J.B. Priestley

John Boynton Priestley was one of England’s last great writers–he was a member of the last generation of freethinking British “sages” who contemplated both science and philosophy in their literary output. Today his books are mostly out of print and his name is all but forgotten except in the dusty, forgotten stacks of university libraries and used book dealers–a most undeserved fate for one of the deepest thinkers and most influential essayists and playwrights of the 20th century. In his long life he became world famous as an essayist, playwright, novelist, social critic and historian, but he also made contributions in the form of an opera libretto (“The Olympians”), a teleplay, a volume of poetry, many amateur paintings, several short stories and even went as far as to take the lead in one of his own plays (without rehearsal) when the one of the actors took sick suddenly.

John Boynton Priestley was born at 34 Mannheim Road, off Toller Lane in the town of Bradford in Yorkshire, England, in September of 1894. His father was a successful schoolmaster and his mother died when he was still an infant. Priestley studied at Belle Vue Grammar School, but left his studies at the age of 16 and worked for four years (1910-1914) as a junior clerk at Helm & Co., a wool firm in Swan Arcade. During these years he started writing at night and began to publish articles in local and London papers. He was a regular unpaid contributor to the Bradford Pioneer, a Labour Party paper. Priestley served in World War I in Flanders, Belgium, with the Duke of Wellington’s and Devon regiments and survived front-line combat, although he was seriously injured once. He became one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century and was made a Freeman of Bradford. The J.B. Priestley Library at the University of Bradford was named after his as a token of his hometown’s affection.

Priestley’s first book was actually a volume of poetry called “The Chapman of Rhymes”, written during his teens; he finally published (at his own expense)in 1918 while serving in World War I, thinking that he should “leave something behind” in the event that he, like so many of his comrades, should not survive. In the 1920s he set himself up as an essayist after taking his degree at Trinity Hall in Cambridge University. He studied literature, history and political science, receiving his B.A. after two years there in 1921. From 1922 he worked as a journalist in London, starting his career as an essayist and critic at various newspapers and periodicals, including the New Statesman. His first book published by a professional publisher, “Brief Diversions”, was a collection of essays that appeared in 1922, and was the result of his nightly writing efforts. He turned out approximately one essay per week during this period until turning to novels in the latter part of the decade. When he began to write fiction, he would often produce as many as three books in a year. One of the reasons for his early productivity was that, unlike many other writers of the 20th century, Priestley always depended on writing for his livelihood. Much of this work, as might be expected, was of somewhat inferior quality, but it also gave him the opportunity of trying out differing approaches and helped to hone his writing skills.

Priestley’s early essays were in the Georgian style, which has since gone out of favor, but it was important to remember that to be able to get his work published, Priestley had to conform some of his writing to meet popular tastes of his day. The chief faults of these “familiar” essays is that they really weren’t usually about anything in particular–they tended to be filled with rambling overgeneralisations and personal opinion and lacked direction. There was seldom any subtlety in this manner of writing and the whole style seemed a bit overblown and artificial. The results were that, at a certain point, he began to sense that he had exhausted the medium that he had chosen, which ultimately prompted his turn to fiction. The theory behind the writing of such essays was also very nearly the opposite of what we typically consider good essay writing today. Priestley held that essays were primarily to be used as vehicles for the author’s personality to show through, and do not necessarily have to be about any particular subject; fortunately, he didn’t always follow this paradigm. Later in his life Priestley would return to the essay, but these always seemed to have a sense of purpose and had greater depth than these early inconsequential essays. Nevertheless, the time that he spent writing these essays to please the public in his youth left its mark upon him, and he was to struggle for the rest of his life to throw off the “bad influence” of this early writing style, in much the same way that H.P. Lovecraft had to battle with hack writing infiltrating his style.

Since it was so difficult for a young playwright to get any plays produced, Priestley decided to create his own opportunity by founding his own production company, English Plays, Ltd., for his plays, and in 1938-39 he was director of the Mask Theatre in London. Priestley was married three times, the first time in 1919 with Emily Tempest, who died young in 1925, then Mary (‘Jane’) Wyndham Lewis, the former wife of the biographer and satirist ‘D.B. Wyndham Lewis’. In 1953 he married archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes, with whom he lived in Warwickshire in Kissing Tree House, situated near Stratford-upon-Avon, near William Shakespeare’s house.

During his long and productive career Priestley published over 120 books, usually light and optimistic in their tone. His prolific output continued over 60 years. From the age of 70 to 84 Priestley published 21 books. As an essayist he wrote for the “middle brow” audience, always making a special effort to ensure that his work was accessible to the common people and had relevance to them and their lives, many of the professional academics–he scornfully referred to them as “professors”–who delighted in abstract arguments that most people either could not understand or did not care to know, while being thoughtful enough to always be considered “real” literature. The topics and themes are numerous. In his pamphlet ‘Letter To A Returning Serviceman” (1945) Priestley shared the common sentiment that Britain was obliged to rebuild after the war along socialist lines, and in “The Nuclear Bombs” (1957) he argued for the moral superiority that unilateral nuclear disarmament would bring. In “Disturbing” (1967) he criticized contemporary playwrights for creating works that sought to “disturb” a reading public already disturbed by their own problems, and in “Particular Pleasures” (1975) he stated that works of art should meet some need, and not be evaluated on programmatic grounds. Priestley was a publisher’s dream come true and it can be truly said that William Heinemann, his primary British publisher, really struck a gold mine when he took a chance on Priestley, as no one could match him in his diversity and willingness to take on any sort of job–film scripts, essays, plays, opera librettos, verse, editing, introductions, commentaries, radio broadcasts, pamphlets, etc.; Priestley willingly (and successfully) did it all.

There were several subjects that the pipe-smoking Priestley felt drawn to repeatedly throughout his long career. Among these were the nature of the British character, the theatre and the nature of time. The metaphysical nature of time crops up in nearly all of Priestley’s work, from the light-hearted No School Report to his magnum opus, Man and Time, and nearly all of his plays involve various hypothetical situations that involve unusual perspectives on time. In “Man and Time” and “Over the Long, High Wall”, Priestley builds upon the theories of the engineer (not to be confused with 17th-century poet) John W. Dunne, the author of “An Experiment With Time”, “The Serial Universe” and “Nothing Dies”, among others. Priestley hypothesizes that time is somewhat more complicated than we have previously thought and that there is more than one dimension of time–just as there is more than a single dimension of space–which results in humans experiencing a different quality of time, and that we can experience each type of time at different parts in our lives. This led him to an investigation of Dunne’s theories of precognitive dreams (“memories of the future”), which Priestley had began experiencing some years back. In “The Magicians”, Priestley uses the time-recurrence theory of Ouspensky to hypothesize that although our time is all we have, we have it for an eternity and that we are capable of altering the outcome of our lives by learning and improving on our choices throughout each gyre (the cycle-of-time idea seems to suggest William Butler Yeats’ influence as well as Ouspensky’s).

The paradoxical nature of the British character also intrigued Priestley. The British people have unarguably the strongest literary tradition in the world–in the mass of the output as well as the quality of the material produced. Throughout the world, however, the British people have a tendency to be looked upon as dull, stuffy, unimaginative, unromantic and, in general, incredibly boring and uninteresting people. If this is a true estimation of the British, though, where did such wonderful literature and poetry come from? Priestley studied this inconsistency and eventually came up with a theory that he thought would explain this discrepancy. By the time the World War II came around, Priestly had become acutely aware of the way in which Britain was changing. He was saddened to realize that the world that he knew and cherished was rapidly vanishing. It was something more than an aging man’s nostalgia for the “good old days”, however. He noticed that the British were losing their essential “Englishness” slowly but surely, and they were losing their creativity as well–no one can deny that the centuries-old fount of poetic and literary creativity has been drying up since World War II. Priestley gained considerable fame as “the voice of the common people”, as he was often called, a patriotic radio broadcaster, second in popularity only to Winston Churchill. It must be said that Priestley’s patriotism was never at any time mere nationalism, but sprung from a genuine love of his homeland and not political power brokerage, like so many social commentators do today.

At the early stage of the Cold War he become known during for his support for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and in 1946-47 he was a UK delegate to UNESCO conferences. In the late 1930s he turned his attention to the theatre; his fascination with the theatre in his professional life paralleled his personal interest in dreams. He seems to have regarded the atmosphere of the theatre as very similar in nature to that of dreams; he was to use this similarity to great effect in most of his plays. The most famous of his plays took advantage of the dream-like atmosphere to present his theories about time. The most famous of these was “Johnson Over Jordan”, a play that used Ouspensky’s idea about temporal recurrence with variations. In “A Dangerous Corner”–a play that he referred to as “a box of tricks”–Priestley uses the idea of a “split” in time; the action of the play occurs once but at a critical moment in the plays development, the play begins again without the random comment that causes the conflict of the drama to take place, allowing us to consider the alternatives to every present state that depend on random choices. “Time and the Conways” uses the idea that time is not merely a series of “nows”, but that the it is actually an illusion in the way that we perceive reality–that there are other types of time rather than the sequential time with which we are more familiar, which he refers to as “Consensus-Time”, which seems to parallel mathematician Rudy Rucker’s views as described in his “Geometry, Relativity, and the Fourth Dimension”. This interest in the metaphysics of time would last for the rest of Priestley’s life. As he got older he became more seriously interested in social and political problems in England, and he turned his attention to these. At this stage his writing had fully matured, and whenever he penned anything, everyone could easily recognize him as a man with something to say and who said it well enough to command the attention of even a notoriously complacent populous. As a consequence, when Priestley wrote anything in his later years, it seemed as though he had the ability to see much deeper than most of his contemporaries and by this time, he had developed into a “sage”, a man who seemed to possess a wisdom and clarity of insight which has made his work timeless, although currently out of fashion among the sensation-seeking consumers and producers of modern “literature”. He was offered a knighthood and a peerage as a token of his homeland’s esteem for his work, both of which he refused, but he did accept the Order of Merit in 1977.

He died in August 14, 1984, at the age of 89 and is buried at Hubberholme.

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