J. B. Priestley Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

J. B. Priestley’s plays may be his most lasting contribution to literature, yet as a consummate man of letters, he mastered many genres in a canon consisting of nearly two hundred works. Beginning his writing career as critic and essayist on subjects ranging from William Shakespeare to Thomas Love Peacock, from the art of conversation to political theory, Priestley became a household name in 1929 with the extraordinarily popular success of The Good Companions, a picaresque novel about a concert party, which, translated into many languages, was an international best-seller. In all, he wrote more than thirty novels, eighteen books of essays and autobiography, numerous works of social commentary and history, accounts of his travels, philosophical conjectures on the nature of time, even morale-boosting propaganda during World War II, as well as an occasional screenplay and an opera libretto. Poetry was the only genre he neglected, after publishing, at his own expense, a single slim volume of verse in 1918, The Chapman of Rhymes. He was a popular professional writer, vitally concerned with every aspect of human life, and no subject escaped his scrutiny. As a result, the gruff, pipe-smoking Yorkshireman held a unique position in English letters as a highly respected sage who was also a man of the people.

For more than half a century, he remained loyal to a single publishing house, William Heinemann, which brought out nearly all of his massive output in various genres. Heinemann published single editions of most of his plays as well as thematically linked collections of two, three, and four plays. Heinemann’s major collection of his drama, consisting of twenty-one of his plays, both comedies and dramas, was published as The Plays of J. B. Priestley in three volumes from 1948 to 1950.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

J. B. Priestley’s achievements as a dramatist outshine his work as a novelist. If he was a mainstream figure, albeit a minor one, in a vastly rich period of the English novel, in drama, he was the single serious English writer of the first half of the twentieth century, bridging the gap between George Bernard Shaw and John Osborne. Only Sean O’Casey, an Irishman like Shaw, had a reputation as dramatist greater than Priestley’s in the same period. The plays of John Galsworthy were quickly dated, while much of the work of Sir James Barrie, aside from the 1904 production of the immortal Peter Pan, was too cloying to survive its own generation. The plays of W. Somerset Maugham and Noël Coward may have been more successful with contemporary audiences, but they remain monuments to triviality rather than attempts to illuminate the plight of twentieth century humankind.

Priestley’s focus was England and the Englishman, not the aristocrats and idle wastrels who people Maugham’s and Coward’s elegant drawing rooms but the middle classes, the workers—the backbone of the country, England’s defenders and its hope for a workable future. Priestley was an optimist who believed that human beings working in and for the community can overcome any obstacle. A socialist, he firmly believed throughout a long career that the golden world in which he grew up before World War I could be reestablished once people rid themselves of sloth and greed and willingly accept responsibility for others. His view, which may seem overly romantic to modern readers, was fueled by a belief in a quasi-scientific theory of the coexistence of all time, popularized by J. W. Dunne in An Experiment with Time (1927), and was tempered by a clear-sightedness concerning his compatriots’ failings, which may have caused a decline in his popularity at home after World War II at the same time that his plays were embraced in the communist world. Priestly was offered a knighthood and a life peerage but insisted on remaining a man of the people and refused them. In 1973, however, he received the conferment of the Freedom of the City of Bradford. In 1977, he accepted membership in the Order of Merit, a prestigious...

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Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to the nearly thirty novels that he published after Adam in Moonshine in 1927, J. B. Priestley wrote approximately fifty plays, on which his future reputation will largely depend. These include such memorable works as Dangerous Corner (1932), Eden End (1934), Time and the Conways (1937), An Inspector Calls (1946), The Linden Tree (1947), and The Scandalous Affair of Mr. Kettle and Mrs. Moon (1955). He also collaborated with Iris Murdoch on the successful stage adaptation of her novel A Severed Head (1963).

In addition, a long list of impressive works characterize Priestley as the twentieth century equivalent of an eighteenth century man of letters, a term he professed to despise. This list includes accounts of his travels both in England and abroad, the best of these being English Journey: Being a Rambling but Truthful Account of What One Man Saw and Heard and Felt and Thought During a Journey Through England During the Autumn of the Year 1933 (1934), Russian Journey (1946), and Journey down a Rainbow (1955), written in collaboration with Jacquetta Hawkes. Priestley produced several books of reminiscence and recollection, which include Rain upon Godshill: A Further Chapter of Autobiography (1939), Margin Released: A Writer’s Reminiscences and Reflections (1962), and Instead of the Trees (1977). His literary criticism includes studies of George Meredith, Charles Dickens, and Anton Chekhov; and his familiar essays, thought by many to be among his finest works, are represented in the volume titled Essays of Five Decades (1968), and by Postscripts (1940), a collection of transcripts of his broadcasts in support of England at war. Priestley created several picture books of social criticism, such as The Prince of Pleasure and His Regency, 1811-1820 (1969), The Edwardians (1970), and Victoria’s Heyday (1972), and his far-reaching historical surveys detail an idiosyncratic view of people in time: Literature and Western Man (1960) and Man and Time (1964). Priestley’s short-story collections include Going Up: Stories and Sketches (1950) and The Other Place, and Other Stories of the Same Sort (1953).

As this list indicates, no aspect of modern life escaped Priestley’s scrutiny, and no genre was left untried. In a long and prestigious career, he earned for himself a secure place in the annals of literature.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although J. B. Priestley’s accomplishments in the theater may prove more significant than his work in the novel, perhaps because of his experimentation within the dramatic genre, his fiction has nevertheless secured for him a high place in contemporary literature; it has been read and cherished by a large and very appreciative audience. The Good Companions, a runaway best seller in 1929, allowed Priestley to turn his attention from journalism and the novel to the theater in the 1930’s, but he kept returning to the novel form throughout his career.

Priestley produced no novel that equals James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) in scope or intellectual subtlety, no novel as prophetic as D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow (1915), no novel illustrative of the intuitive faculty equal to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), or of ethical concern equal to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) or William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932). His place on the scale of literary achievement may be lower than theirs, but his audience has been, by and large, greater. Priestley aimed for and caught a popular audience that remained loyal to him through five decades of writing. His novels and plays have been widely translated and acted, most notably in the Soviet Union. His craft in the novel genre shows the influence of Charles Dickens, of the English Romantics, especially of William Wordsworth and William Hazlitt, and of the English music hall and its traditions. Priestley himself made no great claims for his fiction, beyond good-naturedly protesting once or twice that there is more to it than meets the top-speed reviewer’s eye. His finest novel, Bright Day, however, earned general critical approval when it was published in 1946, and merited the praise of Carl Jung, who found its theme consonant with his notion of the oneness of all people.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

J. B. Priestley’s seven crime novels, including one written with Gerald Bullett, are, compared to the bulk of his published work, a minute part of the Priestley canon. Each of the novels exists independently of the others, and each is an unrepeated foray into crime fiction. The central characters are not detectives or professional police officers; they are medical doctors, artists, newspapermen, and trained professional people who are very good at their chosen work. Something piques their interest—a patient goes missing, a scientist disappears, an experiment is stolen—and they turn their obvious mental powers to the task. The books themselves, as might be expected from one of the twentieth century’s most prolific dramatists, read like scripts for stage and screen, and their visual impact is strong. Priestley’s sly wit, his socialistic philosophy, and his stagecraft mark the novels and give them the easy progress of well-written works. At the same time, in all of his crime novels, Priestley takes a cold and dispassionate look at his society and finds it less than perfect.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Is it a necessary development or an unfortunate one (or both) that so much of J. B. Priestley’s fiction has been forgotten?

Did Priestley’s attitudes toward the academic life in effect cut him off from critical acceptance?

Does a play like An Inspector Calls receive more credit now than it did in 1946? If so, why?

Can a reader learn more about the society in Priestley’s time from him than from more highly regarded writers of fiction on social issues?

What previous literary works seem to have been models for The Good Companions?


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Atkins, John. J. B. Priestley: The Last of the Sages. New York: Riverrun Press, 1981. Describes Priestley’s development as essayist, critic, novelist, dramatist, autobiographer, social commentator, historian, and travel writer. The book is most useful on the political, social, and economic background of the late 1920’s and 1930’s, the period of Priestley’s first three mystery novels.

Brome, Vincent. J. B. Priestley. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988. Brome offers an affectionate but candid portrait of the writer in public and private life. Argues that the prolific writer has been denied his proper niche by critics who do not deal fairly with those who write for a wide, general audience.

Cook, Judith. Priestley. London: Bloomsbury, 1997. Cook provides a biography of Priestley, examining both his prose and dramatic works. Includes a bibliography and an index.

DeVitis, A. A., and Albert E. Kalson. J. B. Priestley. Boston: Twayne, 1980. After a biographical chapter that includes a discussion of Priestley’s time theories, the book divides into two sections, the first half dealing with Priestley as novelist, the second half dealing with Priestley as dramatist. All Priestley’s works in the two genres are discussed, the more significant ones in some detail. Includes a chronology of the important events in Priestley’s life and a useful bibliography.

Gray, Dulcie. J. B. Priestley. Stroud, Gloustershire, England: Sutton, 2000. This volume in the Sutton Pocket Biographies series provides a concise look at Priestley’s life and many works. Includes a bibliography.

Klein, Holger. J. B. Priestley’s Fiction. New York: P. Lang, 2002. Massive, eight-hundred-page study of Priestley’s entire fictional output, including all of his mystery novels. Bibliographic references and index.