The subtitle of J. B. Priestley’s Jenny Villiers – ‘A Story of the Theatre’ – was what caught my attention when I came across it in a dilapidated barn in West Sussex, where the cooing of pigeons accompanied my search round the freezing and guano-spattered interior. It turned out to be an enchanting read, depicting a vanished world of call boys, live orchestras and tea matinées, when acting was honed as a craft, actors were respected for their talent, and theatres large and small flourished in virtually every town in Britain.
I already knew that theatre had featured in two of Priestley’s novels – The Good Companions (1929) and Lost Empires (1965) – and that many of his stage plays were still performed – the National Theatre’s production of An Inspector Calls toured the world and has since been remounted at regular intervals. It was intriguing, then, to discover that Jenny Villiers had been written both as a novel and as a play. The play was put on at the Bristol Old Vic in 1946. The following year it was published as a novel.
J. B. Priestley’s long, prolific and successful career spanned the twentieth century. Born in Bradford in 1894, he wavered in his teens between ‘vague careers in music and acting’, until he ‘switched to [his] writing self’ and found his métier. During the 1920s he moved to London. ‘It was easier for a young writer in the early Twenties to earn a living than it is today,’ and throughout this decade and the following one, he reviewed and wrote critical articles for the London Mercury, Spectator, Saturday Review, Bookman, Daily News and Daily Chronicle. During the Second World War, he wrote and presented fondly remembered broadcasts on England and English life for the BBC, given in his distinctive Northern tones, which ran unti
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