J B Priestley

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!

32 Comments

  1. Lesley says:

    The Good Companions is a great favourite of mine although I read it many years ago. Perhaps time to re read! I believe there is a black and white film of it too.

    1. Book Snob says:

      I would love to watch a film of it! I’ll have a look and see if I can find it somewhere online. Thank you for the tip!

      1. Lesley says:

        I’ve discovered that the film was made in 1933 with John Geilgud and Jessie Matthews. I saw it three or for years ago and it was probably on the Talking Pictures channel. I do remember clearly that it was great fun!

  2. Linda says:

    The Good Companions was one of the set books when I took English O Level in 1967.
    It was considered an old fashioned read back then but I remember enjoying it.
    I shall look out for Festival at Farbridge as I haven’t heard of that one.
    I did read Angel Pavement May years ago, try that one.

    1. Book Snob says:

      I love that it used to be on a school curriculum – you’d never get something so ‘populist’ these days!
      Yes I’d like to try Angel Pavement – I’m watching out for it in second hand book shops!

      1. Linda Smith says:

        Have you come across ‘Delight’ by J B Priestly, a book of his short essays.
        First published in 1949, there was a special anniversary edition published in 2009 by Great Northern Books,
        ISBN 978 1905 080 67 0
        It’s a lovely little edition.

  3. whatmeread says:

    Gosh, what a recommendation. I have never read a single thing by Priestley. I will be on the lookout for this book.

    1. Book Snob says:

      I really hope you’ll enjoy him when you find something by him to try!

  4. Such a lovely post! I’ve only read some of his non-fiction, which is wonderful, but I’m now emboldened to explore his fiction!

    1. Book Snob says:

      Thank you 🙂 I really hope you’ll enjoy him as much as I do. Reading a book by him is like curling up with a blanket and a hot chocolate on a cold day!

  5. Thank you for your lovely post. I’m not sure “lovely” is the correct word when referring to a post but that was the word that came to me. Your enthusiasm for the books and the narrative you describe sounds lovely (perfect for my reading muscle). After tapping out my comment I’m off to get the Books. Best wishes!

    1. Book Snob says:

      Thanks so much Diane.- what a kind and indeed lovely comment! I hope you’ll enjoy the books 🙂

  6. Phyllis Jones says:

    Lost Empires, book and mini-series on PBS, loved bot back in the day.

    1. Book Snob says:

      I’ll check those out – thanks Phyllis!

  7. Phyllis Jones says:

    Loved *both*

  8. Mo Thornton says:

    I thought you might be interested in this little snippet related to J B Priestley. I was born and raised in a rather isolated village in North Yorkshire – not too far from Skipton. In the third year at primary school ( I would be maybe 7 years old) the teacher was a lady called Mrs Scott who happened to be the sister of Priestley. She looked just like him!!

    1. Book Snob says:

      Mo that’s incredible! What a connection! And what a small world it is…

  9. april babbitt says:

    For U.S. readers, Festival at Farbridge was published as just “Fesival”. To my amazement I could find zero listings under author name J.B. Priestley in my Massachusetts library system. What is the world coming to!

    1. Jennifer says:

      Thank you for posting this tip! I hadn’t been able to find it in my library system but, thanks to you, I now have a copy coming my way.

    2. Book Snob says:

      Thanks for the tip April – and Jennifer, hope you enjoy the book!

  10. Mary says:

    It’s for posts like this that we missed you, Rachel! What a fabulous Penguin jacket.

    1. Book Snob says:

      Thanks Mary! It’s good to be back 🙂

  11. It is grand to read your work again; I have missed you. There is someone you should know, if you don’t already: Rebeka Russell, publisher of Manderley Press. She is the genuine article and I think you will like her. I was talking to her this morning about the Wallace Collection and it made me remember the time we met for tea.
    Best,
    Charles

    1. Book Snob says:

      Thank you Charles! What a lovely afternoon that was so many years ago now! Oh I’ve seen those Manderley Press books – I will have to get in touch. Thank you 🙂

  12. gina in alabama says:

    I read The Good Companions immediately after you spoke of it on Tea or Books, I loved it! I have Lost Empires coming and Angel pavement is waiting too.

    1. Book Snob says:

      I’m so glad Gina! Let me know what you think of the other two – I don’t have those ones but would be keen to try them!

  13. Aileen says:

    Years ago I picked The Good Companions at random from the library because I liked the title. It was my first summer living in Virginia, after having spent my life in a much colder climate. I was so hot and unhappy, but I still remember how much I loved reading The Good Companions in bed each night as a way to unwind from each miserable day. I’m going to add Festival at Farbridge to my reading list.

    1. Book Snob says:

      It’s so wonderful how a book can just totally lift your spirits and be a source of support at a tough time – I’m so glad The Good Companions got you through. And I hope you’ll really enjoy Festival at Farbridge!

  14. Sue Donnelly says:

    A friend gave me a pile of Priestley books when I was convalescing from pneumonia many years ago – they were perfect. Absorbing characters and wonderful sense of time and place. Angel Pavement is a good read.

  15. Andrea says:

    I can’t wait to read these now, and I’m so thrilled that you’re back blogging! I’m a new fan of Tea or Books and just love it. Have read quite a few posts from your archives and am so glad there will be more posts now.

    I feel like I should return the favor of so many excellent book recommendations, and ask you whether you’ve read A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel? For several reasons, I think you might like it even more than the Wolf Hall trilogy! Another author I wondered if you and/or Simon were familiar with, is Wendell Berry. To me, he is the American writer writing today who shares the most in common with the amazing Marilynne Robinson. If you haven’t read him, you might love the short novel Hannah Coulter, or his short stories: four of them collected in the short book Fidelity, or all of them collected in That Distant Land.

    Thank you for all the bookish joy your blog and podcast have brought me! 🙂

  16. Liz says:

    Sorry to be late with reply – but I’d recommend his book Delight about small pleasures. Everyone I’ve given it to lives it.

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