J.B.Priestley was born John Priestley on September 13th 1894 in the West Riding of Yorkshire, the son of a schoolmaster. His mother died when he was very young, and he was brought up by his stepmother.After leaving Belle Vue School when he was 16, he worked in a wool office. But, already determined to become a writer, he spent his hard earned money on buying books, and used his spare time trying different kinds of writing, including a regular unpaid column in a local periodical, the Bradford Pioneer. Samples of his early writing are kept in the Archive at the Special Collections of the J.B.Priestley Library at the University of Bradford. His first piece of professional writing was an article “Secrets of the Rag-Time King” which appeared in London Opinion on Dec 14th 1912.
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He volunteered for the army in September 1914 and served for five years in England and France.The only time he wrote about his experiences during the First World War was in MARGIN RELEASED, but some of his letters home from the army survive in the Archive, and these were amalgamated with extracts from the book in PRIESTLEY’S WARS, published by Great Northern Books in 2008. Apart from those letters, the only other writing from that period were some poems which he published privately, entitled THE CHAPMAN OF RHYMES, to ensure some writing would survive should he be killed in the trenches; he destroyed most copies when he returned home. He was invited to write a series of articles for the Yorkshire Observer, before going up to Trinity Hall Cambridge; ending the war as an officer, he qualified for a grant to go to university. He never lived permanently in Bradford again, though a frequent visitor.
He graduated in two years, but stayed on for the required third year, married his Bradford sweetheart and continued writing short pieces for local periodicals. These were collected in his first professional book, BRIEF DIVERSIONS, which was well noticed by London reviewers.
He established himself in London as a freelance writer with mainly literary work, writing essays, reviews
, biographies, as well as reading for John Lane, the publisher. It was a period of great activity with book after book appearing, punctuated by the terminal illness of his wife, the death of his father, and his second marriage. He moved from non-fiction to fiction, and achieved remarkable success with his fourth novel, THE GOOD COMPANIONS, and the following novel, the very different ANGEL PAVEMENT.
This success allowed him to branch out into the riskier world of theatre. He had already collaborated in the theatrical version of THE GOOD COMPANIONS, but truly entered the theatre in his own right with his first solo play, DANGEROUS CORNER, in 1932. After a shaky start it has proved permanently popular. No sooner had he entered the theatre, and he felt to the end of his life that he was better equipped as a dramatist than a novelist, than he branched out in a totally new direction. He was invited by Victor Gollancz to undertake a journey round the country to experience at first hand the life of people in the industrial areas and the plight of the unemployed in the recession; but the journey he made in 1933 included much more than that, opening out into an examination of England and the English, praising as well as blaming where necessary.
ENGLISH JOURNEY was an exceptional success for a work of non-fiction, republished in a fine illustrated edition in 2009. It established his reputation as a social commentator, a role he continued to enjoy throughout the rest of his writing life. But being a man of considerable energy, sitting at his typewriter day after day, letting the words pour out, he continued writing novels and plays, as well as numerous articles and reviews.
In the theatre he was best known for his ‘Time Plays’ – experiment disguised as convention – DANGEROUS CORNER, TIME & THE CONWAYS and I HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE, but also his uproarious Yorkshire farce, WHEN WE ARE MARRIED. More openly experimental were MUSIC AT NIGHT and JOHNSON OVER JORDAN. During the 1930s he was partner in a production company, putting on most of his plays, from EDEN END on. It was an incredibly busy time, with plays to develop, books to publish, film scripts to write, and the endless sequence of articles looking forward to the oncoming war. Two notable books were his so-called ‘Chapters of Autobiography’ – MIDNIGHT ON THE DESERT and RAIN UPON GODSHILL – reflections on his activities and the times he was living in, with especial reference to America. He had been visiting the USA since the early 30s and the whole family had spent two winters in Arizona, while he picked up work from Hollywood.
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Once the war began in 1939, he established yet another branch of his career, this time as a broadcaster. He referred to this as his contribution to the war effort, and his wartime writing and speaking focussed largely on the need to sustain morale while beginning to plan for a better life post-war. His ‘Postscripts’, short talks which followed the evening news, were immensely popular, though not appreciated by those on the Right. The text of the Postscripts appears in its entirety in PRIESTLEY’S WARS. He also broadcast regularly to the USA and the Commonwealth countries. But he continued writing novels and plays, some with the background of the war such as BLACKOUT IN GRETLEY and DAYLIGHT ON SATURDAY, and the plays HOW ARE THEY AT HOME and DESERT HIGHWAY, written specially for the Army. Towards the end of the war he put his hopes for a better future into his play THEY CAME TO A CITY, and his belief in society in AN INSPECTOR CALLS. There was no theatre available in London at that time, so he allowed the latter to open in Russia, and was invited there for an extraordinary seven week tour immediately after the war ended in the autumn of 1945. He wrote about his experiences in articles in the Daily Express, later published in pamphlet form as RUSSIAN JOURNEY.
In the 1950s he wrote with Jacquetta Hawkes a striking book about their combined trip to the USA; JOURNEY DOWN A RAINBOW. Unexpectedly he stood as an Independent in the 1945 General Election, and perhaps luckily failed to be elected. Though never a member of the Labour Party, he supported many of their policies and was encouraged by their landslide victory. His next foray into the political world came when an article he had written in the New Statesman attacking the folly of nuclear weapons led to the founding of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), and he travelled the country speaking at numerous meetings. But he maintained the other strands of his career with his usual energy, producing one of his finest plays, THE LINDEN TREE, which had the best first London run of any of his plays, and arguably his best novel, BRIGHT DAY, recently republished as the first in a series of handsome new editions.
He was influential in the establishment of the Arts Council, and lectured on the need for a properly organised Theatre. He was a UK Delegate to UNESCO, where he met his third wife, Jacquetta Hawkes, and presided over an International Theatre Conference. In the meantime he found time to write the charming DELIGHT, a series of short essays about all the things which he enjoyed; he was dissatisfied with the austerity and grimness of the post-war period, but celebrated the 1951 Festival of Britain with his comic novel FESTIVAL AT FARBRIDGE.
A much more serious novel was LOST EMPIRES, to be followed later by one of his favourites THE IMAGE MEN. In his later writing life he did write several lighter novels, comedies like LOW NOTES ON A HIGH LEVEL and detective stories like SALT IS LEAVING, written for his own enjoyment as well as the readers’. His two last significant plays were THE GLASS CAGE, written for a company in Canada, which was long forgotten till successfully revived in Northampton England and the Mint Theatre, NY, and his adaptation of Iris Murdoch’s novel A SEVERED HEAD, which had a good run in London. He returned to non-fiction with his brief memoirs MARGIN RELEASED, and his masterly conclusion to a lifetime’s reading, LITERATURE & WESTERN MAN; he then wrote three social histories THE PRINCE OF PLEASURE, VICTORIA’S HEYDAY and THE EDWARDIANS, as well as a summing up of his interest in Time, MAN AND TIME. His last works were a final chapter of autobiography, INSTEAD OF THE TREES, and a nice collection of short pieces, OUTCRIES AND ASIDES.
He rejected the offer of both a knighthood and a peerage, but gladly accepted the Order of Merit, the Queen’s own gift with no political connections.
After a remarkably productive lifetime, spanning most of the 20th century, the Grand Old Man of English letters, J.B.Priestley OM, died on August 14th 1984. His ashes are buried at the charming old church at Hubberholme in the Yorkshire Dales. But not forgotten, his plays are performed all over the world, spurred on by Stephen Daldrey’s triumphant and imaginative production of AN INSPECTOR CALLS, and his books are gradually being reprinted and revived by Great Northern Books amongst others . There is an active J.B.Priestley Society.