Thursday, March 11, 2010

J. B. Priestley and the Critics

I've always meant to read J. B. Priestley, despite the condescension of critics which has somehow floated into my consciousness. I mean, why should I pay attention to critics? Some admittedly have taste and incredible integrity, while others are book whores writing flattering gibberish or trashing the powerless, but I can't tell one from the other without first buying a hundred bad books. So these days I try to block them out, with the exception of a few tried-and-true bibliophiles like Michael Dirda of The Washington Post. If I don't, I end up with piles of stuff like Kit Whitfield's In the Waters, which is well-written but isn't my thing, and if I had had any sense I would have figured that out from the review. Caveat emptor! Silly goose! Caveat lector quoque!

An uncritical life would doubtless work out very well. Think of all the unfashionable Viragos, Persephones, Capuchin Classics, Pamela Hansford Johnson, and Rumer Godden I've discovered at random. Priestley is among them. He was very popular in his day, like Maugham, of whom he very much reminds me, and H. E. Bates, another underestimated writer. Perhaps you've heard of Priestley's best-seller, The Good Companions, which won the James Tait Memorial Prize in 1929, or Angel Pavement, another of his smash-hit famous novels. He wrote enough novels, essays, plays, and memoirs to challenge the flowing pens of Trollope and Mrs. Oliphant (though he wrote in another era, of course).

Now Priestley is out-of-print in the U.S. The other day on the porch I dug up an old copy of Lost Empires, a lively novel about a young artist's experiences in his uncle's magic act in music halls before World War I. This was made into a Masterpiece Theater production in the 1980s, I learned from the photo caption on the back. Colin Firth was in it!

In the "Prologue by J.B.P," Priestley spins a frame-construction yarn about going painting on holiday and visiting a watercolor artist, Richard Herncastle, whom he'd known years ago. Herncastle, who is now too old and shaky to paint, has been writing his memoirs about his theatrical youth, and gives them to Priestley for revision. In Chapter 1 we commence reading Herncastle's story, narrated in the first person. This is so fast-paced, so well written, and so much fun that I am galloping through it. I hate magic acts, so I had some reservations, but the novel focuses on the relationships between actors on the road and the work of the theater rather than the technical tricks of the magic trade (though some of that is fascinating, too).

Richard has been saved from a dull clerical life by his Uncle Nick's offer of a stage management job, which takes him on a rollicking ride through the provinces of England. The gloomy, champagne-swilling, star magician Nick travels with an ensemble of lackeys, including his slavish assistant and lover, Cissie, two carpenter/engineers, and a drunken dwarf. Richard loves the job, because he can paint during the day, though there are trying weekends of traveling from town to town on bumpy trains, hustling all the stage paraphernalia into the theater, and negotiations with the bands about music. Richard's interactions with the other actors who share the bill with Uncle Nick, dancers, jugglers, and comedians, hone his powers of observation.

I love the slightly whiny Cissy, who has to watch what she eats, at least in front of short-tempered Nick, because she has to vanish during the act by dropping from a box into a thin pedestal which no one believes she can fit into. Nick bitches whenever she puts on an ounce! Then there's Julie Blane, the excellent West End actress who has come down in the world because of drink. I'm up to a quite exciting chapter where a suffragette's husband hires Nick to plot the disappearance of his wife, wanted by the police, from a political meeting, so she isn't dragged off to prison for more force feeding.

This is so much fun to read. Very Maugham-ish. I don't know about you, but I can read Maugham almost indefinitely. I have a feeling I'm going down the same road with Priestley.


Buried In Print said...

What didn't work for you with the Whitfield novel? I thought her first, Benighted, was really interesting from a social perspective, the commentary of questions of marginalization and power interwoven into what, otherwise, might have been lost in the sea of plot-focussed "books about werewolves". Oh, perhaps it's vampire books that have a sea: maybe werewolf books have an inland lake?

Frisbee said...

It's very well-written and depicts a believable world of a royal court in an alternative history of Venice, ruled by inbred mermaid/human beings. A halfbreed child is being trained in England to take over because people are discontent, so there's plenty of intrigue. But the prose has a static feeling, suited to the slow life at court, and the sea creatures are perhaps too grotesque for me. The reviewer was so enthusiastic that I just thought, "Oh, mermaids!" and bought the book. So I was looking for a mermaid book and bought a historical novel with sea creatures, if you see what I mean.

Buried In Print said...

Ah, I see. I think Benighted could have disappointed some folks depending on how it was described as well: it's very long (compared to a lot of genre fiction) and, although quite exciting in parts, it's character-driven and the social commentary is (for me, anyway) even more intriguing than the plot itself (although, yes, I did still want to know "what happened"). I'll still seek out her second but will take care not to expect a mermaid story. ::grin:: Thanks for explaining.

Frisbee said...

You'll probably like it. It's really a literary historical novel, though the history is made up, and I hate historical novels! I felt that I was reading a poetic Philippa Gregory! (Historical novels bore me to death. No matter how many awards Hilary Mantel wins, I am never reading Wolf Hall.)

But actually I might like the werewolf novel!

Danielle said...

Although I respect critics and like to read what they think after the fact, I try and rely on what appeals to me when choosing books. It can be hit or miss, though, but sometimes I find real gems. I've heard of J.B. Priestley, but am totally unfamiliar with his work, but considering when he was writing I might just like his books. By the way I am finally finishing up the first of the Forsyte Saga books and loved it!

Frisbee said...

It is much better to read the reviews later. Reviewers do have a tough job: in this day and age, newspapers can't waste much space on bad reviews. Therefore everything tends to be a lot more positive than it used to be. They're still quite snarky in the UK though!