The Good Companions by J.B. Priestley ~ 1929. This edition: Musson, 1930. Hardcover. 640 pages.
My rating: 10/10
A middle-aged Yorkshire laborer who has just been fired from his carpenter’s job at the local mill, a recent Cambridge graduate-cum-reluctant-schoolmaster with literary ambitions and a talent for creating catchy tunes on the piano, and a sedately dutiful upper-class spinster-daughter in her fourth decade recently freed of familial responsibilities by the death of her elderly father are all thrown together by the whim of fate.
The set-up of the main characters’ backstories takes up a good third or so of this very rambling narrative, and it is not until we are well into the book that their paths convene, as they fall in with another lot of fate-tossed travellers, the stranded members of a theatrical troupe, the ex-Dinky Doos.
The result of this leisurely and detailed approach is a likeable period piece of a book – “a long, comic, picaresque, a fairy-tale sort of novel”, to quote the author’s own words in 1937’s autobiographical Midnight on the Desert – as the newly united characters form a travelling concert party/pierrot troupe, performing in rural towns and small industrial cities throughout the Yorkshires and surrounding districts.
The Good Companions was written between the wars, when Priestley was dealing with some serious personal issues, such as the recent death of his young wife from cancer (leaving behind two baby daughters), and his own chronic physical difficulties resulting from injuries and gassing while serving in the trenches of WW I. His decision to create an ultimately happy novel – the characters, despite their very real troubles, all attain at least a modicum of their personal hearts’ desires – was immensely popular with the public, and the book was an astoundingly successful bestseller. But the highbrow critics sneered, and though Priestley enjoyed the much-needed financial security The Good Companions provided, the dismissive attitudes of his literary peers wounded him deeply.
The book retains its appeal today. The likeable concert party characters are all very human in their thoughts, desires, ambitions and reactions to various setbacks, and though we are aware of the author’s omnipotent hand in strategically arranging the various random incidents which result in the united happy ending, we good naturedly accept the more creative developments and cheer our people on. There is also a certain historical interest in the novel’s detailed portrayal of a now-vanished theatrical sub-culture, which, even as it still flourished, was being inexorably replaced by the “new-technology” moving picture shows, as is shown in one of the final plot twists of the novel.
Highly recommended, for “cultural literacy” reasons as much as for its engaging story.
Budget yourself a goodly chunk of time to read this one. At over 600 small-print pages, it takes a certain amount of optimistic persistence to embark upon, but once entered into will provide a lovely escape from the one’s own ho-hum everyday routine.
Lost Empires by J.B. Priestley ~ 1965. Subtitled Being Richard Herncastle’s account of his life on the variety stage from November 1913 to August 1914 together with a Prologue and Epilogue by J.B. Priestley. This edition: The Reprint Society, 1966. Hardcover. 381 pages.
My rating: 9/10
J.B. Priestley revisits the world of the travelling theatrical party which he so famously documented in 1929’s The Good Companions, but this novel, written some three decades later, is a much grittier and less outwardly cheerful thing than its predecessor.
Whereas The Good Companions was written as a contemporary novel reflective of its time (though a highly sentimentalized and “feel-good” version, and that’s not meant to be derogatory, as the author himself states that this was his intention), Lost Empires is frequently melancholy and foreboding, and very much about looking back and describing a certain rigidly defined period of time in relation to what came after.
The casual reader might assume Lost Empires to be lightly disguised autobiography, so intimate are the thoughts and events recorded, but Priestley distances himself from the narrative by presenting himself as the author of both the preface and epilogue to the tale, with the set-up being that an old friend, the Richard (Dick) Herncastle named in the subtitle, has asked Priestley-the-famous-writer to look over the memoir for him. The framing device works very well, and the resulting novel is taut with a certain suspense, as we-the-readers know what young Dick’s future may hold. He’s a physically fit, unencumbered young man in his very early twenties, and the year is 1913. Everything is about to change beyond recognition in his world; we know that as we embark upon the first chapter.
But though war is looming – and a number of the wiser characters in Lost Empires are grimly predicting what later came to pass – the mood in England is one of wanting to be distracted from the political rumblings all around, and the music halls are thriving, into which unlikely milieu our young protagonist is initiated by his black-sheep-of-the-family Uncle Nick.
Dick, newly orphaned by the death of his mother, aspires to be an artist, but has been forced by circumstances to give up his plans of attending art school to instead work as an office clerk. Uncle Nick, attending his sister’s funeral, takes Dick aside and offers him a position as his assistant in his very successful variety show act.
Uncle Nick is an accomplished illusionist of the “vanishing lady” type, and his perfectionism and scornful antipathy to any sort of sentiment make him an awkward sort of employer, family ties or not, but Dick’s dogged determination to continue with his artistic goals despite the logistical difficulties earns his uncle’s respect, and the two settle into a mostly successful working relationship.
Dick has never been in a position to travel or to associate with people from such a broad strata of society as the touring variety show allows, and it rather goes to his head. His good looks and polite middle-class manners make him the focus of unnervingly aggressive attention from some of the women in the other acts (and also from his uncle’s own act’s female member, one of whose unofficial duties is to share the principle’s bed), but the one woman he would like to get on closer terms with is unaccountably cold and snubbing, though she unbends for a brief period, long enough for Dick to fall deeply in love with her, before she again cold-shoulders him.
Emotionally bruised and sexually frustrated, a situation made much worse by the continual presence of nubile young women in revealing costumes, Dick, still a sexual virgin as his variety-stage history opens, is ready to fall, and fall he does. He is seduced by and then obsessively enters into a torrid relationship with one of the older women in a co-starring act, with disastrous consequences when his real love is told of his defection to the well-experienced arms of another.
This book is chock-full of sex, not particularly graphic but described with enough detail to make one very aware of the change in times since The Good Companions first appeared to the time when Lost Empires was written. Though we have no doubts that some of the characters in The Good Companions were also sexually active, and prone to drinking too much on occasion, and sometimes involved in questionable personal pursuits, many of the details aren’t given, and the more risqué bits are generally glossed over, or given the light comedy treatment.
Very much not so in Lost Empires, with the result that it is a much stronger sort of novel in a modern, no-topic-is-forbidden sense, though Priestley provides a soft-focussed epilogue which echoes that of his earlier tale, with our hero finding his personal redemption and with most loose ends neatly tucked away.
And that final soft focus is what docked Lost Empires its point in my personal rating in comparison to The Good Companions‘ solid 10.
The Good Companions satisfied because it did exactly what it said it would on the flyleaf: it amused. The author dances his characters for us, and he blatantly manipulates fate to favour them, and, as it’s all part of the game and known to us going in, we cheerfully play along.
Lost Empires is, for the most part, a rather deeper book, with its vividly imagined and occasionally disturbing coming-of-age tale, and its sober look back at a nation heading unhappily into a devastating war. I felt, however, that J.B. Priestley pulled back just a bit from where he could have gone with it, and though Lost Empires is a very good thing, the eventual resolution of its hero’s problems felt slightly deus ex machina, hand of puppet master evident at the last.
This said, also very highly recommended. A good example of Priestley’s later fiction, and a must-read for anyone interested in exploring this prolific writer’s A-list.
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