Friday, 17 June 2011

Article - The forgotten author who captured the spirit of Notts (James Prior)

HE was once compared to Thomas Hardy – yet today the name of James Prior is largely forgotten.

He wrote several novels, set in the Nottinghamshire countryside.

Yet few can claim to have read any of his works, which are no longer in print.

Only one, Forest Folk, achieved a reasonable degree of recognition.

And yet he was highly regarded by no less a literary figure than JM Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan.

James Prior Kirk was a humble hat-maker's son from Mapperley.

He was a man who would strive throughout his life for his art to be successful.

But less than a century after his death, he rates but a few lines on any internet search.

His parents, James and Sarah, had great ambitions for their son, who was born to them in Mapperley way back in 1851.

After private schooling in Nottingham, where he revealed his literary leanings with a particular fondness for Greek classics, his father wanted him to follow a career in the law.

If that path didn't work out, he wanted his son to join him in the family millinery business, which was located in Peck Lane, Hounds Gate, Pelham Street and later at 20, South Parade, in the Old Market Square.

But with the recklessness of youth, young James defied his father. They rowed and he set out to make his fortune with words.

He wrote short stories and plays but with little success.

After that, he decided to turn his hand to teaching but, hampered by problems with his eyesight, which would afflict him for the rest of his life, that too did not prove to be a fruitful path.

Then, in 1880, his father died and, for a brief time, he ran the business until he was released by his two sisters who would carry it on until it eventually closed in 1914.

But James' fortunes did not improve. He tried his hand at farming, but got into financial difficulties.

Then, in 1891, with his new wife Lily Kirk – a cousin – he settled in a cottage in Bingham and returned to his writing.

At last, the career he had yearned for began to open up as he wrote about the countryside he knew. Suddenly, it appeared, he had found his life's destination.

His first novel, Renie, set in and around Annesley and Mansfield, brought him some critical attention.

Others novels were to follow, including Ripple and Flood, Fortuna Chance and his best-known work Forest Folk, a story told around the Luddite revolt in Nottinghamshire.

Such was its reputation a century ago, a room in the Forest Folk pub in Blidworth was named in his honour.

Sadly, the original pub has gone and with it the memorial to a talented local author.

His work was read with some interest and enthusiasm by another young Notts author, a certain DH Lawrence of Eastwood.

Prior however, was not reciprocal in his admiration and maintained the two authors "lived in different worlds".

Prior skillfully described rural Nottinghamshire, the people who lived there... and the way they talked.

J M Barrie once wrote: "Had I known James Prior was living in Nottingham at the time I was editor of the Nottingham Journal, I would have knocked on every door until I had found him."

Prior died in 1922 from pneumonia after catching a chill, at the age of 71.

One local obituary writer commented: "Sherwood Forest has lost its greatest painter. He pictured it in words."

And another critic, JB Firth, added: "With the sure touch of a skillful writer, the novelist makes his Sherwood as real and individual as are the heaths of Dorset in the pages of Thomas Hardy."

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