Header overlay

Chips Triumphant

Share this

On my bookshelves are several well-thumbed copies of Good-bye Mr Chips. One is a first edition with a delightful jacket illustration by Bip Pares of Mr Chips asleep in an armchair. Another is a film ‘tie-in’ paperback showing Peter O’Toole and Petula Clark in a scene from the 1969 musical version. A third is a beautifully bound special edition signed by the author and the artist H. M. Brock. And yet another is of Robert Donat and Greer Garson in a scene from the classic film version made in 1939.

Why do I have so many copies of the same book? Simply because it is one I frequently reread and it pleases me to read it in a variety of editions. Good-bye Mr Chips is a novel one can revisit again and again without tiring of it – surely one of the acid tests of a work of literature. Now firmly established as a twentieth-century classic, its origins are interesting.

One day in November 1933 a little-known writer named James Hilton was invited by the British Weekly to write a 3,000-word short story for publication in their Christmas issue. For this he would be paid £50, a considerable sum in those days. Hilton was then living a precarious existence as a freelance journalist and he badly needed the money. The only snag was that the story had to be written within a fortnight; otherwise it would be too late for the Christmas number.

Throughout the first of his precious two weeks he had a classic case of ‘writer’s block’. He racked his brains to think of an idea but inspiration simply would not come. At last he decided to go for a bicycle ride to clear his brain. He set off towards Epping Forest (he was then living with his parents at nearby Woodford Green) and happened to pass some ancient school buildings covered in Virginia creeper. As he looked at the old school an idea suddenly bobbed up in his mind and he saw the whole story in a flash. He pedalled home at furious speed and sat down at his typewriter to hammer out <

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

On my bookshelves are several well-thumbed copies of Good-bye Mr Chips. One is a first edition with a delightful jacket illustration by Bip Pares of Mr Chips asleep in an armchair. Another is a film ‘tie-in’ paperback showing Peter O’Toole and Petula Clark in a scene from the 1969 musical version. A third is a beautifully bound special edition signed by the author and the artist H. M. Brock. And yet another is of Robert Donat and Greer Garson in a scene from the classic film version made in 1939.

Why do I have so many copies of the same book? Simply because it is one I frequently reread and it pleases me to read it in a variety of editions. Good-bye Mr Chips is a novel one can revisit again and again without tiring of it – surely one of the acid tests of a work of literature. Now firmly established as a twentieth-century classic, its origins are interesting. One day in November 1933 a little-known writer named James Hilton was invited by the British Weekly to write a 3,000-word short story for publication in their Christmas issue. For this he would be paid £50, a considerable sum in those days. Hilton was then living a precarious existence as a freelance journalist and he badly needed the money. The only snag was that the story had to be written within a fortnight; otherwise it would be too late for the Christmas number. Throughout the first of his precious two weeks he had a classic case of ‘writer’s block’. He racked his brains to think of an idea but inspiration simply would not come. At last he decided to go for a bicycle ride to clear his brain. He set off towards Epping Forest (he was then living with his parents at nearby Woodford Green) and happened to pass some ancient school buildings covered in Virginia creeper. As he looked at the old school an idea suddenly bobbed up in his mind and he saw the whole story in a flash. He pedalled home at furious speed and sat down at his typewriter to hammer out Good-bye Mr Chips in four days. He wrote later:
I am chary of using the word ‘inspiration’, which is too often something non-existent that a writer waits for when he is lazy; but, as a matter of record, Good-bye Mr Chips was written more quickly, more easily, and with fewer subsequent alterations than anything I had ever written before, or have written since.
The publishers were delighted with the story but surprised to find that the 3,000 words they had requested had now become 18,000 – the length of a short novel. Nevertheless they sensed that this was something special and decided to publish it in its entirety in their Christmas supplement. A few months later the Atlantic Monthly in America followed suit. The story is an affectionate portrait of the life and career of Mr Chipping (known to generations of staff and pupils as ‘Chips’), a schoolmaster at Brookfield, a boys’ boarding school. He joins the staff in 1870 at the age of 22 and remains there until he retires in 1913 at 65. During the First World War he is recalled from retirement and becomes Acting Head for a brief period, finally stepping down in 1918. He dies in 1933, a popular and respected figure who has become a Brookfield institution. Good-bye Mr Chips gives a bird’s eye view of his long career as he looks back on his years as a Classics master – his arrival at Brookfield as a young and diffident teacher, his slow gaining of confidence, his triumphant marriage to the vivacious and forward-looking Katherine Bridges, her death in childbirth two years later, his popularity with boys and staff as a kindly and wise teacher, his rich sense of humour, the mingled nostalgia and happiness with which he surveys his long years as a schoolmaster, the sweeping social changes he has witnessed with the passing of the Victorian age and the coming of the twentieth century. With the unfolding of the years he has become almost a revered figure, ‘the guest of honour at Old Brookfieldian dinners, the court of appeal in all matters affecting Brookfield history and traditions’. Through it all shines the personality of ‘Chips’, a quiet and gentle man, modest about his achievements but not afraid to express his opinions on matters of principle. Chips is no dry-as-dust pedant. He expresses himself forcibly on educational matters, as when a new headmaster deprecates Chips’s ‘old-fashioned’ methods:
These examinations and certificates and so on – what did they matter? And all this efficiency and up to dateness – what did that matter, either? . . . No sense of proportion. And it was a sense of proportion, above all things, that Brookfield ought to teach.
In holding these views Chips is flying in the face of the prevailing orthodoxy of his time, and even today many would question the notion that the teaching of values is as important as the teaching of the curriculum. Chips goes out of his way to ensure that his pupils respect the views of others. At the time of the Boer War for example he points out that the Boers are engaged in a struggle bearing a marked similarity to that of some English heroes; during a railway strike he is pointedly on good terms with a striker; at the height of anti-German feeling during the war he deliberately announces that a former German master has been killed while fighting on the Western Front. Chips stands for tolerance, compassion and understanding in an age when hatred and mistrust are widespread. Hilton based the character of Mr Chips on a number of schoolmasters he had known in real life including his own father, John Hilton, who taught in Walthamstow, London, for many years. His principal source, however, was W. H. Balgarnie, senior Classics master at The Leys School, Cambridge, where Hilton was a pupil from 1915 to 1918. Years later Hilton confided to the headmaster: ‘Balgarnie was, I suppose, the chief model for my story, so far as I had one; certainly in my school life his was a personality I have never forgotten.’ In modelling Mr Chips, Hilton took from Balgarnie his shrewdness, his infectious humour, his love of verbal jokes and his strong sense of discipline. Balgarnie too loved to reminisce about the school and liked to keep in touch with former pupils. Good-bye Mr Chips was published in book form in 1934, sold 130,000 copies within the first ten months and has been in print ever since. Perhaps the finest tribute among a plethora of favourable reviews on publication was paid by the novelist Howard Spring:

Here is triumphant proof that a little book can be a great book. Mr Chips deserves a place in the gallery of English characters. Never have I known more beautifully 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.

The novel has also been filmed four times, most notably in the 1939 version starring Robert Donat, adapted as a stage play, dramatized for radio and translated into twenty languages, including a Japanese version translated by Professor Kiyoshi Ikeda, a former pupil of The Leys School. Fittingly too, the name ‘Chips’ has come to be synonymous with a venerable schoolmaster who commands the respect of both staff and pupils and can look back on a long and distinguished career. It would not be an exaggeration to say that it was Good-bye Mr Chips that launched James Hilton on a highly successful literary career. His most famous novel, Lost Horizon, was actually published before Chips but its initial sales were disappointing. It was the phenomenal success of Good-bye Mr Chips which led to an increasing interest in Hilton and to reprints of his earlier works. He had at last ‘arrived’ as a fully fledged author. Not long after he was invited to Hollywood and became a scriptwriter, working on classic films such as Mrs Miniver and Madame Curie, and advising on adaptations of his own novels. Those four days he had spent typing away in a white heat of enthusiasm proved in the end to be the decisive turning-point of his life.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 33 © John Hammond 2012


About the contributor

John Hammond has written on Wells, Poe, Orwell, Stevenson and Defoe. He is also the founder of the James Hilton Society: www.jameshiltonsociety.co.uk.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.