J. B. Priestley

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J. B. Priestley
J. B. Priestley
Born John Boynton Priestley
(1894-09-13)13 September 1894
Manningham, Bradford, West Riding of Yorkshire, England
Died 14 August 1984(1984-08-14) (aged 89)
Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England
Occupation Writer
Nationality British
Period 20th century

John Boynton Priestley, OM (/ˈprstli/; 13 September 1894 – 14 August 1984), was an English author, novelist, playwright, scriptwriter, social commentator, man of letters and broadcaster, whose career straddled the 20th Century.

His Yorkshire background is reflected in much of his fiction, notably in The Good Companions (1929), which first brought him to wide public notice. Many of his plays are structured around a time slip, and he went on to develop a new theory of time, with different dimensions that link past, present and future.

In 1940, he broadcast a series of short propaganda talks that were credited with saving civilian morale during the Battle of Britain. His left-wing beliefs brought him into conflict with the government, but influenced the birth of the Welfare State.

Early years[edit]

Priestley was born at 34 Mannheim Road, Manningham, which he described as an "extremely respectable" suburb of Bradford.[1] His father was a headmaster. His mother died when he was just two years old and his father remarried four years later.[2] Priestley was educated at Belle Vue Grammar School, which he left at sixteen to work as a junior clerk at Helm & Co., a wool firm in the Swan Arcade. During his years at Helm & Co. (1910–1914), he started writing at night and had articles published in local and London newspapers. He was to draw on memories of Bradford in many of the works he wrote after he had moved south, including Bright Day and When We Are Married. As an old man he deplored the destruction by developers of Victorian buildings in Bradford such as the Swan Arcade, where he had his first job.

Priestley served in the army during the First World War, volunteering to join the 10th Battalion, the Duke of Wellington's Regiment on 7 September 1914, and being posted to France as a Lance-Corporal on 26 August 1915. He was badly wounded in June 1916, when he was buried alive by a trench-mortar. He spent many months in military hospitals and convalescent establishments, and on 26 January 1918 was commissioned as an officer in the Devonshire Regiment, and posted back to France late summer 1918. As he describes in his autobiography, Margin Released, he suffered from the effects of poison gas, and then supervised German prisoners of war, before being demobilized in early 1919.

After his military service Priestley received a university education at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. By the age of 30 he had established a reputation as an essayist and critic. His novel Benighted (1927) was adapted into the James Whale film The Old Dark House (1932); the novel has been published under the film's name in the United States.


Priestley's first major success came with a novel, The Good Companions (1929), which earned him the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction and made him a national figure. His next novel, Angel Pavement (1930), further established him as a successful novelist. However, some critics were less than complimentary about his work, and Priestley threatened legal action against Graham Greene for what he took to be a defamatory portrait of him in the novel Stamboul Train (1932).

In 1934 he published the travelogue English Journey, which is an account of what he saw and heard while travelling through the country in the depths of the Depression.[3]

He moved into a new genre and became equally well known as a dramatist. Dangerous Corner was the first of a series of plays that enthralled West End theatre audiences. His best-known play is An Inspector Calls (1945). His plays are more varied in tone than the novels, several being influenced by J. W. Dunne's theory of time, which plays a part in the plots of Dangerous Corner (1932) and Time and the Conways (1937).

Many of his works have a socialist aspect. For example, An Inspector Calls, as well as being one of Priestley's "Time Plays", contains many references to socialism — the inspector was arguably an alter ego through which Priestley could express his views,[4] though the play appears simply to tell the story of a young girl called Eva Smith and her tragic suicide. Seemingly, it was by chance that "An Inspector Calls" was premiered in Russia, for despite a gleeful Tory rumour that the play had been rejected, in truth no suitable London theatre was available. His Russian translator approached Russian theatres, it was snapped up, and so Priestley’s first postwar play was premiered not in London but in Leningrad.[5]

In 1940, Priestley wrote an essay for Horizon magazine, where he criticised George Bernard Shaw for his support of Stalin: "Shaw presumes that his friend Stalin has everything under control. Well, Stalin may have made special arrangements to see that Shaw comes to no harm, but the rest of us in Western Europe do not feel quite so sure of our fate, especially those of us who do not share Shaw's curious admiration for dictators".[6]

During the Second World War, he was a regular broadcaster on the BBC. The Postscript, broadcast on Sunday night through 1940 and again in 1941, drew peak audiences of 16 million; only Churchill was more popular with listeners. But his talks were cancelled. It was thought that this was the effect of complaints from Churchill that they were too left-wing; however, Priestley's son has recently revealed in a talk on the latest book being published about his father's life that it was in fact Churchill's Cabinet that brought about the cancellation by supplying negative reports on the broadcasts to Churchill.[7][8]

Priestley chaired the 1941 Committee, and in 1942 he was a co-founder of the socialist Common Wealth Party. The political content of his broadcasts and his hopes of a new and different Britain after the war influenced the politics of the period and helped the Labour Party gain its landslide victory in the 1945 general election. Priestley himself, however, was distrustful of the state and dogma, though he did stand for the Cambridge University constituency in 1945. Priestley's name was on Orwell's list, a list of people which George Orwell prepared in March 1949 for the Information Research Department, a propaganda unit set up at the Foreign Office by the Labour government. Orwell considered these people to have pro-communist leanings and therefore to be inappropriate to write for the IRD.[9]

He was a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958.

In 1960, Priestley published Literature and Western Man, a 500-page survey of Western literature in all its genres, including Russia and the United States but excluding Asia, from the second half of the 15th century to the present (the last author discussed is Thomas Wolfe).

Although Priestley never wrote a formal book of memoirs, his literary reminiscences, Margin Released (1962), provide valuable insights into his work. The section dealing with his job as a teenage clerk in a Bradford wool-sorter's office manages to weave fine literature from an outwardly unpromising subject — a characteristic of many of his novels.

His interest in the problem of time led him to publish an extended essay in 1964 under the title of Man and Time (Aldus published this as a companion to Carl Jung's Man and His Symbols). In this book he explored in depth various theories and beliefs about time as well as his own research and unique conclusions, including an analysis of the phenomenon of precognitive dreaming, based in part on a broad sampling of experiences gathered from the British public, who responded enthusiastically to a televised appeal he made while being interviewed in 1963 on the BBC programme, Monitor.

Priestley was one of the interviewees for the documentary series The World at War (1973), in the episode "Alone: May 1940 – May 1941". He declined lesser honours before accepting the Order of Merit in 1977.

The University of Bradford awarded Priestley the title of honorary Doctor of Letters in 1970, and he was awarded the Freedom of the City of Bradford in 1973. His connections with the city were also marked by the naming of the J. B. Priestley Library at the University of Bradford, which he officially opened in 1975,[10] and by the larger-than-life statue of him, commissioned by the Bradford City Council after his death, and which now stands in front of the National Media Museum.[11]

A special collector's edition of Bright Day was re-issued by Great Northern Books in 2006, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the publication of this novel.[12]

Life for Priestley[edit]

Priestley had a deep love for classical music, specifically Chamber Music, which is a form of classical music that is composed for a small group of instruments—traditionally a group that could fit in a palace chamber or a large room and his love for Chamber Music is reflected in an essay he wrote that was reprinted in the volume Delight (Heinemann, 1949) - about the pleasure he derived from playing chamber music and notably in Priestley's own favourite novel Bright Day (Heinemann, 1946). His book 'Trumpets over the sea: being a rambling and egotistical account of the London Symphony Orchestra's engagement at Daytona Beach, Florida, in July–August 1967 which itself is a classical example of proof of his love for classical music.(Refer to the book The Vision of J.B. Priestley By Roger Fagge Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011 refer to Chapter 6 Late Priestley) In 1941 he played an important part in organising and supporting a fund-raising campaign on behalf of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which was struggling to establish itself as a self-governing body after the withdrawal of Sir Thomas Beecham. In 1949 the opera The Olympians by Arthur Bliss, to a libretto by Priestley, was premiered.

Priestley snubbed the chance to become a lord in 1965 and also declined appointment as a Companion of Honour in 1969.[13] But he did become a member of the Order of Merit in 1977. He also served as a British delegate to UNESCO conferences. He was honoured by both the universities of Birmingham and Bradford and the city of Bradford granted him Freedom of the City in 1973.

He married three times. In 1921 he married Emily "Pat" Tempest, a music-loving Bradford librarian. Two daughters were born, one in 1923 and one in 1924, but in 1925 his wife died of cancer.[14] In September 1926, he married Jane Wyndham-Lewis (ex-wife of the original 'Beachcomber' D. B. Wyndham-Lewis, no relation to the artist Wyndham Lewis); they had two daughters (including music therapist Mary Priestley) and one son. In 1953, he divorced his second wife and married the archaeologist and writer Jacquetta Hawkes, his collaborator on the play Dragon's Mouth.[15]

He died on 14 August 1984.



Other fiction[edit]

  • Farthing Hall (1929) (Novel written in collaboration with Hugh Walpole) reissued in 2013 by Valancourt Books
  • The Town Major of Miraucourt (1930) (Short story published in a limited edition of 525 copies)
  • I'll Tell You Everything (1932) (Novel written in collaboration with Gerald Bullett)
  • Albert Goes Through (1933) (Novelette)
  • The Other Place (1952) (Short Stories)
  • Snoggle (1971) (Novel for children)
  • The Other Window (1975) (A screenplay written in collaboration with Jacquetta Hawkes as part the Shadows television series)
  • The Carfitt Crisis (1975) (Two novellas and a short story)

Selected plays[edit]

His play The Thirty-first of June was first produced in Toronto in 1957.[16]

  • The Thirty-first of June: A Tale of True Love, Enterprise and Progress in the Arthurian and AD-Atomic Ages
- Novel. December 1961: Hardback; ISBN 0-434-60326-0 / ISBN 978-0-434-60326-8 (UK edition); Publisher: William Heinemann Ltd
- BBC radio dramatisation; one and a half hours
- Novel. 1996 : Paperback; ISBN 0-7493-2281-0 / ISBN 978-0-7493-2281-6 (UK edition); Publisher: Mandarin
- June 31st (1978) (TV) Soviet film; aka 31 июня

Literary criticism[edit]

  • The English Comic Characters (1925)
  • The English Novel (1927)
  • Literature and Western Man (1960)
  • Charles Dickens and his world (1969)

Social and political works[edit]

  • English Journey (1934)
  • Out of the people (1941)
  • The Secret Dream: an essay on Britain, America and Russia (1946)
  • The Arts under Socialism (1947)
  • The Prince of Pleasure and his Regency (1969)
  • The Edwardians (1970)

Autobiography and essays[edit]

  • Essays of To-day and Yesterday (1926)
  • Midnight on the Desert (1937)
  • Rain Upon Godshill: A Further Chapter of Autobiography (1939)
  • Journey Down a Rainbow (1955)
  • Margin Released (1962)
  • The Moments and Other Pieces (1966)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cook, Judith (1997). "Beginnings and Childhood". Priestley. London: Bloomsbury. p. 5. ISBN 0-7475-3508-6. 
  2. ^ Lincoln Konkle, J. B. Priestley, in British Playwrights, 1880–1956: A Research and Production Sourcebook, by William W. Demastes, Katherine E. Kelly; Greenwood Press, 1996
  3. ^ Marr, Andrew (2008). A History of Modern Britain. Macmillan. p. xxii. ISBN 978-0-330-43983-1. 
  4. ^ An Inspector Calls. Dooyoo.co.uk (7 March 2006). Retrieved 2 May 2012.
  5. ^ "How JB Priestley’s Inspector first called on the USSR". the Guardian. 
  6. ^ J. B. Priestley, "The War – And After", in Horizon, January 1940. Reprinted in Andrew Sinclair, War Decade: An Anthology of the 1940s, Hamish Hamilton, 1989. ISBN 0241125677 (p. 19).
  7. ^ "?". Archived from the original on 6 July 2015. 
  8. ^ "Priestley war letters published". BBC News website. 6 October 2008. Retrieved 10 June 2008. 
  9. ^ John Ezard (21 June 2003). "Blair's babe Did love turn Orwell into a government stooge?". The Guardian. 
  10. ^ University of Bradford: J. B. Priestley. Brad.ac.uk (16 December 2010). Retrieved 2 May 2012.
  11. ^ A "sentimental journey"? Priestley's Lost City. Bbc.co.uk (26 September 2008). Retrieved 2 May 2012.
  12. ^ "Bright Day: A special collectors' edition, by J. B. Priestley". Great Northern Books. Retrieved 10 October 2007. 
  13. ^ "Individuals, now deceased, who refused honours between 1951 and 1999" (PDF) (Press release). Cabinet Office. 25 January 2012. Retrieved 27 January 2012. 
  14. ^ JB Priestley (estate). Unitedagents.co.uk. Retrieved 2 May 2012.
  15. ^ "Biography". J. B. Priestley website. Archived from the original on 2 July 2007. Retrieved 28 July 2007. 
  16. ^ Plays by J B Priestley. Doollee.com. Retrieved 2 May 2012.


External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
New post
Chairman of the Common Wealth Party
Succeeded by
Richard Acland