Mr. Chips – a schoolmaster for all seasons

James Hilton, novelist and scriptwriter, was the best-selling author of Lost Horizon, Goodbye Mr Chips, and Random Harvest. At the height of his fame he topped the best-seller lists on both sides of the Atlantic, winning an Academy Award for his work on the screenplay of Mrs. Miniver (1942).

Success came to Hilton (left) in 1931 with the publication of his novel And Now Goodbye, a love story. This was followed by Knight Without Armour, an improbable yarn set during the Russian Revolution, and Lost Horizon, a tale of a lost civilisation hidden in the mountains of Tibet. It gave the word “Shangri-La” to the English Language. In 1934 came his classic story, Good-bye Mr Chips, written in four days, which became an overnight success. It was originally issued as a supplement to a weekly newspaper in Britain but came to prominence when it was reprinted in The Atlantic. Its success prompted a deal with Little, Brown and Company, which published it in book form. It was filmed twice, adapted for radio and television, and translated into over 20 languages.

The novel tells the story of Mr Chipping, a much loved schoolteacher and his long tenure at Brookfield, a fictional boys’ public boarding school. While climbing Great Gable in the Lake District, “Chips” meets and later marries Katherine Bridges, who overcomes his shyness and enables him to pursue an illustrious career as an inspiring educator at Brookfield.

Although the book is unabashedly sentimental, it also depicts the sweeping political and social changes that Chips experiences throughout his life. He started at Brookfield in 1870, as the Franco-Prussian War was breaking out, and lies on his deathbed shortly after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. He is portrayed as someone who touches people’s lives, ignoring petty politics and standing up for notions of “dignity and generosity that were becoming increasingly rare in a frantic world.”

The book was first filmed in 1939, starring Robert Donat and Greer Garson. Donat had already played in the film version of Knight Without Armour, Hilton’s novel published in 1933. Goodbye, Mr Chips (minus its hyphen) was nominated for seven Academy Awards in the same year as Gone with the Wind. Robert Donat won an Oscar for Best Actor, beating Clark Gable.

Seeking a key to the role, Donat wrote to Hilton, who replied (10 July 1938): “Mr Chips was not (despite many people who think so) any single actual person, but a combination of several schoolteachers whom I knew very well – including, incidentally my own father… The original of Brookfield School is the Ley School, Cambridge, and if you ever feel like visiting it, in order to gain the atmosphere, please visit W. H. Balgarnie, who lives across the road from the School and in himself is a little bit of Chips.”

Describing the character, Donat said, “Chips is full of subtle, rather indefinite light and shade, and to trace his life and varying emotions through a period of sixty crowded years wants a great deal of careful thought and preparation.” Later he observed, “As soon as I put the moustache on, I felt the part, even if I did look like a great Airdale come out of a puddle.” (Mr. Chips: The Life of Robert Donat, by Kenneth Barrow).

Goodbye Mr Chips is only some 128 pages. In 1938 James Hilton published To You, Mr. Chips, which is twice as long. It begins as autobiography, but soon switches to Hilton’s vision of a better society via a more detailed biography of Chips and his “wise and sweetening influence” on the lives of schoolchildren. Neither book has lost its charm.

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