Called by some the last "sage" of English literature, J. B. Priestley (1894-1984) had a career which spanned more than 60 years and included authoring novels, essays, plays, and screenplays.
John Boynton Priestley was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, in the North of England on September 13, 1894, the son of Jonathan Priestley, a schoolmaster. His early education was at the Bradford School, but this career was interrupted, as happened to many of his contemporaries, by service in World War I. He served with both the Duke of Wellington's and the Devon regiments from 1914 to 1919. After the war he matriculated at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he studied history and political science as well as English literature. Already writing and publishing as an undergraduate, he was able to pay some of his university bills by selling articles to provincial and London newspapers. In 1922 he settled in London, rapidly establishing a reputation as essayist, critic, and novelist.
From his earliest writings, Priestley may be described as a comic rationalist. The contradictions and absurdities of the human situation, he wrote, could best be borne by a stance of ironic detachment. This perspective is perhaps closest to that of Priestley's predecessor, the novelist George Meredith (1828-1909). Not surprisingly, one of the best of Priestley's early critical works is a biography of Meredith in the English Men of Letters series (George Meredith, 1926). Another early influence was Meredith's father-in-law, the satirist Thomas Love Peacock, subject of another fine Priestley biography in the same series in 1927.
About this time Priestley achieved great popularity himself as a novelist through two works centering on the comic interplay of people engaged in a common calling. The Good Companions (1929) is about the joys and sorrows of the members of a repertory company in the north of England. It was a success in the United States as well as in England. The following year Angel Pavement appeared, whose characters worked in a small London business firm. Other notable and popular novels followed: They Walk in the City (1936), The Doomsday Men (1938), Let the People Sing (1939), and Festival at Farbridge (1951). All of these are fairly long novels, each with a lively balance between memorable, accurately-observed character and meticulously-crafted, suspenseful plot, featuring often rogueish heroes on the move—another recrudescence of the English picaresque in a tradition going back to the 1740s, beginning with Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews. A strain of sentimentality is often present, but it is usually corrected by the "silvery laughter" of Priestley's comic spirit. Other novels of this author combine autobiographical detail with a social criticism less bitter than Priestley's 1930s contemporary George Orwell. Examples of this type include English Journey (1934), Midnight on the Desert (1937), and Rain Upon Godshill (1939).
One aspect of all of Priestley's fiction is its theatricality—from the beginning he had a fine flair for dialogue; in fact, soon after its success as a novel he adapted The Good Companions into a play (1931, with E. Knoblock). The next year saw the debut of Priestley as a bonafide dramatist with Dangerous Corner; it was a resounding success and was performed all over the world. This acclaim encouraged the author to organize his own company, for which he wrote plays of consistently high quality. Some were comedies, such as Laburnum Grove (1933) and When We Are Married (1938). As a dramatist Priestley was influenced by the theories of time and recurrence propounded by the philosopher J. W. Dunne (1875-1949), especially as developed in Experiment with Time and The Serial Universe. Dunne's concepts are dramatized in Priestley's serious "metaphysical" plays, such as Time and the Conway (1937), I Have Been There Before (1938), and Johnson over Jordan (1939).
After World War II, J. B. Priestley took an active role in the international cultural community. He was a United Kingdom delegate to United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) conferences in 1946 and 1947. He was chairman of theater conferences in Paris in 1947 and in Prague the following year. In 1949 he served as president of the International Theatre Institute. Back home he was chosen chairman of the British Theatre Conference (1948) and also served as a member of the National Theatre Board (1966-1967). In 1973, then nearly 80 years of age, he served his home city of Bradford as Freeman.
To Priestley's assets of longevity and versatility we may add flexibility—his adapting of the printed word to newer media of communication during and after World War II. During the war he became even more well known than before through his talks on radio; because of his understanding of and sympathy for the average citizen he was able to make a direct personal appeal using this medium. His film credits include screenplays for The Foreman Went to France (1942) and Last Holiday (1956). Back in the world of theater, he helped the novelist Iris Murdoch translate her hit novel A Severed Head into a successful play (1963).
Priestley had a son and four daughters through earlier marriages; in 1953 he became part of a famous husband-wife literary team when he married the archeologist and writer Jacquetta Hawkes. She had also worked for UNESCO and in the film industry. Together they wrote the play Dragon's Mouth (1952) and Journey Down a Rainbow (1955). A stay in New Zealand enabled him to write the travel piece A Visit to New Zealand (1974). Priestley's autobiography, Instead of the Trees, appeared three years later.
Still more evidence of this writer's versatility includes the libretto for an opera, The Olympians (1948); Delight, a book of essays (1949); The Art of the Dramatist, criticism (1957); and The Edwardians, social history (1970). J. B. Priestley died quietly at his home in Stratford-on-Avon on August 14, 1984.
Further Reading on J. B. Priestley
Other books by Priestley include Ape and Angels (1928), The Prince of Pleasures and His Regency (1969), and Victoria's Heyday (1972). His essays of five decades were collected and edited by Susan Cooper in 1969.
Two excellent assessments of Priestley's work are J. B. Priestley by John Braine (1978) and J. B. Priestley, Last of the Sages by John Atkins (1980). Perhaps Priestley will be most enduringly known for his contribution to the theater. Analysis of his contribution to this genre is made by Gareth Lloyd Evans in J. B. Priestley: The Dramatist (1964).
Additional Biography Sources
Atkins, John Alfred, J. B. Priestley: the last of the sages, London: J. Calder; New York: Riverrun Press, 1981.
Braine, John, J. B. Priestley, New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979, 1978.
Brome, Vincent, J.B. Priestley, London; New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Hamish Hamilton, 1988.
Collins, Diana, Time and the Priestleys: the story of a friendship, Far Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: A. Sutton, 1994.
Priestley, J. B. (John Boynton), English journey, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Priestley, J. B. (John Boynton), Instead of the trees: a final chapter of autobiography, New York: Stein and Day, 1977.