J. B. Priestley

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Bradford, once the wool-merchandizing center of Northern England, provided the perfect atmosphere for a budding writer. A commercial hub on a more human scale than sprawling London, the city nurtured the arts. There were two theaters, two music halls, a concert hall visited by the world’s most renowned musicians, play-reading societies, arts clubs, a good library, and a local paper that accepted contributions from young writers. Nearby were the Yorkshire dales, providing solace from the city’s bustle. John Boynton Priestley, encouraged by his Socialist schoolmaster father and his kindly stepmother, took advantage of all that his native city had to offer. He lived a culturally rich childhood balanced by long weekend walks on the moors. The environment of his home, where his father led discussions on the arts, education, and politics, stimulated him as well. To Richard Pendlebury, his English master, Priestley attributed his awakening interest in literature and his early desire to be a writer.

Priestley furtively wrote poetry and short stories in his notebooks during the days he spent as a junior clerk in a wool firm. Unable to concentrate on commerce, he began placing his pieces in popular London weekly magazines. In 1913, he became a regular contributor to The Bradford Pioneer, a Labour weekly, with a cultural column he called “Round the Hearth.”

World War I interrupted a tranquil, idyllic, if directionless, existence, and, in 1914, Priestley enlisted in the duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment. Shipped to France, he was wounded near Souchez and returned to England. In 1917, after his recuperation, he received a commission as lieutenant. Back in France, Priestley, along with several members of his Devon Regiment, was gassed. In his writing, he hardly mentioned the wartime horrors that he witnessed and suffered, yet World War I remains the key to an understanding of his work. Priestley never shed his sense of waste and loss. The war spelled an end to a simpler life, which, in retrospect, always seemed to him a better life. The world he was brought up to inhabit no longer existed, and Priestley’s own boyish innocence died with it. Much of his work was a romantic attempt to recapture the vitalizing spirit of an earlier time, of a world in harmony.

After three unsatisfying years at Cambridge, from 1919 to 1922, where he studied literature, history, and political science, Priestley abandoned plans for a teaching career and moved to London to try his luck as a freelance writer. At the time, he and his wife, Pat Tempest, whom he married in 1919, were expecting their first child. Aided by J. C. Squire, who ran The London Mercury, he established himself as essayist and critic. In 1925, after a long illness, his first wife died. A year later, he married Mary (Holland) Wyndham Lewis. As a result of the two marriages, Priestley had five children: four daughters and a son.

The almost immediate worldwide success of The Good Companions in 1929 made it possible for Priestley to live the life he had chosen, that of a professional writer. He began to travel widely at home and abroad to find new subjects to explore and entered the world of the commercial theater, which had seemed, until his success, too much of a risk for a family man. Beginning a new phase of his career in 1931 with the adaptation (in collaboration with Edward Knoblock) of The Good Companions, the novel that had won for him fame and a newfound security, Priestley achieved theatrical success on his own a year later with a well-crafted melodrama, Dangerous Corner ,...

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which was soon produced around the world. Shortly afterward, he formed a company for the production of his own work. In addition to writing various types of plays, Priestley occasionally directed them as well, and even acted in one,When We Are Married, while a leading actor was indisposed. For a time Priestley thought of himself as primarily a dramatist, but in later life, he left the theater to concentrate again on novels and essays.

Priestley became one of his nation’s most beloved figures during World War II, rivaling Sir Winston Churchill in popularity, with the weekly broadcasts of his “Postscripts” for the British Broadcasting Company. These began in 1940 after Dunkirk and ended the next year when the Germans launched their blitz on London. The talks stirred a nation and comforted those who, like Priestley, hoped that a better world would be the outcome of this devastating war.

In 1952, Priestley divorced his second wife and a year later married Jacquetta Hawkes, the distinguished anthropologist with whom he occasionally collaborated. The two lived in a gracious Georgian home, Kissing Tree House, in Alveston, just outside Stratford-upon-Avon. After a short illness in 1984, he died in his home one month before his ninetieth birthday.


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John Boynton Priestley was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, on September 13, 1894. His mother died soon after his birth, and he was reared by a kind and loving stepmother. His father, Jonathan, was a schoolmaster; in his autobiographical work Margin Released, Priestley characterizes his father as the man Socialists have in mind when they write about Socialists.

In Priestley’s early years, Bradford offered much to feed a romantic boy’s imagination: theater, the music halls, a playgoer’s society, an arts club, the concert stage, a busy market street, and a grand-scale arcade called the Swan. A tram ride away were the Yorkshire Dales and moors. As a young man, Priestley worked in a wool office, writing poetry and short stories into handmade notebooks in his spare time. An important early influence was Richard Pendlebury, his English master. Priestley later observed that Bradford and its environs did more for his education than did Cambridge University, which he attended years later.

In 1915, Priestley enlisted in the army. He was sent to France, invalided back to England after being wounded, and then sent back to France. Significantly, his experience of war does not figure explicitly in any fictional piece, with the single exception of the haunting short story The Town Major of Miraucourt, which was published on its own in 1930. Priestley’s entire creative output may, however, have been an attempt to put war and its ravages into a long-range context, a notion that pervades his Postscripts broadcasts for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) during World War II. At the end of his army service, Priestley went to Cambridge, where he studied, between 1919 and 1922, literature, history, and political theory. His first book, Brief Diversions: Being Tales, Travesties, and Epigrams (1922), received good reviews but did not sell.

Leaving Cambridge for London and the precarious life of a journalist, Priestley worked for J. C. Squire and the London Mercury, for the Daily News, and for the Bodley Head Press. Meanwhile, he published critical books on George Meredith, Thomas Love Peacock, and modern literature. His first novel, Adam in Moonshine, appeared in 1927. Shortly thereafter, Hugh Walpole offered to collaborate with Priestley on a novel called Farthing Hall in order to give the younger writer a much-needed publisher’s advance so that he could continue his work. In 1929, The Good Companions appeared, and Priestley was fully embarked on a long and distinguished career.

Priestley was married three times; his first marriage, to Pat Tempest, came in 1919. A year after her death, in 1925, he married Mary Holland Wyndham Lewis, from whom he was divorced in 1952. The two marriages produced four daughters and a son. In 1953, he married the distinguished anthropologist Jacquetta Hawkes. During his adult life, Priestley resided in London, on the Isle of Wight, and in Alveston, just outside Stratford-upon-Avon. He traveled widely, frequently using his journeys as background for his novels and plays. During World War II, he and his wife ran a hostel for evacuated children; after the war he campaigned vigorously for nuclear disarmament. He served as a delegate to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and on the board of the National Theatre. He refused a knighthood and a life peerage but did, in 1977, accept membership in the Order of Merit. In 1973, he happily accepted conferment of the Freedom of the City from his native Bradford.

Priestley did not retire from his writing work until well after he turned eighty. He died in 1984, one month shy of his ninetieth birthday.


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John Boynton Priestley was born on September 13, 1894, in Bradford, Yorkshire, England, the son of a schoolmaster. He was educated in the Bradford schools and at Trinity College of the University of Cambridge. He served with the Duke of Wellington’s and Devon regiments from 1914 to 1919. He was graduated from Trinity College with honors in English literature, political science, and modern history. He married Patricia Tempest, with whom he had two daughters, in 1919; Mary Wyndham Lewis, with whom he had three more daughters and a son, in 1926; and Jacquetta Hawkes, the writer and his sometime collaborator, in 1953.

He began his writing career at sixteen, contributing articles to London and provincial newspapers. He went to London in 1922 and established himself as a reviewer, critic, and essayist; in addition, he published two or three books a year, including studies of the work of George Meredith and Thomas Love Peacock for the English Men of Letters series, a history of the English novel, and other works. By 1930, he had established a strong reputation both in England and the United States through his novels, including Angel Pavement (1930), which falls loosely into the category of crime fiction. His work during this period was a mixture of personal history and social criticism.

In 1932, he wrote Dangerous Corner, a highly successful drama that launched him on a new career, one that occupied much of his time from then on. Among other activities, he served as the director of Mask Theatre in London; the United Kingdom delegate and chairman to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s International Theater Conferences in Paris (1947) and Prague (1948); the chairman of the British Theatre Conferences; the president of the International Theatre Institute; and on the National Theatre Board. He was a regular contributor to New Statesman and broadcast uplifting commentaries for the British Broadcasting Corporation during World War II; these broadcasts were published as Britain Speaks (1940) and Postscripts (1940) and earned for him the unofficial title “the voice of the common people of Great Britain.”

Priestley traveled extensively in the United States and spent two winters in Arizona. Despite his criticism—and he freely criticized everything—Priestley was fond of the United States and probably knew as much about its history and literature as did any modern English novelist.

Priestley was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1930, the Ellen Terry Award in 1948, and honorary degrees from the University of St. Andrews, the University of Birmingham, the University of Bradford, and Trinity College. He was awarded the Order of Merit in 1977. In 1978, he moved, appropriately, to Stratford-upon-Avon. He died on August 14, 1984, one month short of his ninetieth birthday.