The novelist, playwright and broadcaster, John Boynton ‘J B’ Priestley, was born in Yorkshire in 1894. At the age of 16 he took a job as a junior clerk at a local wool firm and started writing at night.
Wartime experiences and Priestley’s early career
During the First World War, Priestley was posted to France and was badly wounded. After the war he rarely spoke of these experiences. When he returned to Britain, he attended Cambridge University and started to write again, mainly short pieces for local periodicals, before embarking on a career as a freelance writer in London. By the age of 30 he was well established as an essayist, critic and a novelist. His biggest success as a novelist was 1929’s The Good Companions.
Priestley’s first wife, Emily ‘Pat’ Tempest, died in 1925, and in 1926 he married Jane Wyndham-Lewis. In 1953 they divorced, and he later married the archaeologist and writer Jacquetta Hawkes, his collaborator on the play Dragon's Mouth (1952).
Writing for the stage and the 1930s
In the 1930s Priestley turned his attention to the stage. Having adapted The Good Companions, he wrote his first play, Dangerous Corner, in 1932. Though Priestley’s plays became synonymous with mid-20th-century ‘drawing room’ theatre, he often experimented with narrative structure and was fascinated with theories of time, particularly the work of J W Dunne. His ‘Time Plays’ include Time and the Conways (1937) and I Have Been Here Before (1937), as well as An Inspector Calls (1945).
In 1933 he travelled around the country at the behest of publisher Victor Gollancz, and produced the non-fiction book English Journey about his experiences. It includes Priestley’s observations about English life and the state of the nation.
Second World War, An Inspector Calls and later life
During the Second World War Priestley was a regular and influential broadcaster on the BBC. His Postscripts began in June 1940 in the aftermath of the Dunkirk evacuation, and continued throughout that year. They were popular with the public, but Priestley’s strong socialist beliefs did not go down well with some politicians and commentators. The broadcasts were eventually cancelled.
An Inspector Calls, his best-known and most-performed play, was written at the end of the Second World War. As there was no theatre available in London at that time, it premiered in Russia before opening in London in 1946. Ralph Richardson played Inspector Goole, the stranger who visits the affluent Birling family and confronts them with their complicity in the suicide of a young woman. It has been revived a number of times, most famously by Stephen Daldry in a 1992 production for the National Theatre. Following Daldry’s revival, there was something of a reassessment of Priestley’s legacy as a dramatist, and revivals of less well-known plays followed.
Priestley also stood – unsuccessfully – as an independent candidate in the 1945 general election, and was instrumental in the founding of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
Priestley was a prolific and industrious writer. He published 39 plays and 26 novels as well as volumes of essays and criticism, and continued to write into old age. He died on 14 August 1984.
Further information about the life of J P Priestley can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.