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Goodbye, Mr. Chips – James Hilton

2980After 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.

Greer Garson and Robert Donat in the 1939 Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Greer Garson and Robert Donat in the 1939 Goodbye, Mr. Chips

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.

goodbye-mr-chips-bd3e77b5-e1331500337877Hilton 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…”

“Yes, sir?”

“Be – be kind, my boy.”

“Kind, sir?”

“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.”

1969 musical of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, starring Peter O'Toole

1969 musical of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, starring Peter O’Toole

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.

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2015 in Books

 

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Life With Mother Superior – Jane Trahey

Life-with-Mother-Superior-Jane-TraheyAfter seeing and falling in love with the movie The Trouble with Angels (Rosalind Russell and Hayley Mills), I desperately wanted to read the book it was based on: Life With Mother Superior, by Jane Trahey. I checked at my library and they didn’t have it and then I looked it up on Amazon and found a used copy was selling for $134. So, instead I asked my library to get it through an inter-library loan (if you’ve never used this feature at your local library, this is absolutely the best way to read obscure or expensive books).

It’s a pity this book is not more easily available, because it is a hoot. I was surprised at how much dialogue, narration and events found their way into the movie. Some of the funniest lines and events of the film (like when Mother Superior says in a deadpan voice, “Where’s the fire?” after she’s locked the girls into the nun’s dormitory and they escape through the fire chute), come straight from the book.

Life with Mother Superior is an almost tongue-in-cheek remembrance of Jane Trahey’s years at St. Marks, a Catholic boarding school. She tells about the pranks she pulled, the battle of wits she engaged in with Mother Superior, her experiences there, the people she knew, her classes.

In the movie, the story follows Mary Clancy (played by Hayley Mills) and her relationship with Mother Superior and her friendship with Rachel. She is the rebellious one and the one who comes up with most of the ideas. In the book, however, Mary Clancy is Jane Trahey’s friend. Many of Mary’s traits in the movie are actually Jane Trahey’s traits, though the girls in the book are really two peas in a pod. Rachel, in the movie, is almost a new creation, though there are some aspects of the original people that find their way into her character. She is awkward at sports, like the real Mary Clancy, but neither Jane nor Mary in the book are followers like Rachel.

Many of the pranks that are pulled in the movie are exactly the same ones that Jane and Mary pulled in reality. There is the smoking, the bubble maker put into the nun’s sugar bowls, the tours of the nun’s dormitory, the skipping of swim class. They even both get expelled, though their parents somehow manage to talk them back into school. What makes it all fun, though, is how Trahey writes it.

Trahey is a very funny writer. Her accounts of sex education is hysterical (“don’t sit on a boy’s lap”), her attempts to sew panties, learning dancing from Mrs. Dowland Phipps, the Senior Prom, the senior play (where she says the wrong line at the beginning of the play, which cues the premature death of Abraham Lincoln; he gets assassinated after 23 minutes and Mother Superior has to step in to assure the parents that the play will proceed to act 2 and 3), crowning Mary in May, the band competition, and so on. I laughed my way through the book.

trouble_with_angelsInterestingly, in the movie, Mary has a character arc. She begins as a rebellious teenager and ends up appreciating the nuns and joining their order. The whole movie is a coming of age story. This is not the point of the book. In fact, I got the distinct impression that at the time of writing, Jane Trahey was quite proud of her doings. She seems to have regarded it as a training ground for a way of life, more creative and free and not dictated by her parents or teachers. There is just a touch of contempt for those rather square students who always do the right thing and make the honor roll, as if they were living a rather prudish, stuffy, suck-up-to-the-teacher, narrow kind of life.

Amidst all the humor, there are poignant moments. As in the movie, the much loved teacher of Geometry, Sister Liguori dies unexpectedly, leaving a grieving school, as well as a grieving dog who loved her. And despite Jane Trahey’s stated view that the nuns were “the enemy” (tongue-in-cheek) there are signs all over the place that the nuns are really more understanding than she admits. As in the movie, Mother Superior really does help Jane with her sewing project and at the end, when Jane is shocked at Mary’s choice to become a nun and refuses to speak to her, it is Mother Superior who comes to her to comfort her and tell her she will one day understand why Mary did what she did. There is a gradual process, throughout the book, of beginning to see nuns as people rather than just as nuns. In a way, Mary becoming a nun completes that process.

One thing that was fun was how rooted in popular culture her book was. The nuns take the girls on a field trip to the Chicago World’s Fair, before it had officially opened in 1933. She also references movie stars like Fay Wray, Jeanette MacDonald, Deanna Durbin, and Ginger Rogers. She goes to see Kitty Foyle, released in 1940, and cries her way through it. She also mentions wanting to learn the Carica, which is a dance that had a brief span of popularity owing to the first dance Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers ever did together in the 1933 film Flying Down to Rio. She has a crush on Robert Taylor, who was the hottie of the mid 1930s. There is no trace of a depression. Her parents seem to have been fairly well off.

After reading the book, I was curious about her life and found the most information in her obiturary in the New York Times, which gives a quick overview of her life as a successful and creative business woman. She lived from 1923-2000 and was a very successful copywriter and opened her own advertising company in the 1960s. She also wrote, penning everything from books about her experiences, novels, pamphlets, slogans for products like Danskin tights and so on. Her most famous ad campaign was for Blackglama, worn by stars like Lauren Bacall, Audrey Hepburn, Barbara Streisand, and Maria Callas. Their slogan was “What Becomes a Legend Most.”

This has little do to with the book, but here is a video showing all the many stars and modals who have worn Blackgama through the years.

 

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2015 in Books

 

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