I always thought of J. B. Priestley, if I’ve ever really given him all that much thought, as a playwright more than a novelist. And as a playwright other than When We Are Married and An Inspector Calls I have never seen or read any of his plays except as titles in articles and theatre histories. Well that has all changed in this past week. A chance posting on a Broadway Musical page I belong to led me to pick up a copy of The Good Companions, Priestley’s first successful novel …. and I’ve been hard pressed to put it down.
As both a dramatist and novelist Priestley fell out of favour in the late 1950s as being too middle-class in his views and characters; a rather strange development given his leftist-leanings and his work in championing the Welfare State. As often happens he has recently been “rehabilitated”, and the social and political nature of his work has been reassessed.
When it was first published in 1929 The Good Companions was a great success and ensured Priestley financial stability. But if it was popular with the reading, and buying, public there were critics who took him to task for the picture he painted of England between the Wars. What they failed to see was that his story was a perfect metaphor for a country in the midst of a cultural and social change. But lest I make it sound like a boring social treatise I can assure it is no such thing: it is primarily an odyssey of three charming and loveable people, who should never have met but do. They leave their mundane lives behind and head out into the big wide world beyond their tiny corners of England.
It’s filled with some of the more memorable characters in 20th century English literature. Priestley’s eye for people and his ear for language is remarkable. He brings Jess Oakroyd (an older Yorkshire factory worker), Inigo Jollifant (a young schoolteacher from the Fen country), Miss Trant (a middle-aged lady of means from the West Countries), the down-and-out Pierrot troupe they join, the people they meet and the word they inhabit, lovingly and vividly to life.
Take the following passage:
Inigo Jollifant has been offered a ride by E. P. Timpany (many of Priestley’s character’s names border on the Dickensian) a leading light in the Second Resurrectionist movement. The kindly but fervent gentleman takes him to Oxwell where the faithful are holding one of their “special gatherings”. And what a gathering! But before the matter of Doomsday and the not too distant Second Coming can be debated and discussed and doubters debunked the followers must be fed. And, much to Inigo’s dismay, fed they are.
It may have been a splendid gathering but it was certainly a very odd meal. Inigo remembered other high teas but none higher than this. The forms were a solid mass of eaters and drinkers, and the tables were a solid mass of food. There were hams and tongues and rounds of cold beef and raised pies and egg salads; plates heaped high with white bread, brown bread, currant teacakes, scones; dishes of jelly and custard and blancmange and fruit salad; piles of jam tarts and maids of honour and cream puffs and almond tarts; then walnut cake, plum cake, chocolate cake, coconut cake; mounds of sugar, quarts of cream, and a steady flood of tea. Inigo never remembered seeing so much food before. It was like being asked to eat one’s way through the Provision and Cooked Food departments of one of the big stores. The appetite was not tickled, not even met fairly; it was overwhelmed. The sight of these tables drove hunger out of the world, made it impossible to imagine it had ever been there. Inigo ate this and that, but he hardly knew what he was eating, he was so warm, so tightly wedged in, so amazed at the spectacle. The Second Resurrectionists were worthy of the colossal meal spread before them. This highest of high teas had met its match. If they had all been forty years in the wilderness, they could not have dealt with it more manfully. They were not your gabbling, laughing eaters; they did not make a first rush and then suddenly lose heart; they did not try this and taste that. No, they were quiet, systematic, devastating; they advanced steadily in good order from the first slice of ham to the last slice of chocolate cake; and in fifty minutes the tables were a mere ruin of broken meats, the flood of tea a pale and tepid trickle.
The Good Companions
Book 1 Chapter 6
Inigo Meets a Member of the Profession and Turns Pianist
Given the nature of the plot and its colourful cast of characters I can understand why it has been filmed twice and been adapted for the stage as a play and several times as a musical. The first film version in 1933 starred a young John Gielgud with Jessie Matthews and Edmund Gwenn while the 1974 West End Musical starred John Mills and a young Judi Dench. It was talk about that musical that led me to start reading Priestley’s delightful tale of the Dinky Doos and the people who come upon them and how they become The Good Companions.
It’s a long novel and I’ve just finished Book One and now I’m about to start the next set of adventures of Oakroyd, Jollifant and Miss Trant as they join the theatricals.
On this day in 1535: Jacques Cartier reaches the area where Montreal is now located.