Priestley, J(ohn) B(oynton) 1894–
An English novelist, short story writer, essayist, and playwright, Priestley is best known for The Good Companions, a novel published in 1929. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
[Priestley] has added high quality of conception, perception, and description to the great quantity of his creations and his commentaries. Time and again he has shown that in the swift etching of a character, either in a novel or for the stage, he has a most vivid appreciation of the human comedy and a command of wit and of sympathy, qualities rare in combination, that puts him among the highest rank of verbal portrait-painters. Furthermore, his reporting of a journey and of the economic, as well as the physical, panorama of the places visited, has revealed a brilliant power of observation and description…. One always knows where one is with Priestley: it may be ground that one cannot share, but it is ground that is excellently mapped. He has written for the general reader and not for the intellectual specialist. Although, especially in his latest work, he has developed doubts about the value of pure reason and a taste for what some would call the superrational and others would dismiss as the whimsical, he has always stated his case for the unusual in the idiom and vocabulary of use and wont. If he turns to mysticism, he does not mystify, and the fact that his thinking is restless has never inclined him to be obscure. He deals in theories without being the abstract or the baffling theorist. (pp. 5-6)
Those who wish to examine the Priestley 'ego,' with all its Yorkshire background and its London experience, its relish for music in the home as well as for the clowns in their various arenas, must read his essays; they will not find it difficult. (p. 12)
The dominant note of Priestley's philosophy is dislike of withdrawal and of the 'non-participation' advocated by Aldous Huxley. His criticism of most religions is that they are too narrowly ethical, too negligent of the real flame of life…. In Priestley's writing one is always coming up against the Radical, but certainly not the Roundhead Radical. If there is fire in him it is the Promethean fire, with its glow of conflict and its heating of the forge of thought. Though he likes his desert solitudes and his midnights under alien moons he does not stay there long. He could no more be a scholar-recluse than he could be a political reactionary. Participate he must. (pp. 14-15)
Because Priestley excels in description, he has been criticized as reporting, not creating. He is thus made a victim of his own virtue, since nobody denies that he is a superb recorder, able to seize in words the essentials of any place or community through which he may, perhaps hurriedly, have passed. His speed of observation is equalled by his sureness in choice of the right phrase. But because he has such readiness in making the report, it is absurd to overlook the creation of character in which he shows no less capacity. (p. 20)
Priestley has been exceptionally eager and able to write for his readers and for the theatre public simultaneously. To guess about an artist's survival is always rash, but one may risk a surmise that future generations will be reviving the best of his plays more frequently than reading the best of his novels. (p. 22)
Ivor Brown, in his J. B. Priestley, Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council, 1964.
J. B. Priestley's The Good Companions (1929) recaptured, in motoring days, the spirit of the English roads which had been destroyed when the railways took the traffic and the life that had meant so much to the novels of Dickens, Fielding, and others. The Good Companions was an honest piece of work that deserved its popular success, though the capers of a small concert party were subjected to a great strain in supporting so large a book. Considered...
(The entire section contains 1596 words.)
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- Critical Essays