Imperial fiction: Goodbye, Mr Chips

Whatever happened and however the avenues of politics twisted and curved, he had faith in England, in English flesh and blood.
James Hilton, Goodbye, Mr Chips, 1934

Mr Chips deserves a place in the gallery of English characters. Never have I known more perfectly rendered a man at perfect peace with life, a finer setting forth of what happy dreams may come when you are old and grey and full of sleep.
Howard Spring, 1934

James Hilton was born in 1900, spending his public-schooldays during the First World War, just too young to be called up for active service. And, perhaps as a consequence of his age, Goodbye, Mr Chips is the best novel about the impact of that conflict that I know. The narrative stretches further in time than that suggests, but the shadow of war hangs over everything.

The book’s hero, Chipping – we never learn his Christian name – was born in 1848, the year of revolutions, and first went to teach Latin at Brookfield School in 1870, the year of the Franco-Prussian War. The old headmaster, shortly to retire, engages in a little light chat after the job interview: ‘Looks as if we shall have to settle with the Prussians ourselves one of these fine days, eh?’

Indeed. And for the next forty-odd years we hear again and again of one pupil or another that he was to be ‘killed at Passchendaele’ or ‘drowned at Jutland’ or ‘shot down in flames over Cambrai’.

Brookfield is a venerable establishment, but it’s not in the first rank of the great public schools. Its old boys tend to be ‘merchants, manufacturers, and professional men, with a good sprinkling of country squires and parsons,’ rather than the movers and shakers of history. ‘It was the sort of school which, when mentioned, would sometimes make snobbish people confess that they rather thought they had heard of it.’ And Chips – as Chipping is inevitably nicknamed – is made of much the same stuff: respectable but not brilliant, an everyman not a man of destiny.

As he reaches middle age, sunk comfortably in ‘the haven of Brookfield’, he’s become set in his ways, suspicious of such new-fangled fads as the New Woman, bicycling and George Bernard Shaw. And then he meets Katherine Bridges. She’s twenty-five to his forty-eight and she’s full of ‘all this modern newness and freedom’. They fall in love, marry and find the perfect English balance of tradition and innovation: ‘her young idealism worked upon his maturity to produce an amalgam very gentle and wise.’

Her liberalism changes him, and it changes Brookfield, both of them for the better. There’s a new kindness and a new engagement with society. The school runs a mission in the East End, for example, a worthy enough cause, but she successfully argues that long-distance charity isn’t enough. Personal bridges need to be built. ‘England isn’t always going to be divided into officers and “other ranks”,’ she says. ‘And those Poplar boys are just as important – to England – as Brookfield is.’

Similarly, outbreaks of homosexual activity should be understood, she reasons. After all, ‘having all these hundreds of boys cooped up here is really an unnatural arrangement’. Chips isn’t convinced: ‘we have to be pretty strict about this sort of thing. One black sheep can contaminate others.’ But, as she points out, that black sheep had himself been contaminated.

He tends to take her lead, for he knows she is more intelligent than he, and he recognises the transformation in himself:

When he had first come to Brookfield he had aimed to be loved, honoured, and obeyed – but obeyed, at any rate. Obedience he had secured, and honour had been granted him; but only now came love, the sudden love of boys for a man who was kind without being soft, who understood them well enough, but not too much, and whose private happiness linked them with their own.

It is, perhaps, too good to last. In 1898, less than two years after they meet, Katherine dies in childbirth, with the baby also perishing, and Chips is left alone.

Her legacy is the change wrought in him. He’s more tolerant now, less inclined to accept conventional opinion and more embracing of humanity:

It was typical of him that he did not share the general jingo bitterness against the Boers. Not that he was a pro-Boer – he was far too traditional for that, and he disliked the kind of people who were pro-Boers; but still, it did cross his mind at times that the Boers were engaged in a struggle that had a curious similarity to those of certain English history-book heroes – Hereward the Wake, for instance, or Caractacus.

And during a rail-strike, ‘There was Chips, talking to a striker.’

He’s not entirely changed, of course. He’s still conservative enough to disapprove strongly of Lloyd George and the People’s Budget, though he warms to the old goat in later years, and when the two men meet at a Brookfield Speech Day, he praises him for having ‘improved’ since his younger days. No offence is taken. ‘L. G. laughed heartily and talked to Chips more than to anyone else during the ceremonial that followed.’

He’s also not impressed by educationalists, particularly those who’ve decided that Latin pronunciation needs to change. What’s the point of making boys say Kickero instead of Cicero, he demands, when they’ll drop it as soon as they leave school? He’s right, of course: Cicero has survived. There are many fashions that are imposed in schools, and are therefore expected to filter through to society, but which fail to catch on.

But Chips’s traditionalism brings him up against the worldview of Ralston, a new headmaster who understands market forces: ‘Modern parents are beginning to demand something more for their three years’ school fees than a few scraps of languages that nobody speaks.’ What they want are exam certificates, and Chips is outraged that ‘Ralston was trying to run Brookfield like a factory – a factory for turning out a snob culture based on money and machines.’ This isn’t ‘a genuine inclusive democracy of duke and dustman,’ but simply an obsession with ‘a fat banking account’.

Is there a strand of antisemitism in Chips’s reaction to Ralston’s reforms? Well, yes. ‘Once Chips had got into trouble because of some joke he had made about the name and ancestry of a boy named Isaacstein.’ The boy’s father complained, but what do you expect? ‘Touchy, no sense of humour, no sense of proportion – that was the matter with them, these new fellows…’

Chips retires in 1913. He’s sixty-five years old now, and a bad bout of bronchitis makes it clear that he isn’t really up to the demands of schoolmastering anymore. So he takes rooms in the house of Mrs Wickett, formerly the linen-room maid, who lives over the way, and he keeps in touch with the old place.

And when war comes – the Great War – he’s there in chapel every Sunday, listening to the roll-call of old boys who have been killed that week. One evening, during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, there are twenty-three names. Twenty-three.

It’s around this time that the new new headmaster – Ralston having long since departed – asks him to come back. With so many men called up, there’s a need for temporary teaching staff, but it’s more than that. Chips is the soul of Brookfield, the keeper of the flame, the man who still holds to ‘those ideas of dignity and generosity that were becoming increasingly rare in a frantic world’. He represents stability. As the headmaster tells him: ‘You’d help to hold things together if there were any danger of them flying to bits. And perhaps there is that danger…’ Chips accepts ‘with a holy joy in his heart’.

And so begins the Indian summer of his career. ‘He felt a little like a music-hall favourite returning to the boards after a positively last appearance.’ He even gets to be acting headmaster, though he resigns his position on Armistice Day. And, having done his bit, he returns to his rooms with Mrs Wickett.

After his second retirement he becomes an avid reader of detective novels, because that’s the kind of chap he is: ‘Sometimes he took down Vergil or Xenophon and read for a few moments, but he was soon back again with Doctor Thorndyke or Inspector French. He was not, despite his long years of assiduous teaching, a very profound classical scholar.’

If the post-war years are sometimes uneasy and difficult, there are compensations. ‘Boys were a politer race; bullying was non-existent; there was more swearing and cheating. There was a more genuine friendliness between master and boy – less pomposity on the one side, less unctuousness on the other.’ And even when the country is torn apart by the General Strike in 1926, Chips remains his optimistic self. It is true that ‘Something had happened, something whose ultimate significance had yet to be reckoned’, but it was also true – as he tells a visiting American – that there was ‘not a life lost, not a shot fired’. Civilisation survives.

The evening before his final collapse, he tells a new boy at Brookfield that this is ‘a very cross sort of world’, and expresses his hope that ‘it will have got over some of its crossness by the time you’re ready for it’. But this is written in 1933, and we know – as Hilton couldn’t – that there’s no such prospect. In the next ten or so years, it may well be that the boy’s name will be read out in chapel one Sunday evening.

It’s a wonderful, magical story, largely because Chips is one of the greatest creations in all the nation’s literature, a living flesh-and-blood person who also encapsulates the English spirit, tested to near destruction in the First World War.

Because apart from the humanity of Chips, this is the story of the travails of Britain. Where Dornford Yates in Lower than Vermin (1950) used the country house as a symbol of the world that died in the Great War, Hilton employs the public school to express the sense of loss. As an institution, it may not display the same social diversity as the big house, but it does have its own mythic power.

It’s to do with time, I think, and how it moves in different ways in a school. The cycle of the year is as significant here as it is for those working the land, but there is also the rapidity of the passing of generations of children. And beyond them is the slow ageing of the teachers. As Hilton writes elsewhere:

Schooldays are a microcosm of life – the boy is born the day he enters the school and dies the day he leaves it; in between are youth, middle-age, and the elderly respectability of the sixth-form. But outside this cycle stands the schoolmaster, watching the three-year lifetimes as they pass him by, remembering faces and incidents as a god might remember history.

Then there’s the weight of the past in an old school, the heavy accumulation of human experience, the ‘Brookfield history and traditions’ that Chips knows better than anyone. ‘He had a sudden vision of thousands and thousands of boys, from the age of Elizabeth onward; dynasty upon dynasty of masters; long epochs of Brookfield history that had left not even a ghostly record.’

And yet the valediction of the title suggests that the death of Chips is the end of an era.

This epic tale, spanning six decades, is all the better for being also a miniature, just 16,500 words. Hilton wrote it in the space of four days, and it is a truly beautiful piece of work, as reviewers noted at the time. Ethel Mannin said it was ‘exquisite’, which it is, and Howard Spring said it was ‘a great book’, and that’s true as well.

The events are treated with the most delicate economy. Even the death of Katherine and the baby is contained in a chapter that doesn’t fill a side of print.

The pared-down writing is sometimes akin to the stage directions in a screenplay. This is his summary of 1896: ‘A hansom clop-clopping in the roadway; green-pale gas lamps flickering on a wet pavement; newsboys shouting something about South Africa; Sherlock Holmes in Baker Street.’

And these are the Edwardian years: ‘Strikes and lockouts, champagne suppers and unemployed marchers, Chinese labour, tariff reform, H.M.S. Dreadnought, Marconi, Home Rule for Ireland, Doctor Crippen, suffragettes, the lines of Chatalja…’

So effortless, so intricate.

Goodbye, Mr Chips was an immediate hit, following on from Hilton’s breakthrough novel, Lost Horizon (1933), and sold in the hundreds of thousands in its first year. It was adapted as a BBC play in January 1935, and rebroadcast in July 1936.* There was also a stage production in 1938.

The best-known adaptation is the 1939 movie. Columbia had already acquired the rights to Lost Horizon, and MGM bought up Mr Chips in 1935, intending it as a star vehicle for Charles Laughton. In the event, he was replaced by Robert Donat, the new British acting sensation who was coming off the back of a remarkable series of films: The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), The 39 Steps (1935) and The Citadel (1938). There had also been Knight Without Armour (1937), adapted from another Hilton story.

Personally, I think the movie is overblown – certainly it comes nowhere near the understated elegance of the book – and I don’t really find Donat convincing as Chips. But I know I’m in a minority here, and he duly won the Best Actor Oscar, beating perhaps the strongest field of nominees ever: Clark Gable for Gone with the Wind, Laurence Olivier for Wuthering Heights, Mickey Rooney for Babes in Arms and James Stewart for Mr Smith Goes to Washington. And at least Donat is better than Peter O’Toole’s version in the misguided 1969 musical adaptation. The best incarnation, I think, is that of Martin Clunes in ITV’s 2002 version. But why bother? You can read the book in less time than it takes on screen, and it’s incomparably better.

Hilton himself, on the back of Lost Horizon and Mr Chips, was lured to Hollywood in 1935, ‘signing a contract for thousands of dollars a week’. He went with his wife, who he’d just married, but their relationship couldn’t withstand the pressures of stardom. ‘I didn’t think it necessary to take much notice of the other women at parties,’ was how she summed up her mistake, two years later. She wasn’t bitter, though. ‘I don’t feel vindictive against the woman who eventually took my husband from me. I am not unfriendly to Jimmy either. He’s a lovable man. The breakdown of our marriage is just one of those things that happen.’

In 1938 James Hilton published To You, Mr Chips, which added half-a-dozen longer episodes from Chips’s time at Brookfield. They’re perfectly good little tales in their own right, up in the top form of school stories, and there are some nice touches. This, for example, is Chips showing an American film star around Brookfield: ‘Renny was horrified at the primitiveness of the School bathrooms, and was still more horrified when Chips told him they had just been modernised.’

Even so, these pieces are really surplus to requirements. The sketched perfection of the original is complete; it requires no adornment. And yet, To You is not completely unnecessary; it comes with a lengthy introduction by Hilton, and that is fascinating.

It starts with some reminiscences of his childhood. His father, we learn, was a headmaster and a pacifist, and James’s own schooldays were, as one might imagine, dominated by the war:

It was a frantic world; and we knew it even if we did not talk about it. Slowly, inch by inch, the tide of war lapped to the gates of our seclusion; playing-fields were ploughed up for trenches and drill-grounds; cadet-corps duties took precedence over classroom studies; the school that had prepared so many beloved generations for life was preparing this one, equally beloved, for death.

He remembers his dismay at the discrepancy between the Christian message of forgiving one’s enemies, as preached in chapel on Sunday, and the bayonet-practice on Monday. Looking back from 1938, however, he is more forgiving of the hypocrisy now than he was as a teenager: ‘I can see that countries where high ideals are preached but not practised are at least better off than countries in which low ideals are both preached and practised.’

And that’s the real value of this fragment of autobiography. Just a few years on from Goodbye, Mr Chips, things have gone very wrong. The world is rushing again towards war, and much of Europe is already in the grip of dictatorships. As he surveys the wreckage of democracy in Germany, Italy, Russia and Spain, Hilton concludes of the previous conflict: ‘Perhaps we can say that England as a whole, though suffering vast changes, has survived more recognisably than any other country. She is more than the ghost of her former self –­ she has a good deal still left of the substance.’

That substance is ‘the spirit of tolerance which today is in such grave peril because it is in the very nature of tolerance to take tolerance for granted’. It is this spirit ‘that makes English Conservatives liberal and keeps English Socialists conservative’. He holds out little hope that it will survive the coming storm, but while it yet survives, he wants to acknowledge the hope it once offered.

When he was at school, he recalls, he wrote a sonnet in praise of the Russian Revolution, and observes that even in the supposedly conformist confines of a public school, and even in the midst of a terrible war, ‘a boy could be eccentric enough to write poetry and subversive enough to write pacifist and revolutionary poetry without being either persecuted or ostracised’. How many schools in the Soviet Union or in Nazi Germany would display such ‘genial indifference’ to youthful dissent, he wonders.

He acknowledges that the Britain now passing was far from perfect: ‘Its imperialism was, at its worst, smug, hypocritical, and predatory. Its laissez-faire capitalism resulted in such horrors as child-slavery in factories. Its vices were as solid as its virtues.’ On the other hand, it was possible during the Victorian period ‘for an intelligent man in Western Europe to look around his world and believe that it was getting better’. Freedom and democracy were on the rise, international relations were becoming less bellicose, even technology was on the side of progress: ‘the railway was not (like the aeroplane) diabolically apt for use in warfare.’

The point of civilisation, he argues, is to build ‘a crust of security over the prevalent turbulence of mankind’, and ‘Victorian England sealed the volcano more stoutly than it had ever been sealed before, so that a man and his son and his son’s son might live and die in the belief that the world would not witness certain things again’. The Great War has shattered that crust, but ‘its debris is something to cling to’ until it is finally destroyed ‘in the next war (that is to say, in the war that has already begun)’.

And what should we make of the old world? He shrugs his suggestion: ‘Let history write the epitaph – ­England, liberalism, democracy were not so bad – ­not so good, either, on all occasions, but better, maybe, in a longer retrospect.’

There’s something personal in all this, one feels. Not just the patriotism of the Englishman abroad, but the fact that in the highest artistic circles, he was felt to be overly sentimental in his portrayal of Chips. The warmth of his characters did not suit the intellectual cynicism of the times. Nor did his focus on the children of ‘the despised bourgeois capitalist class’ fit with an inverted-snob attitude that disapproved of ‘anything modern that cannot call itself “proletarian”’.

His response is a defence of a school system, of a country and of a set of values that he still cherished:

The public schools do create snobbery, or at any rate the illusion of superiority; you cannot train a ruling class without such an illusion. My point is that the English illusion has proved, on the whole, humaner and more endurable, even by its victims, than the current European illusions that are challenging and supplanting it; that the public-school Englishmen who flock to a Noel Coward revue to join in laughs against themselves are patterned better than the polychromed shirtwearers of the Continent who not only cannot laugh but dare not allow laughter.
Granted that the long afternoon of English imperialism is over, that dusk is falling on a dominion wider if less solid than Rome’s. Granted that the world is tired of us and our solar topees and our faded kip-lingerie, that it will not raise a finger to save us from eclipse. Time will bring regrets, if any. For myself, I do not object to being called a sentimentalist because I acknowledge the passing of a great age with something warmer than a sneer.

* Wikipedia notes the latter broadcast, but omits the former. And while we’re on the subject of correcting Wikipedia, it says the stage version was first performed at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London on 23 September 1938, when actually it had previewed eleven days prior to that in Manchester.

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One thought on “Imperial fiction: Goodbye, Mr Chips

  1. I am opposed to boarding schools on principle. Ironic that your article has brought tears to my eyes and that I agree with most of his outlook. Yes I am a sentimental backward-looking reactionary.


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