They Walk in the City by J. B. Priestley (1936)

Oh dear! Another Bad Review. I do hope some of the readers who liked their book write up a review.

Review by George Simmers. See his Great War Fiction blog.

In his autobiography, Margin Released, J. B. Priestley is a dismissive of this book:

made a hash of this novel, They Walk in the City. It ends in melodrama, and not even good melodrama. I had to finish the thing somehow, wanting to get rid of it, not because I thought it worthless – there are some good things in it – but because I knew I had failed to realise my idea.

The idea, I suppose was to produce a criticism of modern life by showing two young people, lost and looking for one another, in London.

The book starts, though, in the Yorkshire mill town of Haliford, where a young couple, Rose and Edward, meet. Each is established as more innocent than their worldly-wise friends. They are immediately attracted, and agree to meet. While preparing for their date, however, he gets locked in the bathroom, and cannot meet her. She assumes he has stood her up, and takes up the suggestion of a Alice, her friend, that the two of them should go to London together.

Edward has a lucky windfall of cash, and follows her, to the city. For several hundred pages they keep missing each other and the novel becomes an extended elaboration of that most basic of plots : Boy finds girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again. Small crises make Rose change jobs and lodging, while he keeps on searching. This is all very readable, in a mildly pleasant way, and the central couple are likeable enough. Priestley introduces the reader to various settings and groups of characters, though the dramatic possibilities of most of the set-ups are left unexplored when some accident or other takes the main characters off to some other setting, where they meet some mildly eccentric people, most of whom can simply be categorised as either nice or nasty.  There is one improbable episode where Rose takes the blame for a theft committed by her room-mate, and so has to change her name, go into hiding, and take work as a servant rather than a waitress.

When Edward finally finds her (not through any ingenuity, but because he has written to her sister), the pair  take up their relationship again. One evening they are near Trafalgar Square when a battle is in progress between fascists and communists (nothing in the novel has prepared us for this).  The lovers are separated, and Rose falls, spraining her ankle. She is rescued by an apparently kind woman in a car. She takes Rose to her own home in St John’s Wood, and tends the sprain. Only gradually does Rose realise that the woman is an evil procuress, who has kidnapped Rose to satisfy the depraved longings of a vile pervert.

The sudden shift of tone in this episode is not convincing. One suspects that Priestley knew more about clerks and waitresses and eccentric landladies than he did about  evil procuresses.

Rose manages to bolt her door against the pervert, and does not have to suffer a fate worse than death. Next morning she creeps out of the room, to find the house empty, apart from a corpse in the living room. Edward and his friends have done some detective work, finding the evil woman’s house by identifying her distinctive car. He arrives at the house just after Rose has discovered the corpse. The book ends with them waiting for the police, a couple united at last, but less innocent than they had been.

This is an odd book, in that it is very pleasantly readable, despite being very carelessly written. Priestley takes his characters from place to place in a picaresque style, introduces mildly interesting characters, but then does nothing with them dramatically before whizzing his main characters off to the next location. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel with so may narrative threads left hanging loose at the end.  As social commentary, it is slight. This is the 1930s, with mass unemployment, of which Priestley was very aware – yet when his characters lose their jobs, as they do quite frequently, they immediately find a new one. It’s as though he’s avoiding the big issues.

Some of the workplaces are well-described, and there is an enjoyable scene (quite irrelevant to the plot) where the main characters meet a couple of stage magicians. Priestley always seems to position himself above his characters, though. He has a tendency to go into lecturing mode from time to time, telling us why advertising is bad, why cosmetics are harmful, why the music-hall is better than the cinema, and so on.  More damaging is a touch of condescension to his characters. Rose and Edward are unsophisticated souls, and their motivation rarely stretches further than fondness for each other and a desire to be nice. Priestley does not present them as complex beings with a full range of emotions – which maybe made them easy to write, and indeed makes them easy to read about, since they never challenge us with any individuality.

The melodramatic episode at the end is a lurch into a different register of writing altogether, and is quite unconvincing. If Rose had been the kind of girl who might have been tempted into profiting from men, it might have been an appropriate climax. As it is, it just feels wrong.

Priestley claims in mitigation that he wrote this when he was busy with other projects: ‘I was a kind of three-ring-circus of authorship. I had undertaken to do so much that almost everything I did was hit-or-miss.’

As a whole, They Walk in the City has to be counted a miss – yet it kept me reading, and there are some enjoyable bits of social observation along the way.

2 thoughts on “They Walk in the City by J. B. Priestley (1936)

  1. I don’t think Priestley wrote a decent book throughout the thirties. Angel Pavement was hailed at the time as better then Good Companions, but I guess only by those who wanted it known they had read it. Wonder Hero is practically indistinguishable from They Walk in the City, Faraway should be put there, The Doomsday Men was re-written as Saturn Over the Water 30 years later, and still didn’t work for me. Let the People Sing was an attempt to revisit Good Companions, and was originally written as a radio serial. It was then re-hashed as Festival in Farbridge and that was a much better job. I think Priestley was right. He was far too busy with plays and screenplays but he probably had a contract with his publishers to fulfil. His best novels start with Bright Day, and there is hardly a duff one from then on.

    • But it sounds like you perservered and read them all anyway?! Yes, it does seem that Priestley was too busy to do his best work in this period. However, the person in our group who read Angel Pavement was very impressed with it, so I hope we will have a review from her to balance the bad reviews.

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