J. B. Priestley

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Priestley, J(ohn) B(oynton) (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Priestley, J(ohn) B(oynton) 1894–

An English novelist, playwright, short story writer, essayist, and man of letters, Priestley has been a versatile and prolific writer since 1922. His best-known novel is The Good Companions, but critics consider Angel Pavement and Bright Day his greatest artistic achievements. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

[Priestley's] plays are seriously flawed, in my view, because, whilst they are always confoundedly careful, they lack care—that is, compassion, involvement—which, in one definition, is what separates art from entertainment. You feel that the author always calls the tune, that his characters scurry hither and thither at his bidding, always knowing far less than he does, never in any sort of ambiguous relationship with their creator. It's not something you feel of Chekhov, into whose waters Priestley sometimes sails. For Priestley is most definitely not a subtle ironist and his creatures are pushed down and dusted off without ceremony. We, the audience, are perforce as detached as he is. (p. 52)

W. Stephen Gilbert, in Plays and Players (© copyright W. Stephen Gilbert 1973), October, 1973.

J. B. Priestley is, to employ a sporting term he would surely appreciate, a good all-rounder; he is a novelist, playwright, essayist, literary critic, and—I intend no disrespect—something of a professional Englishman. In recent years he has added to a long inning of varied achievements as a man of letters his social histories of the Regency, the early years of Victoria's reign, and the Edwardian era. These characterizations in brisk prose, lavishly complemented by pictures, lead us to expect of his latest experiment in this mixed medium [The English] an original and appealing contribution to our understanding of the race to which the author so proudly belongs. (p. 29)

What Priestley has attempted is a personality profile based on his private analysis of the English….

It is in the nature of guest lists to provoke astonishment and mirth; Priestley's is no exception. For instance, "Tudor, Stuart, and Hanoverian monarchs, Irish playwrights, Welsh poets, and Scottish painters and engineers" have been excluded on grounds of race and national origin; this exclusive little affair is for "true-born Englishmen-and-women" only. Well, who are the few to be favored with Priestley's hospitality? We should not look here to find Oscar Wilde (Irish), William Ewart Gladstone (Scotch), George Bernard Shaw (Irish), David Lloyd George (Welsh), Dean Swift (Irish), Thomas Stearns Eliot (American), Inigo Jones (Welsh), Richard Brinsley Sheridan (Irish), Anthony Vandyke (Flemish), William Butler Yeats (Irish), Richard Wilson (Welsh), or Benjamin Disraeli ("Jewish-dandy-novelist" and "impassive Oriental illusionist"!).

Priestley's own appointed laws, aside from being unjust, are also quite unenforceable. This is no mere procedural point; Priestley's narrow-minded definition of Englishness, based as it is almost exclusively on arbitrary considerations of birth and blood, lies at the very heart of his enterprise. It is a species of cultural imperialism to exclude the donations made to the sum of English identity by, among others, the figures I have listed above. No survey, however sweeping, can truly comprehend the English "soul" if it seeks to divorce it from the cosmopolitan body which that soul inhabits; its "alien" distillations are of the English essence. And this is something the author overtly and covertly acknowledges time and again: Although Disraeli "has no place here," it is fully sixty-nine words before he is dismissed, whereas, to name only a few of the "true-born," Christopher Wren, Alexander Pope, Thomas Hobbes, Charlotte Brontë, Jeremy Bentham, Wilfred Owen, Edith Sitwell, and George Orwell don't get a look-in…. We can only conclude that the author is engaging in that traditional English pastime known universally as having your cake and eating it, too….

The topography of the English spirit, as...

(The entire section is 2,048 words.)