, they set out to tour the provinces with a new name, The Good Companions. The dreams, frustrations, hard work, and joys of the traveling performers are chronicled. Secondary characters are quickly drawn as stereotypes, immediately identifiable as personalities associated with the theater and the townspeople they encounter. There is Morton Mitcham, banjo player, as nimble with the truth as he is with his instrument, and the stars of the troupe, Jerry Jerningham and Miss Susie Dean. Priestley demonstrates a unique ability to capture the rhythm and dialect of each character and locale. This ear for language later became a distinguishing feature of his stage dialogue. The world of Priestley’s novel may now seem distant, but it was absolutely realistic for its initial readers.
Book Three relates the inevitable demise of The Good Companions. Members of the troupe disperse to their various lives. Miss Trant marries an old Scottish admirer. Miss Susie Dean pursues a career in the musical theater while a pining Inigo Jollifant tries to follow her star. As in many Priestley tales, the optimistic theme of a diverse group finding individual fulfillment by helping one another is obvious. Not everyone gets what he or she wants, but they all discover that happiness can only be found in the heart. The Good Companions succeeds because it creates a wonderful world in which to escape. Its popular appeal and romantic optimism led critics to dub the author “Jolly Jack” Priestley, a nickname that he hated and that he tried to shed for the rest of his life.
Jess Oakroyd, a stolid Yorkshireman who is burdened with a nagging wife and sarcastic son, finally decides to pack a small basket of clothes and set off to travel about England. His adventures begin when he gets a ride in a large van loaded with stolen goods. The driver of the van and the driver’s helper leave Jess at an inn in a small hamlet after having robbed him while he was asleep. Rudely awakened by the innkeeper, Jess has no money to buy his breakfast. Setting off afoot, he comes upon another van, in which a man is attempting to repair a battered peddler’s stall. In return for his help, the peddler, who sells fancy balloons, gives Jess breakfast and a ride.
Jess stays with him for three days and then sets out walking again. Within the hour, he comes upon a stalled car and helps the driver, Miss Trant, start the motor. Miss Trant, who has recently inherited several hundred pounds from her father, is thirty-five years old. Since all of her previous adventures were limited to those in historical novels, she decides to travel across England. While Jess works on the car, it begins to rain, so they head for a tearoom nearby. There they meet Inigo Jollifant and his odd-looking companion, who is carrying a banjo. Just like Jess and Miss Trant, Inigo began...
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