The New Statesman has a feature article this week promoting a revival of novelist and playwright J B Priestley. This is by Michael Henderson who writes that Priestley has fallen out of fashion along with such other formerly popular writers as Kingsley Amis, Iris Murdoch and D H Lawrence:
[…. ] Acclaimed for most of his life as a writer of hugely popular books and plays, which became part of the national imagination, [Priestley] is now best known for that dramatic pot-boiler, An Inspector Calls (1945) and as a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (launched after Priestley wrote an article in this magazine).
To a modern readership his novels are – if they are considered at all – period pieces. Even The Good Companions, his breakout hit of 1929, adapted many times for stage and screen, has fallen by the wayside. There are writers of the recent past who are not particularly well-read, but who are nevertheless well-considered: Patrick Hamilton, for example. Priestley is neither well-read nor fashionable. For many readers, who would consider themselves well-informed, he never existed. In truth, he was never fashionable. […] The Good Companions […] is a rollicking adventure that grips the reader throughout its 600 pages. Thanks to Great Northern Books, which has republished this neglected masterpiece, along with Angel Pavement, Bright Day and Lost Empires, a new generation of readers may acquaint themselves with the qualities that made Priestley so popular.
Evelyn Waugh was ambivalent about Priestley’s work. In 1930 he wrote a review in the Graphic of the newly published Angel Pavement in which he praised that novel and was even more favorable to its popular predecessor The Good Companions (“outstanding qualities of technical precision and felicity […] a book of high literary excellence whose appeal was to a far wider public than that which concerns itself solely with literary qualities”). The praise for Angel Pavement was fainter (“the first two pages of the prologue seem to me to be really fine prose; the conversations and the management of the various gradations of the idiom are incredibly accomplished”) but not to the point of damnation (EAR, p. 91). Some of this might be blurb material for the new editions. In 1939 Waugh reviewed in The Spectator (1 September 1939, p. 331) a volume of Priestley’s autobiography Rain Upon Godshill (“not a very good book […] acrimonious, loosely built, trivial, selfish and totally charmless […] nearly as good a novelist as Arnold Bennett […] but cannot fall far short of that standard and remain respectable.”)
After the war Waugh filed a rejoinder to Priestley’s criticism in the New Statesman of Waugh’s novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Priestley attacked the book not in a review but in a political essay (“What Was Wrong with Pinfold?”, reprinted in CH p. 387). Waugh’s counter in The Spectator was entitled “Anything Wrong with Priestley?” By the 1950s Priestley’s reputation and popularity had already begun to fall, and Waugh gave them a further nudge. He claimed that what Priestley found offensive in Pinfold is Pinfold’s (and Waugh’s own) attempt to try to combine two incompatible roles, those of the artist and the Catholic country gentleman.” He attributes Priestley’s grumpiness to his inability to understand or depict in his books the upper classes and “some sharp disappointments in the last twelve years” (EAR, p. 527). According to Donat Gallagher’s note, The Times in an editorial deplored the row between the two novelists (“Tweedledum and Tweedledee”, 14 September 1957, p. 7).
Pingback: Compton Mackenzie Reconsidered | The Evelyn Waugh Society