Nowadays J B Priestley’s literary legacy largely rests on his play An Inspector Calls. A perennial favourite in the UK, it’s on the school curriculum and frequently revived. While it’s certainly not subtle, it’s very entertaining with a brilliant final twist that never fails to send shock waves through a classroom (I used to love teaching it, waiting for the penny to drop on the kids’ faces as they realised what had just happened). Priestley was a prolific dramatist, and though some of his plays are definitely what I would classify as period pieces that don’t have a huge amount to offer to audiences today, there are several that have stood the test of time and demonstrate Priestley’s passionate belief in socialism and the importance of community.
I hadn’t really registered that Priestley was also a novelist until a couple of years ago, when I picked up Festival at Farbridge in a second hand book shop, mainly for its gorgeous dust jacket rather than its content, I must confess. It took me a while to get to it, but when I did, I was surprised by how utterly immersed I became in its world of small town politics. Set at the time of the Festival of Britain in 1951, a nationwide attempt to raise the spirits of a beleaguered post-war nation, it tells the story of a group of disparate people, all down on their luck in some way, who get involved in the organisation of a Festival event in the small Midlands town of Farbridge. Through many trials and tribulations, personal and political, this motley crew of men and women, young and old, successfully pull off their own Festival, transforming not only the town, but themselves in the process.
Priestley’s message, as in An Inspector Calls, might not be subtle, and there may be plenty of sentiment, but his ability to bring characters to life is extraordinary, weaving a rich tapestry of living and breathing individuals whom a reader cannot help but fall in love with. His postwar world of smoky pubs, dilapidated Victorian boarding houses, dingy offices filled with clacking typewriters and steamy tea rooms is rich with period detail, and yet the humanity of his characters feels as fresh, real and relatable as the day they were written. Festival at Farbridge is an absolute joy of a novel, and despite being a little baggy around the edges, with plenty of extraneous detail, I loved every minute. They just don’t write them like this anymore.
A few weeks ago, I took myself off on my first ever solo holiday, to a little cabin in a fern filled valley by the sea in North Devon. I wanted isolation and relaxation, and I got both in abundance. I took a selection of long books with me that I knew I would never read if I were at home and surrounded by the endless distractions of my day to day life, and amongst them was Priestley’s The Good Companions, his most celebrated book during his lifetime. I bought this copy – a lovely old 1960s Penguin papberback – because a previous owner had written ‘heavenly’ in capital letters across the back of the book, and I thought there could be no better recommendation than that. I am pleased to report that this person was absolutely right in their choice of adjective, and I was similarly transported to celestial plains while reading it. It just so happened to be one of those brilliantly serendipitous reading moments when a book falls into your hands at exactly the right moment you need it. As I was sitting by the sea, contemplating making a big change in my life, feeling at a crossroads, not sure where to turn, and thinking about whether working in a theatre would be the right path for me, here came, as in Festival at Farbridge, a motley crew of people, all at a crossroads in life, looking for change, not knowing where to turn, and finding themselves joining forces with a travelling theatre. The Book Gods certainly knew what they were doing when they prompted me to take The Good Companions on holiday!
I honestly don’t have enough superlatives to describe how much I absolutely loved this book. When I finished, I felt bereft. Everything that I loved in Festival at Farbridge was here, yet even better – the structure is very similar in using alternating chapters to give each of the main characters’ perspectives, but it being an earlier book – written in the mid twenties – gives it a greater sense of hopefulness and joy in its tone. Nowhere but in a novel by Priestley could Jess Oakroyd, a factory worker from a grim Northern town in late middle age, dissatisfied in his work and his marriage, Elizabeth Trant, a thirty something well to do spinster recently liberated from life long caring duties upon her fathers’ death, and Inigo Jollifant, a mediocre public school teacher fresh out of university with a hidden genius at the piano, cross paths on the same day that they all decide to chuck in their lives and go on the road. Also, nowhere but in a J B Priestley novel could they all end up in the same café as a travelling theatre troupe whose manager has just run away with their main attraction, leaving them rudderless and in debt. The three wandering travellers naturally decide to join forces with the troupe and give the theatrical life a go, with Elizabeth using the inheritance money she has just had land in her lap to revive their fortunes, and Inigo using his skills at the piano to make them a roaring success. As they travel around the country, they have enormous highs and crashing lows, and gradually all of their priorities change and their time together will come to an end, but not without all being transformed and finding the confidence to seek the lives they truly want.
As with Festival at Farbridge, each character is exquisitely drawn, and despite plenty of meandering around the main story, none of it feels superfluous, because this world is such a wonderful place in which to dwell. I could have kept reading this book forever, so delighted was I by every word. I think what I love the most about Priestley’s writing is how strongly his love for humanity and its potentialities comes through his words; his vision of how people can be enabled to be their best selves when they feel they are a productive part of a community is so powerful and still so true. All of the characters only truly blossom when they feel purposeful to others – when they feel that they belong to something bigger than themselves. In a world of increasing insularity and division, I really do think a dose of Priestley is what we all need to remind us of what really matters.
Thankfully there is a small press that has kept Priestley in print, and most of his novels are available on kindle if they’re not in paperback. In the UK at least, his novels are very easy to find in charity and second hand book shops, too, so there’s no excuse not to give him a go. If you have any recommendations of what I should read next from Priestley’s backlist, please do let me know!