J. B. Priestley Biography

Start Your Free Trial

Download J. B. Priestley Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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, 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...

(The entire section is 1,810 words.)