GOOD-BYE, MR. CHIPS by James Hilton

Good-bye, Mr. Chips first came to the screen in 1939 and starred Robert Donat and Greer Garson. Donat won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance. This 1939 classic was remade in 1969 as a musical by screenwriter Terence Rattigan and director Herbert Ross and featured Peter O’Toole and Petula Clark.

Hilton’s story also inspired a 1939 radio adaptation with Lawrence Olivier, a stage play, a 1984 serial version by the BBC and a Masterpiece Theatre production in 2002; such is the power of a story well told.

I unearthed this gem of a novella from my closet, where it resided with cartons of other books that had been gifted to me shortly before I moved to New York. When Jocosa’s Bookshelf was born, I sifted through the boxes, donated many books to a local library and placed others like Good-bye, Mr. Chips in my TBR pile. I plucked it from the stack a few weeks ago and read it to my 89 year-old Aunt.

When you are getting on in years (but not ill, of course), you get very sleepy at times, and the hours seem to pass like lazy cattle moving across a landscape. It was like that for Chips as the autumn term progressed and the days shortened till it was actually dark enough to light the gas before call-over. For Chips, like some old sea captain, still measured time by the signals of the past; and well he might, for he lived at Mrs. Wickett’s just across the road from the School.

The narration wrapped around me like the arms of an old friend. The story came through me as if I were a medium delivering information from the other side, or in this case another time—the turn of the century.

Much like England at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, our protagonist wrestles with change during his tenure at Brookfield, a British boys’ school. The character of Chips, a stogy classics teacher, might well have ended up as a stereotype in less capable hands. But Hilton side-steps stereotype by revealing the warmth of Chip’s heart with each word the character thinks and utters. Mr. Chips does not always get on with everyone, but his compassion, even in the most difficult situations, is steadfast.

Against the genre fiction of today, I fear Hilton’s story might be criticized for its “telling” quality, for Chips’ life journey is recounted more than experienced. Yet, the conversational ease with which the tale is communicated holds a charm that cannot be ignored because Chips’ love of English traditions, Brookfield and the boys in his classroom overpower style.

Good-bye, Mr. Chips is a perfect bedtime story, although it’s impossible to read without a box of tissues.

Please say hello to Good-bye, Mr. Chips