After reading Lost Horizon, and now Goodbye, Mr. Chips, I’ve found I really like James Hilton as an author (he also wrote Random Harvest, which is next on my list). There is something gentle about his style, slightly sentimental, humorous, but also mournful. James Hilton is not nostalgic in the traditional sense of wishing blurry-eyed for the past. He has a pretty clear idea of the faults of the Victorian age – and that the age he is remembering led to WWI – so his books don’t veer off into excess nostalgia. He misses the upbringing of his youth, but partially because in comparison to the present (the 1930s, which seems to have filled him with well-rooted and ominous pessimism) the past appears remarkably optimistic and free-thinking.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips, published in 1934, is arranged as an episodic novella, with each chapter like snatches of memory, of the things that stood out most to Mr. Chipping, a school teacher at the boarding school of Brookfield where he taught for his entire life.
Mr. Chipping isn’t a particularly brilliant man and Brookfield isn’t one of the top boarding schools, but everything about the man and the school are solid, traditional, warmhearted and true. Mr. Chipping – known in fun as Mr. Chips – began teaching as a young man whose specialty is the classics. He was a bit stiff and not especially good at discipline, but he was content with his life. Then, when he thought he was long past ever falling in love, he meets a young woman, Katherine, half his age, who represents everything he was uncomfortable with. She is a modern woman, slightly socialist in her politics, rides bicycles alone and believes woman should have the vote.
But Katherine and Chips fall in love and marry and his life changes at Brookfield. She brings life and warmth into his life and he learns to relate to his students better. He doesn’t essentially change his character, but he is broadened and she helps him think outside of his usual traditional confines and it gives him courage later to make a stand when he needs to. But after only two years of extreme happiness, she dies in childbirth, leaving him devastated with grief.
But although Katherine only occupies a few chapters in the novella, her influence is far reaching. Her marriage to Chips was the defining moment in his life and he always remembers it. Later, he reflects sadly that there is no one left at Brookfield who remembers his wife. Most of the children assume he was a bachelor, though he does have one touching encounter with a young man who did remember her warmly and what an impression she made on his life. He and Chips talk about her, only for Chips to learn later that the young man dies at Passchendaele during WWI.
World War I is the overhanging tragedy of the entire novella. James Hilton talks in the introduction and afterward of the Readers Digest edition of Goodbye, Mr. Chips about the impact it made on him. He just missed entering the war, which ended as he was being called up from school, but the world was never the same again and all his books seem to reflect this (Lost Horizon also lies suspended between WWI and fear of future calamity, both economic, moral and political). Chips is constantly hearing of former pupils who died at the war. He even courageously, though quietly, calls attention to the death of a former teacher at Brookfield, who died fighting for the German army.
It is also during WWI that Chips has his greatest moment. Before the war started, he retired and settled in a boarding house just across the street from the school, where he could keep a hand in, get to know the new students and generally be a benevolent presence. But after WWI begins, teachers leave to fight, students die, rations are in affect and the headmaster asks Chips if he could possibly come out of retirement to help him. Chips agrees and when the headmaster dies, Chips is made acting headmaster for the duration of war, even teaching a lesson during a Zeppelin bombing near the school. And when the war is over, he retires again, feeling that the moment for his usefulness is past.
One of the things I love about Chips – and what possibly made the book such a success, especially in America – is his attitude towards people. He humbly takes people as they are, not assuming that he is anything extraordinary, either. There is no condescension, disdain, or even much dislike of others. He seems to genuinely like people. It is endearing. So often, characters in books and movies seem to need to justify their intelligence at the expense of other characters. With Hilton, there is a remarkably understanding sense of common humanity. His characters never criticize or rag on anyone. Mr. Chipping is, above all, a kind and gentle man. One suspects it was the gentleness of his character that drew Katherine to him. He also has a sense of humor, which he especially knows how to use to make his students laugh.
The other overhanging theme of the book is Chips perfect memory of all the boys who have come through his school. He always took special care to know them by name and never forgets them. He loves to meet former students, talk over old times and find out what’s become of them. Often, he would see three generations of boys pass through his school. By the end of his life, people pity him (one person observing that it was a pity he never had any children) while he has a sense of a life well-lived. He had, he tries to say, many children.
Hilton said that there were many teachers who inspired Mr. Chips, one of whom was his father, a fine teacher, a pacifist and a slightly unorthodox man. Brookfield was also something of a composite of many schools where he happily attended (where he says he wrote slightly revolutionary poetry without the slightest flap from anyone – he found the past almost more freethinking than the present – the 1930s).
Chips philosophy can be illustrated in an exchange with a young boy named Waveney, in the short story “Young Waveney,” where he gets in trouble for trying to buck the in-class system of a disliked teacher. Chips advice to him is as follows (in his later years, Chips halts and clears his throat a lot).
“But it’s a system, sir.”
“Systems, my boy, are hard things to fight. I warn you of that…but there’s one thing, Waveney…”
“Be – be kind, my boy.”
“Yes – umph – even when you’re fighting systems. Because there are – umph – human beings – behind those systems…”
Then Chips asks him what he’s going to be when he grows up and offers this observation.
“You’re going to be either – umph – a great man or – umph – a confounded nuisance…Or – umph – both…as so many of ’em are…Remember that.”
I also found this observation interesting, presented by Hilton in the afterwards of my copy of the book.
On Sundays we attended Chapel and heard sermons that preached brotherly love and forgiveness of our enemies. On Mondays we watched cadets on the football field bayoneting sacks with special aim for vital parts of the human body. I wondered endlessly whether Sunday’s or Monday’s behavior were the more hypocritical. I have changed my attitude since. That Brookfield declined to rationalize warfare into its code of ethics while at the same time sending its sons to fight and die seems to me now to have been pardonably illogical and creditably inconsistent. I can see that countries where high ideals are preached but not practiced are at least better off than countries in which low ideals are both preached and practiced.
He was, presumably, referring to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Hilton was not an idealist; he sounds more disillusioned, as if he can see life too clearly to have much faith in systems or ideologies or even the future improvement of society. His characters simply do the best they can in the circumstances they find themselves in, upheld by a sense of old fashioned duty.