You probably know D. H. Lawrence, you’ve most likely heard of Alan Sillitoe, but does the name James Prior ring any bells? Author of six novels including 1901’s Forest Folk, Prior was dedicated to depicting rural life in Nottinghamshire. We learn more about the author who time has forgotten…
However much we cherish literature, the truth is that we forget most books. The classics get reprinted again and again, but the rest tend to fall by the wayside. Fewer people buy them, they fall out of popularity and before long, we don’t even remember the author’s name. Yet every now and again, someone will find a remnant of them - a single piece of thread that unravels a whole mystery, and tells the story of an entire career. And this is exactly what happened for Ailish D’Arcy when she set about investigating James Prior, the Nottingham author who was cherished by the likes of J. M. Barrie and D. H. Lawrence.
But how did Ailish begin on this journey? Where did she find that first piece of thread? Well, it happened thanks to a literary tour and an off-hand comment. “I enrolled on a four-week course with (local literary historian) John Baird as a way to get out of the house after the pandemic,” Ailish explains, “and when I mentioned to John that I lived in Bingham, he said that he knew of an author from there - James Prior.” Then, stemming from this small interaction, Ailish found herself on a mission to learn more. “It was like something took over me and I wasn’t prepared to let it rest,” she laughs, as we sit in a coffee shop, discussing Prior’s life.
So, after contacting a whole bevy of academics and sleuthing through archives, a picture began to emerge. That of an extraordinary Nottinghamshire author, who most people in the county have never heard of. Born in 1851 on Mapperley Road, James Prior (originally James Kirk) was one of five children. Birthed into a family of straw hat makers, Prior got a strong sense of faith and morality from his father, alongside a love of the countryside and reading. Though, it wouldn’t be until his teenage years that he would first read Dickens, Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott, after which point he developed a steadfast ambition to become a writer - disregarding his parents' wishes for him to study law.
Operating as a piece of local history, Prior’s novels are unique in their dedication to using local dialect and the characters speak as rural Nottingham people would have done then
Prior worked away at his poetry and novels, but his success wasn’t instant, and he had to find other ways to make a living. Namely, he spent a while teaching at a boys’ boarding school, helping run the family business after his father’s death and, most notably, supporting his uncle, who was a butcher and grazier in Blidworth. This landscape and the people who lived there would go on to inspire his novels. However, the most notable event in this time was falling in love with his wife-to-be Lily, whom he married in 1886 and had three children with. “A remarkable woman,” as Ailish tells me, she was the one who encouraged Prior to focus on his writing over any business endeavours. Without her, many of his novels would likely never have been written. “Everything I’ve found indicates that Prior was just wandering before he met Lily,” Ailish says, “trying to find himself in both writing and business. Then, when they met, it seemed like two halves of one person coming together.”
Situated in Bingham with a young family, Prior continued to write, and he published many novels and short stories, including Three Shots from a Popgun and Live and Let Live in the 1880s, then novels like Renie in 1895 and Ripple and Flood in 1897. The latter of which was described as “vivid, original and impressive” by The Scotsman, with one reviewer in The Times comparing Prior to Dickens and Thomas Hardy for his depiction of both rural communities and local poverty. Yet, it wasn’t until 1901, by which time Prior was already in his fifties, that he published his most famous novel, his pièce de résistance, Forest Folk - the novel which really established him as a writer devoted to capturing the East Midlands dialect and spirit.
Telling the tale of a southern Arthur Skrene arriving in Blidworth to claim his inherited farm, it’s a story that captures class, romance, prejudice and country life. “It’s got great characters, some class conflict, the background of the Luddite Rising and the Napoleonic Wars; all the elements came together and captured people’s attention,” Ailish tells me. And, like the rest of his work, it also has a message about the innate worth of human beings. “Prior’s work says that everyone has value and that we can learn from everyone. He had a great sense of social justice,” Ailish adds, “and on top of that, he had a great love for the English countryside, and a desire to capture the specific atmosphere of the East Midlands.”
His impact as both an author and a historian is not to be underestimated
Also operating as a piece of local history, Prior’s novels are unique in their dedication to using local dialect and the characters speak as rural Nottingham people would have done then. The author spent a lot of time compiling lists of local words, which he’d then include in his novels and add to The English Dialect Dictionary. “He captures the words from the south of the county, which are very agricultural,” Ailish explains. “Many of these words went out of use when things became more urbanised, so it’s a true linguistic heritage.”
Sadly, though, none of Prior’s other work achieved the same level of success as Forest Folk, and while he kept writing novels for another nine years, they didn’t reach the same heights. Publishing his last book, Fortuna Chance, in 1910, James fell into a downward spiral after the death of his wife in 1914, and the death of his son - who passed away in the First World War, from which Ailish suggests he never recovered. After the war, the whole landscape of writing had also changed, and post-war literature was quite different from pre-war literature. “You had modernism coming in,” Ailish notes, “and Prior began to seem old-fashioned. He seemed very formal.” From this, combined with his grief, the writer began to draw back from the public and faded away.
Nonetheless, to dismiss Prior as a tragedy would be too simplistic, and his impact as both an author and a historian is not to be underestimated. “During a period of fifteen years, he produced six novels, four of which surely deserve to rank as classics,” Ailish writes in her book, In Search of James Prior, and many such texts are still being discovered by readers today. Likewise, in his personal sphere, he appeared to have had a deeply fulfilling family life and a great love with Lily. So, though forgotten, at least for a little while, James Prior did in fact have a life well lived, and well loved.
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