This week, a look at J.B. Priestley’s first great success, The Good Companions. Published by Heinemann in 1929, the novel tells the story of three travellers cast adrift from their usual lives who fall in with a concert party, the Dinky Doos. Renamed The Good Companions, the troupe have many adventures, odd encounters, successes and failures and happy endings at last.
The tale grew out of Priestley’s love for the picaresque: “ample tales in which the characters go wandering”. For several years, he had wanted to write such a tale but set in contemporary England: “I saw no reason why the picaresque novel should vanish with the stage-coach”. However, his financial situation was precarious, his writing driven by immediate needs, so he produced journalism, essays, reviews, novellas, rather than working on this great idea. Co-writing Farthing Hall with well-established author Hugh Walpole at last bought him funds and therefore time to write his 275,000 word epic.
In creating The Good Companions, Priestley gave himself “a holiday from anxiety and strain and tragic circumstances, shaping and colouring a long happy daydream”, a much-needed break after the War and the years of his wife Pat’s long illness and death. Readers of 1929 obviously also felt the need to escape into the huge happy world of the novel. Their enthusiastic response made the book a best-seller and Priestley a household name. Its afterlife included a 1931 stage adaptation by Priestley with Edward Knoblock, two films, a 1974 musical, and a 1980 television series; the novel itself is now back in print.
Priestley was ambivalent about the success of the novel, believing readers demanded more of the same while critics automatically condemned him as a cynical writer of best-sellers. It can definitely be said that The Good Companions transformed his life and literary career, in particular freeing him financially to explore the new challenge of writing for the theatre, of which more later.