Thursday, May 26, 2011
James Hilton - Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Chips is a schoolmaster at a public school called Brookfield. Brookfield isn't one of the top flight places like Eton or Harrow. It is a bit of a quiet backwater and the school itself doesn't, at least in the beginning have a particularly brilliant reputation. Chips teaches generations of children classics. Some of his more modernising colleagues plainly disapprove of his style and methods, but Chips hangs onto the past like a limpet. For him modernity is something that exists only to disturb the school. Change is bad, unless it is the gradual changing of the school years, the next generation of children entering the gates for the first time.
His kindness and fairness win the hearts and minds of generations of children. Chips serves at the school until he is no longer capable, and then is allowed to hang around in his retirement, inviting boys over for tea and watching them play sports. Such behaviour was clearly viewed with less suspicion in the 1920s.
But there are contradictions. Chips falls for a modern young lady. She's so modern, she reads Bernard Shaw and William Morris, rides a bicycle and speaks up against the punishment of the kids. It brings contradiction to the school, but Chips is won over by her. Unfortunately her presence would ruin the sentiment of the story line, so Hilton has her killed off early on. This allows more sentimentality to develop.
The book has proved amazingly popular. Almost certainly because of the way it deals with war - as a brutal disruption to normal life. Though the lives of the majority of the non-privileged only occasionally make it into the pages. Once during the General Strike and once earlier, with the brief visit of some token poor people from Poplar in East London. To give Hilton his due, Chips' extreme fairness is used in both cases to give the upper-classes something to think about. Though in the case of the General Strike, Chips muses that it has been sorted out in a most English way, to the satisfaction of everyone concerned. In the world outside the rarefied air of a public school, the General Strike was of course merely sorted out to the satisfaction of the establishment, but what does Chips really care about that?
Readable and amusing though the story is, it is fantasy. At one point Chips reflects that there is no bullying at Brookfield any more. Seems odd, given he's allowed to cane the children. If you like uncritical sentimentalist fantasy you'll probably like this. I'm told that R.F. Delderfield's To Serve Them All My Days, is a similar story, but has much more politics, social observation and reality in it. I'd suggest you go there for your public school stories first.