Bright Day by J. B. Priestley (1946)

Review by David R:

The story opens in the immediate post-WW2 period. The narrator, Gregory Dawson is a scriptwriter staying at an hotel in Cornwall while he works on a film script. There is an air of depression and indecision about his future.

One evening he sees a couple who look vaguely familiar. They prove to be people he knew in the short period before the outbreak of WW1 when, in his teens he was working for a wool wholesaler in “Bruddersford”. In a Proustian moment, a piece of music brings back memories of his youth. He recalls the Alingtons, a family of mysterious young women who he sees intermittently, then discovers that they are his boss’s daughters.

The story then relates his growing friendship with the family, Dawson’s own progress with his intended career as a writer, and the arrival of the Nixeys, (the couple in the hotel), who put a blight on the whole episode as he sees it. This period, told in a series of flashbacks, culminates in a tragedy.

As the story comes up to date, Dawson discovers various facts about these events which cause him to revise his feelings about that time, and his own future prospects.

For me, this story is an evocation of what it is like to live in that magical period when youth is maturing into adulthood. Although set in a very specific period (the run-up to WW1) it could belong to anyone’s adolescence, with very little difference. The narrator recalls his youth and the pleasures, discoveries, the acknowledgment by adults of oneself as a person, the opposite sex – all those delights than can never be repeated but can be recalled with affection in later life.

It is this, I think, which makes the book still very readable; in fact, I regard it as one of Priestley’s best. There is, too, with the current interest in The Great War, a vivid picture of a lost age and innocence. It can be truly said that the world was never the same afterwards.

In spite of the usual denial (insurance against defamation etc) the book contains several episodes which must have occurred in Priestley’s own life:- his job in the wool trade, his love of the open moors, his early development as a writer, and his later career as a scriptwriter. If some of the events are complete fiction, his portraits of many of the characters are probably based on people he knew at that time; they seem too accurate to be entirely made-up.

This book seems to release something inside Priestley. For many years he had been writing plays, Hollywood scripts and, to my mind, indifferent novels. Suddenly, at the age of 52 he brings forth some fresh new work, and maintains this type of output for another 20 years. Maybe it was his younger, third wife that brought forth this late flowering.

Another aspect which I find interesting is his portrayal of the early Labour movement. Priestley portrays a group of people who thought for themselves but who also had a sense of community.

6 thoughts on “Bright Day by J. B. Priestley (1946)

  1. Great piece – it is fantastic book. Like many people, I think it is JBP’s best novel and offers wonderful insights into early 20th century Bradford.

    I interpret BD’s place in his career rather differently. It wasn’t the start of anything, but a one-off, part of that strange post-war period of austerity, uneasy peace, 1945 hopes beginning to be dashed. Though you could argue Linden Tree in 1947 has a similar tone. The only other novel that compares in tone and content is Lost Empires, part of his late flowering in the late 1960s provoked partly by exploring WW1 and his teens in Margin Released.

    Oh, and he didn’t meet Jacquetta Hawkes, his third wife, till 1947. Their love affair certainly coincided with her best work (A Land, Festival of Britain) but I am not sure that one can argue this quite so clearly with JBP who had periods of greatness throughout his career.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    • Thanks Alison. I was thinking he met Jacquetta Hawkes a little later – I just read a fascinating account of her life in Rachel Cooke’s book about women of the 1950s.

  2. I recall reading somewhere that this was Priestley’s personal favourite among his books. I read it earlier this year, and thought that it echoed segments from the autobiographical work Margin Released, so doubtless many of the incidents are very much drawn from JBP’s personal experience. A fascinating novel for all of the reasons you’ve identified above; I enjoyed reading your review.

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