Last night we got together to hear what our readers thought of the works of J. B. Priestley (1894-1984). It was a lively evening, with the novels and non-fiction read by the group reflecting some of the best and worst of Priestley’s output.
Priestley, it was generally agreed, was an uneven writer. He was so prolific, and his output so varied – from plays, novels, all kinds of journalism, critical writing, essays and memoirs – that it is perhaps to be expected that not all of it was good.
When he was good, he was very good. Readers particularly appreciated his novel Angel Pavement (1937) and memoir Rain Upon Godshill (1941) for their insights into the conditions of the world at that time, and were struck by how true and relevant they still felt today.
However, to begin, a Bad Review.
Review by Sylvia D:
I found Daylight on Saturday really tedious.
It depicts the life of workers in a fictitious aircraft factory in the South Midlands which no doubt epitomised for Priestley any large organisation involved in the war effort between 1939 and 1945. Most chapters are written from the viewpoint of the person who was introduced in the previous chapter. In this way we meet a wide cross-section of people working in the factory right down from the general manager to the tea trolley man although the style does not change to reflect any hierarchical differences.
Apart from the occasional event such as a flare up between personalities, the occasional accident, the general manager’s fighter pilot son being missing for a couple of days, a visit from the Air Ministry, an ENSA show in the canteen, a couple of girls being chosen to take part in a BBC radio broadcast and several love stories, there is no plot.
The one really dramatic event towards the end which involves one of the male workers who has gone mad trying to feed one of the girls into a very large and noisy machine which results in the death of the works superintendent who rushes to save her is frankly ridiculous.
The characters are imbued with such classism, sexism and the occasional racism that it was a real struggle to get through it. I felt that Priestley portrays his characters in such a patronising way that they do not ring true. Comments such as the wife of the general manager being described as “a comfortable little woman with no brains at all . . .” (p 5) or the upper-class assistant general manager talking of the workers, “Some of them are rather rough. Most of the others – and especially the women – always seem to me half-witted” (p 63) really make the modern reader cringe.
The workers have the occasional limited discussion of issues of the day: appeasement, the dilution of labour, whether women should work or not, what society should be like after the War and there is a lot of support amongst them for communism. (Priestley himself had recently had his Sunday PostScripts radio broadcasts cancelled because he was thought to be too leftwing.)
It’s difficult to know exactly what Daylight on Saturday was really for. It was written at a difficult time when morale was low after Dunkirk and the Blitz and only towards the end is there a more positive feel when the allies are successful at Alamein. It has been branded a propaganda novel, “Without (such factories) we could not survive in wartime” (p 3). However, it paints such a cheerless picture of life in the factory that it would certainly not encourage anyone to want to work in such a place. Not that most people had much choice!
The title refers to the fact that the factory has no windows so it is difficult to tell what time of day it is and the workers work such long hours that they only get to see daylight at weekends.
In his autobiography, ‘Margin Released’, Priestley labels ‘Daylight on Saturday’ a novel ‘that I think does not deserve to be forgotten’. He says that ‘It was far from being a hastily improvised novel… The ground, whatever I may have finally made of it, was thoroughly prepared.’ He hopes that ‘Whatever its value as fiction,,, it will not be altogether forgotten, for I should like to think that some English readers, during the next fifty years, might learn from it how people lived and worked in World War Two. Moreover, confined to its factory, ‘Daylight on Saturday’ does attempt to explore the relations of men and women who have to work together, and all too few English novels have tried to do this.’
He rates it higher than most of his other novels – but his favourite is ‘Bright Day’, written towards the end of the War. Do we have that one in the collection?
We do have Bright Day – but it wasn’t read last month. Would you like to borrow it?
Thanks – I probably would like to at some time. But at the moment my to-read pile is getting ridiculously high, so I’ll pass on it for the moment.
Really enjoyed the review. I actually really like Daylight on Saturday but as social history and the way it fits in with Priestley’s other WW2 thoughts and work. The power of this novel seems to lie in that sense of confinement and then release into the bright air at the end, which to me feels like a metaphor for Priestley’s post-war hopes too. It also reminds me of how it felt to work in a huge factory where there was no light (Mr Kiplings!) and I think Priestley gets that. I wouldn’t overrate it though, it is a curiosity for completists and WW2 historians rather than something I’d recommend to those new to Priestley.
Thanks Alison, for a positive view of Daylight on Saturday. There was quite a lot of debate at the reading group over whether Priestley ‘got’ life for the poor and for working class people – some thought him patronising, others completely disagreed!
I’ve only read an extract of this so far though it’s on my shelf. I try to avoid novels commissioned for propaganda purposes (the awful Provincial Lady in wartime book still makes me shudder) so I’ve not been racing to read this. Bright Day is my favourite novel of his so far. 🙂
This book is a product of its time and whilst 70 years later, some of it might offend the sensibilities of the reader, this is not a sound basis for passing judgement upon it. There is much in Priestley’s life to suggest that he maintained a ‘common touch’ and, as such, his dialogue and the ideas represented therein perhaps should be seen as unwitting social testimony – as might be gleaned from any other document or photograph. The narrative style, which conveys the reader like a relay baton, through the factory, is a more legitimate target for criticism. Whilst this remains a work of literature, its content and the circumstances which gave rise to its creation are historically of interest too.