Priestley was born and raised in Bradford, a city that was then a part of the West Riding of Yorkshire. His father was a schoolmaster, and he was brought up well educated, attending, first, a local grammar school and, later, Cambridge University. Bradford, however, left its mark on him for he was able to see first-hand the conditions in which some people lived and laboured. He knew of the exploitative working conditions in the factories and textile mills (his mother, who died when he was just a baby, had in fact been a mill girl), and he used his position as a writer to publicise this mistreatment of the working class.
An Inspector Calls is perhaps his most famous example of this work.
Priestley, who was a soldier in the First World War, wrote the play towards the end of the Second World War in the winter of 1944–45 as a response to the destruction of war and as a call to action: he wanted individuals in society to reflect on their interconnectedness to avoid such suffering from occurring again. Priestley felt that the social systems of Victorian and Edwardian society, in particular, had created conditions ripe for global conflict, and he wanted to warn against them emerging once more. Before teaching the play, it is, therefore, important for students to understand what society was like in the build-up to the First World War.
In both Victorian England (1837–1901) and Edwardian England (officially 1901–10, though it is often extended to the start of the First World War), society was characterised by social inequality: class dictated one’s opportunities and dominated social interactions; women were regarded and treated as inferior to men (indeed, they were not allowed to vote); and industrial workers endured dangerous and exploitative working conditions, but reaped none of the financial benefits of their hard-earned work. It was also, in many ways, a period of civil unrest. The Suffragette movement, which fought for women’s rights to vote in elections, was gaining ever more traction: women demonstrated outside Parliament, engaged in hunger strikes, and put their lives on the line. Emily Davison, for example, who walked in front of the King’s Horse at The Derby, died in her fight for women’s suffrage. The working class in Britain and Ireland also took to the streets in regular mass strike actions in a period known as ‘The Great Labour Unrest’ (1910–14), subsequently forming the first trade unions that fought for workers’ rights. One of the most famous strikes from this period was the National Coal Strike of 1912; in this, their first ever strike, coal miners refused to work until they were granted a minimum wage. Almost one million miners participated in this strike and it lasted for thirty-seven days until the government intervened, passing the Coal Mines Act, which gave miners the right to a minimum wage.
Priestley uses the character of Birling to refer to these labour ‘agitations’ in the play, very much highlighting the divide between the wealthy industrialists and their workers.
The year 1914 saw the outbreak of the First World War, which is remembered for its stark loss of life (it is estimated that 15–19 million people died), brutal battlefield conditions (the trenches were places of disease and danger), and for the fact that as the ‘first industrial war’ it changed the face of warfare. Priestley, who joined the war effort as a soldier when he was just 19, was greatly shaped by his experiences, and felt that the war really opened his eyes to the power of class in society. In his autobiography, Margin Released (1962), Priestley wrote, ‘I still feel today and must go on feeling until I die, the open wound, never to be healed, of my generation’s fate, the best sorted out and slaughtered . . . The tradition of an officer class, defying both imagination and common sense, killed most of my friends as surely as if those cavalry generals had come out of the chateau with polo mallets and beaten their brains out. Call this class prejudice if you like, so long as you remember that I went into that war without any such prejudice, free of any class feeling. No doubt I came out of it with a chip on my shoulder; a big heavy chip, probably some friend’s thigh-bone.’
Whilst some progress was made after the First World War, society did not come far enough, and just over twenty years later in 1939, the Second World War broke out. Priestley, who was a well-established writer and social commentator by this time, was prompted to write An Inspector Calls. He wrote the play quickly at the end of 1944 and the start of 1945. The speed with which Priestley wrote the play and the fact that Great Britain was still at war meant that An Inspector Calls was first performed in Leningrad (St Petersburg) as there were no London theatres available: the Second World War meant that the London theatre scene was much diminished and the theatres which were in operation had their schedules fully programmed. Throughout the teaching of the play, it is important to remember that Priestley wrote the play as a means of encouraging us to confront the impact of our decisions and actions, both individual and collective, on others.
When reading the play, students will also need to be able to distinguish between socialism and capitalism: Socialists believe in the redistribution of wealth, and in a society in which the government is directly responsible for the well-being of all of its citizens. Capitalists, on the other hand, believe in the power of the market and the individual; they support deregulation of industry and lower taxes as they think that this encourages creativity, competition, and progress. They support a stripped back form of government as they regard society welfare support through taxation as unfair because it does not champion the success of individuals. Socialism is often regarded as the opposite of capitalism; however, both systems can work alongside each other and in reality most modern societies have both socialist and capitalist features. In the UK, for example, we have a state education system that is funded through taxation and is available to all for free. We also have high streets of shops, which sell products and services to people for profit.