Angel Pavement (1930) was J.B. Priestley’s follow-up to the huge success of The Good Companions. His improved finances freed him to write another large, broad novel. However, while the latter is picaresque, light-hearted, escapist, Angel Pavement shows Priestley using his characteristic humour, sympathy, vivid characters and strong set-pieces to create a novel much darker in tone and which fixes (traps!) his characters in one place: London.
J.B. Priestley is often thought of as a novelist of Bradford. As we’ve seen, he wrote incredibly well about his home city. But London was also Priestley’s home for many years and he wrote just as well about its scenes and people. He moved there during the early 1920s to make his career as a writer; his most famous home was no. 3 The Grove, Highgate, where Coleridge lived; even after he no longer lived in London, he kept his Albany flat there. Priestley wrote about the City of London in Angel Pavement, because it had haunted him for years, although naturally the novel follows its characters across the whole of London.
Angel Pavement also illustrates Priestley’s understanding of and skill in depicting the world of work and people in groups. He was drawing on experience: he had worked in a wool office as a teenager, spent five years in the Army during the war, and, even when he took up the solitary work of a writer, was active in theatrical productions and all kinds of committees and campaigns. Many of his novels in particular focus on a workplace or collaborative project: Bright Day (film-making), Lost Empires (music hall), Festival at Farbridge (the Festival of Britain), The Image Men (universities and advertising), Let the People Sing (saving a Market Hall) … Angel Pavement also reflects his growing concern about society, as he shows how difficult life was becoming for poorer people and small firms in the Slump. Unlike those in The Good Companions, for his Angel Pavement people, there was “no easy fairy-tale escape. They are the victims of circumstance – and the cruel financial chaos of our time is part of that circumstance”.
Priestley brought all these ingredients together to tell the story of a struggling small firm who make “inlays and veneers for the furniture trade”: Twigg and Dersingham, on the first floor of no. 8 Angel Pavement. A mysterious rather piratical stranger, Mr Golspie, virtually takes over the firm, bringing it to ruin and leading its staff into personal disasters. Despite this grim plot, there are many delights along the way. The novel is both a wonderful picture of everyday life in London in the 1930s and a very strong story with resonance today. For many readers it ranks with Bright Day as Priestley’s greatest novel. The Priestley Special Collection of books includes fifteen different editions, evidence of the title’s continuing popularity, and it has just been re-printed by Great Northern.
Sources: quotations from Angel Pavement or Priestley’s introduction to the 1937 Everyman edition. I am also indebted to the works of Michael Nelson and Holger Klein.