The Vision of J.B. Priestley
London : Continuum, (Hardcover) 2012
Paperback reissue, 2013. vi +168p. 978-1472514554. £24.99
Reviewed by Cécile Vallée
Université de Rouen
Given the number of biographies and critical surveys of J.B Priestley, his life and his work, did one really need another one? “Yes”, according to American academic Roger Fagge, who, while acknowledging former biographies as well as literary and critical studies in the introduction of his book entitled The Vision of J.B Priestley, reckons that "most [...] have taken a conventional narrative line about Priestley's life".
In The Vision of J.B Priestley, Fagge's purpose is to "build on [the] renewed interest in Priestley" and to provide "an original intellectual biography, which argues that his views were perceptive and important, as well as sometimes idiosyncratic". He means to "explore his formulation of a radical Englishness and his preference for popular rather than class politics". Thirdly—and more originally, one may add—the book "sees Priestley as more than an English writer". Arguing that Priestley's "experience of the United States shaped his thinking about the emerging mass society and post-war politics", Fagge is convinced that "Priestley should be seen as a major thinker in the Anglo-American context".
The author begins with a quick history of Priestley's life and work. Starting with the usual reminders: the unfair designation of Priestley as a “middlebrow” who never received the attention he deserved and was not seen as a particularly significant thinker; his Bradford upbringing and experiences of WW1 as the defining factors of his personality; his work and views representing a nostalgic and “ossified rural Englishness”. Fagge then proceeds to acknowledge the recent reassessments of Priestley's importance, paying particular tribute to John Baxendale in this respect.
The central objective of The Vision of J.B Priestley is to "explore Priestley's social and political views, his relationship with politics, the Mass society and America". The book is divided into six chapters, which indeed gradually immerse the reader into “Priestley's vision” both thematically and chronologically, from the late 1920s to the late 1970s—a difficult thing to do, especially with such a prolific and eclectic writerand thinker as J.B Priestley.
The first chapter concentrates on Priestley's relationship with politics and class in the inter-war years. Making regular reference to Priestley's writings, starting with the remarkable success of The Good Companions in 1929, Roger Fagge proceeds to show how Priestley, then seen as a popular, middlebrow writer, “began to gradually exhibit a stronger line on social and political issues”. Showing the particular influence of his Yorkshire origins, Fagge demonstrates how the 1930s, characterised by the hardship of working-class life, shaped Priestley's work and political thought, highlighting his “ethical socialism” inherited from the Bradford Socialists of his youth tinged by Priestley's “own experiences and character”, which made him suspicious of State interference, passionate as he was about the value of “community” and most of all about the freedom of individual human beings in a civilised society. Fagge demonstrates how Priestley's liberal Socialism─he had "little time for communism", disliked references to "the masses" and was suspicious of "the language of class"─ developed from his upbringing and shows in his writing. Pointing the apparent contradiction in Priestley's position as in the latter's own words "essentially bourgeois and middle-class" despite his "modest roots" and yet believing that "he could provide a voice for the powerless within the nation", Fagge asserts that what he calls Priestley's "democratic instincts and plain, unpretentious writing style" made him capable of voicing "the dreams of both the working and the middle classes" but only "occasionally". Fagge seems to argue that Priestley's social position and lifestyle as a member of the landed gentry and his dislike of the class system made his attempt at "speaking for the breath of the people" very difficult. According to the author, "Priestley did not hold to the usual socialist position of an inevitable contradiction between employer and worker" and he considers that Priestley's failure was due to a "tension between realism and idealism", concluding that Priestley had an uneasy relationship with class and preference for the “'populist' notion ofthe people"—in the best sense of the term, one hopes.
Chapter 2, entitled “Priestley and England between the wars”, focuses on Priestley's relationship with England and Englishness, which Fagge convincingly demonstrates is at the heart of Priestley's writings. Repeatedly quoting Priestley's work, notably English Journey and Rain Upon Godshill, which Priestley himself considered as "the best thing in that line I've ever done on...England and the English", Fagge successfully shows how much of Priestley's writing is pervaded with the subject of Englishness.
The author challenges the association of Priestley with the conservative notion of “Deep England” and contests critics' views according to which Priestley indulged in "nostalgia for a mythical rural past". Fagge successfully puts things right and argues that Priestley's "profound love of the countryside" was that of "a townsman born and bred", that of an artist as well as a down-to-earth Yorkshireman. His support for the Council for the Preservation of rural England and the National Trust stemmed from his detestation of the “commercial greed” behind the destruction of England's beautiful natural sites and, in Priestley's words, the breaking of the "old happy compromise between nature and man". If one is to believe what Priestley wrote in his English Journey, the beauty, remoteness and peace of English nature should be preserved against the "dusty arterial road of cheap mass production and standardised living" characteristic of Modern England. Priestley loved the beauty of “Old England”, "the country of the cathedrals and minsters and manor houses and inns" just as he hated the “waste of Nineteenth-Century England” associated with the social, human and natural consequences of industrialisation. Fagge suggests that Priestley's protection of this “Real England” may be interpreted as being “an elitist rejection of the modern, mass society” rather than a defence of beauty─all the more to deny this interpretation and compare Priestley's “vision” to the American vision of National Parks. He concludes: "despite his love of the countryside, Priestley the townsman did not accord rural England a primacy, nor did he seek a return to rural values. On the contrary, his writing across the genres presented social change and modernism”.
As Fagge demonstrates, Priestley condemned the growing standardisation in society, as well as “the growing hegemony of London", “this money-lending England" and the “increasingly capitalist ethos" and valued instead “the individual, community and region", “originality” and “choice”. Priestley's social criticism is highlighted throughout: “by the late 1930s”, Fagge argues, Priestley believed that the country was not a genuine democracy but a "plutocracy roughly disguised as an aristocracy". Seeing himself as “a spokesperson for the people”, Fagge repeatedly contends, Priestley offered what Fagge calls “his third way of energy, creativity and the local community as opposed to ossified aristocratic England”. Fagge further highlights Priestley's vision of English people, “the emotional side of the English”: their “non-hating, decent spirit”. Their innate qualities, their “spirit”, according to Fagge—which Priestley was to remind them of repeatedly in his wartime Postscripts—“tolerance, humour, creativity, fairness and independence” were to be used as “a force for good in the wider world”. Such was Priestley's faith, Fagge explains, qualifying it as “Priestley's romantic vision of England's role in the world”. The author devotes the end of his second chapter to Priestley's “dreams of England leading the world again”, which he links to the latter's “approach to different racial groups”. While briefly referring to allegations regarding Priestley's supposedly derogatory references to Jews in his writings and his apparent dislike of the Irish, Fagge stresses Priestley's “generally compassionate and tolerant tone”. Politically speaking, the author further argues that the latter was out of step with many on the left for most of the inter-war years, as they were “suspicious of patriotism and radical nationalism, linking it with jingoism, and the rising tide of fascism” in the inter-war years. However, Fagge adds, “like radicals across the Atlantic and his counterparts in Britain like Wells and Orwell, [Priestley] understood that national identities mattered to people and that ordinary, democratic voices needed to contest the ruling elite's version of the national story”.
Fagge goes on to explore “the liberal, democratic philosophy that lay at the heart of Priestley's thought” and concludes here that “he was not a philosopher, or a political scientist, and generally eschewed detailed political programmes, preferring to emphasise spirit, character and the potential of the people”.
Chapter 3, entitled Priestley, the 'People' and the Second World War concentrates on how Priestley became an influential public voice during WWII seeking to build a new England. As Fagge argues, Priestley's optimism was "not to last and his influence lessened as the experience of war led to a change in the public mood" even though he encouraged people to become active in shaping their own future. This chapter exemplifies the difficulty in trying to combine a thematic approach with a chronological one and highlighting Priestley's “vision” in the process. The author's summary—enclosed in one paragraph at the beginning of the chapter—of Priestley's “move from being a moderately famous writer” to “second only to Churchill” thanks to his famous radio Postscripts, his hope to build a New England at last and his subsequent disillusionment in May 1945 smacks of a conclusion, and does not allow the reader to form an opinion on the impact of the Postscripts based on their actual content. Although, interestingly, Fagge mentions Priestley's “contribution during wartime” or what he calls his “involvement in the civilian side of the war effort”, listing the latter's “official publications”, including his work on propaganda films and documentaries, precise references to the Postscripts come later and somewhat lack critical distance. Given the obvious propaganda nature of Priestley's first Postscript on June 5th 1940, it can hardly be said to have presented “a perfectly pitched analysis of the recent evacuation from Dunkirk”.
Fagge often quotes Priestley's famous radio Postscripts extensively, and stresses that Priestley “succeeded in becoming the voice of the people” and “struck the right note at the right time”. The author took the pain of studying the contents of some of J.B Priestley's Postscripts, and sees his interpretation of the war as a “fundamental battle between two civilisations—one evil, and the other good, if not perfect”, but fails to draw from Priestley's dichotomy the obvious conclusion that he was trying to “interpret” the conflict in simple terms for the benefit of the masses. Indeed, when Priestley “argued repeatedly that the conflict could only be won with the full involvement of the ordinary people, the practice of democratic methods and the subsequent unleashing of the English spirit”, as Fagge puts it in his effort to summarise the gist of Priestley's message, he omits to put it down (at least partly) to government propaganda guidance. More distance and in-depth analysis of the Postscripts would not have gone amiss. Yet Fagge succeeds in picking out some of the recurrent themes of Priestley's radio broadcasts, such as “the evil of Nazism”, “the virtues of the ordinary people”, the beauty and continuity of rural England, the sense of community.
As Fagge rightly points out, Priestley meant to “use the war as a stepping stone to a more radical future”, although this does not show in all the weekly Postscripts. When Priestley started to make his Socialist point clearer towards the end of September 1940, (“community and co-operation versus property and competition”, as Fagge puts it) or again "to see that each gives according to his ability, and receives according to his need", as Priestley says in his October 6th broadcast, there was “a rising tide” of criticism in Conservative ranks. “Unhappy about a radical voice reaching such a wide audience”, the authorities (the Ministry of Information and the BBC, and perhaps Winston Churchill himself) decided to take him off the air. Fagge also writes, quoting Siân Nicholas, that Minister of Information Duff Cooper's dislike of Priestley as 'a second rate novelist who got conceited by his broadcasting success' might have had something to do with it. Fagge also (unfortunately briefly) refers to Priestley's broadcasts to America and the dominions, entitled “Britain Speaks”.
Also a member of the left-wing “1941 Committee”, a "research and propaganda organisation" (in Priestley's words) that issued statements on "various war problems", signatory to the “Nine Point Manifesto” and then president of the ensuing new political party, “Commonwealth”, Priestley (and others, notably Ackland) continued to promote his political arguments, encompassed in the 127-page pamphlet Out of the People, “a detailed vision of Priestley's liberal socialism”. Fagge proceeds to provide the link between the pamphlet and the arguments made in the wartime Postscripts, centrally highlighting the necessity of the active involvement of the people in a “real democracy”, Priestley's arguments against Government control of the people, the “robot-like existence” of “passive” people with cheap cultural pastimes and “the development of large-scale industry” and his defence of “a religious feeling...granting greater respect to the individual”, and of trade unions giving strength and encouragement to the industrial worker, preventing them from turning into mindless "tiny cogs in a vast machine". Although Priestley played down the importance of the Postscripts after the war, Fagge makes it quite clear that they contained the seeds of his political philosophy.
Extensively quoting from Out of the People, Fagge then shows how Priestley's suggested reforms “should begin at home as a prelude to European and world reform”, Britain “acting as a beacon to the rest of Europe” and makes a detailed appraisal of the pamphlet, “a passionate and admirable case for democracy and the agency of ordinary people”, underlining in the process what he calls Priestley's “imaginative if imperfect case” and comparing it to Orwell's The Lion and the Unicorn, underlining the parallel between the two authors' social and political views as well as their “damning critique of the 1930s” in fiction, and seemingly regretting that Orwell was “eulogised by post-war intellectuals” whereas Priestley “attracted much less attention” and “suffered under Woolf's 'tradesman of letters' and similar jibes”. In his analysis of the two men's vision, Fagge contends that “both men shared the view that the war should be a stepping stone to revolution and a belief in a unifying Englishness that could contain all of those outside the elite, including the middle-classes”. As Fagge convincingly shows, Orwell's was “a less romantic and darker, more complex vision of Englishness” and he was “a more committed socialist than Priestley”. Fagge then proceeds to look into Priestley's political arguments regarding the post-war order as they appear in his war novels as opposed to “his work as a propagandist”. Priestley's “mixed feelings about the potential for change” turn into “In truth, Priestley was always destined to be disillusioned”. According to Fagge, he “constructed a positive, democratic view of the people and their agency, which submerged class differences, and romanticized their potential”. And, he argues, “the early stages of the war encouraged Priestley to believe that his people were capable of fulfilling their destiny but in the end he misread the people and circumstances he claimed to understand”.
Although the end of the war was not the "glorious beginning of a new world order", the least that can be said was that Priestley's anticipation of "great social change" and "liberal socialism" was not exactly wrong. Of course, as Fagge rightly points out, all the political and social dreams and expectations of J.B Priestley did not come true.
Fagge logically entitles Chapter 4 “The Disillusioning of Mr. Priestley”. He underlines that Priestley's remaining hopes for a more radical future began to dissolve. Unimpressed by the Labour Party's reforms after 1945, not least the enhanced role of the State, despairing about the lack of quality of British people's lives, “he became more disillusioned with the rise of mass society, the Cold War and domestic policies”. Added to this, Priestley's professional and personal troubles led to his being increasingly disgruntled and to his sense of isolation. Quoting letters of the author and once again delving into Priestley's novels and revealing the author's ideas, Fagge thus illustrates Priestley's “belief in the authenticity of real culture as opposed to mass-produced culture”, as well as his belief in the importance of the “sense of community”. The fact that his work got a mixed reception led Priestley to feel that he was undervalued and he “blamed this on the changing economics, management and increasing role of fashion in theatre land”. New authors such as Beckett and Osborne led to Priestley being looked on as traditional and his more experimental side was overlooked. To his disillusionment with theatre was added a more than mixed reception of his other work, including fiction and film. Part of the chapter is devoted to Priestley's personal circumstances, his criticism of trade unions and his clash with the Labour Party. Central to Priestley's irritation was that the "politicians and senior civil servants are beginning to decide how the rest of us shall live". As Foot wrote in a scathing attack on Priestley, he seemed to "devote his talents to the dissemination of a despairing cynicism". Indeed, Priestley had turned sceptic about “Labour's attempts at transforming Britain” and the fact that "the independent, alert citizen, jealous of his rights, is probably disappearing". Fagge's conclusion on the acrimonious exchange is that it reveals “Priestley's suspicion of large organizations and a powerful state”. Indeed “he was not a politician” and felt increasingly alienated from party politics. The criticism Priestley had to endure is a clear reminder that his hand had been bitten by the Labour party he had fed, according to him, which led him to write the following bitter, yet logical comment:
People like me will soon out with everybody. The Tories hate my guts; Labour is ungrateful and suspicious with types like me; and the Communists may at every moment denounce me as a fascist hyena; the highbrows think I'm a low brow; the low brows think I'm a high brow. I'm too experimental for the commercial theatre, and not silly enough for the avant garde.
Priestley's support for Labour still did not wane in the 1950 election but his disillusionment with the party hardened in the next few years, according to Fagge. His distrust of the political elites remained unchanged and he was by then bored with politics. Fagge argues that Priestley moved to a more pragmatic, centrist position on the political spectrum due to his belief in community and liberalism rather than large organisations and socialism. His “polemicist” Thoughts in the Wilderness, published in the New Statesman from 1953 to 1957, depicted a modern world dominated by big organisations and structures and block thinking, producing a subsequent alienation and lack of creativity, Fagge points out, adding that Priestley mistrusted the powerful State, which turned citizens into unthinking beings. Priestley was also critical of “Mass culture” as instrumental in the alienation of modern life, in which books and quality journalism had declined, replaced by mass communication via television, radio and the popular press; Priestley had been making similar points since the 1930s, but the situation was now even worse. Fagge artfully draws Priestley's picture of this society in which “everything must be made smooth and easy” for the individual: “History must be falsified, science distorted, religion sentimentalised, human relations over-simplified so that nobody is challenged, disturbed, asked to reflect or think deeply”. As Fagge states, Priestley “made his point in an accessible and emotionally powerful way”. Unfortunately, Fagge does not comment on the perceptiveness of Priestley's vision...
As the author points out, Priestley was critical of US foreign policy and of the emerging Cold War as well as of the spread of mass society. His sense of disillusionment with Labour at home, Fagge argues, spread to party politics in Britain and “political leadership across the board”. His criticism was directed both at the United States and Russia and neither of these alternatives were desirable, as they were both "less harmonious, less civilised, less capable of providing the deeper satisfactions than the smaller older communities" they were oppressing, Fagge adds. Quoting Priestley's letters, pamphlets and fictional writing, Fagge further dwells on Priestley's “utopia” , in which “the world becomes happier, more creative and peaceful”. According to Priestley's philosophy, as it is highlighted in Summer Day's Dream, "man is a god-worshipping creature, and if he doesn't choose to worship a mysterious power of goodness and love, then he'll find something else— and something much worse―to adore". The “graphic portrayal of nuclear conflict” included in the play leads Fagge to remind the reader of one of Priestley's central themes, i.e. the “pseudo-scientific thought about man and the universe”, when science has become "a kind of substitute religion", leading to the irresponsibility of scientists in producing the nuclear bomb. Fagge then proceeds to explain Priestley's political and moral vision underlying his rejection of the nuclear defence policy and his subsequent involvement in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, finally concluding that Priestley's published laments about the CND being an essentially middle-class movement "illustrated the extent to which Priestley's belief in 'the people' had now collapsed into an unrealistic prioritization of the middle-class”. According to Fagge, it "also underlined how unrealistic he had been in his idealistic assessment of the potential awakening of the British people". Fagge concludes rather unconvincingly (as for once, he does not quote) on Priestley "celebration of the middle-class, and dismissal of the working-class".
As the end of chapter 4 suggests, Fagge's point seems to be to highlight what he sees as the "strengths and weaknesses of Priestley's approach to the post-war world". So Chapter 5, entitled “Priestley, Admass and the United States” examines Priesley's relationship with the United States and how the latter influenced his thought. According to Fagge, Priestley's Journey Down a Rainbow, published in 1955 marked an important, and in some ways visionary, intervention in the debate on the post-war mass society. The book was, according to the author, "a clever mix of travel writing, social observation and personal and philosophical comment". The American style of urban life had become "the great invader". Echoing the arguments of US social critics, Priestley created the term "Admass" to describe the system that had spawned what he described as the "mass man". In the Admass order, “real values had been submerged beneath hype and cynical manipulation by the media” and the author effectively explains the social, cultural and political consequences of the mass order, long criticised by Priestley and exposed by other American critics. Priestley's dislike of commercial popular culture, trivial entertainment and “television's sins” did not stop him from giving the new medium a chance by writing plays for the BBC.
Fagge repeatedly insists on what he calls Priestley's "patronizing view of the 'working class' ", but rightly reminds the reader that for him, “real” popular culture "was made by ordinary people and produced in local communities or individual imaginations", and not a product of large multinational corporations. As Fagge explains, Priestley's negative view of the new mass order fuelled the existing criticism of him as being anti-American and Fagge dwells on the reception of the book, ending with Priestley's "impassioned statement that Admass was ‘unworthy’ of a nation that came out of a noble dream” and that if remembering that dream was anti-American, “then I am indeed anti-American”. Widely quoting from Priestley's work and letters, Fagge gives us a new, valuable insight into the American influence in Priestley's writing from the 1930s onwards.
In his final chapter, entitled “Late Priestley”, the author shows that Priestley 's work and thinking remained remarkably relevant into his seventies, praising amongst others his Literature and Western Man, his memoirs (Margin Released), Lost Empires and his analysis of time and consciousness in Man and Time. Finally being accepted more warmly by critics and acknowledged as a "Grand Old Man" of English letters, J.B Priestley was given the freedom of his home town Bradford in 1973 and the Order of Merit in 1977. The chapter also highlights the continuities in Priestley's thinking on politics, notably his uneasiness with Labour governments' ideology and bureaucracy, with trade unions and taxation; his continued interest in but mixed feelings about the United States, the Cold War; his dislike of the modern world and mass society and his nostalgia for the Bradford of his youth. In his own words Priestley remained "an old-fashioned English nineteenth-century radical" and "the most experimental dramatist the country's ever produced". Fagge's book clearly demonstrates that he was much more than that.
Spanning over the whole of Priestley's long career as a playwright, novelist, journalist, broadcaster and critic (from the 1930s to the 1970s), Fagge successfully highlights and discusses the themes that were closest to Priestley's heart. Scrutinising a wide range of sources, the author provides us with a very thorough and challenging analysis of the tremendous contribution made by J.B. Priestley to twentieth-century literature and thought. The reading of The Vision of J.B Priestley gives us an in-depth understanding of Priestley's philosophy and of his vision of the world he lived in but also sheds light on the central political, cultural and social issues of the twentieth century.
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