Sunday, May 9, 2010

Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton

This sentimental British classic about a beloved schoolmaster at a prestigious boys' school fully deserves its place in the pantheon of beloved books.

Created as a loving tribute to the teaching profession, "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" tells the story of Mr. Chipping, affectionately known as "Chips," who came to serve in the hallowed halls of Brookfield School as a young man of twenty-two as Latin master. As the years passed, he seemed destined to make no great mark on his pupils' lives, to be just another teacher, gruff, and reserved, respected, but not particularly liked, much less loved.

Then love came unexpectedly into the life of this crusty, confirmed, old bachelor, in the form of vivacious and kind Katherine, a woman young enough to be his daughter, who espoused distinctly modern views and even rode a bicycle. It was the most unlikely of matches, but it made Chips a new man; Katherine brought out the best in him. And with her at his side, he opened like a flower and even let his long suppressed sense of humor shine, using it as a tool to educate, with clever little jokes and puns to help his pupils learn and remember their lessons.

Though Chips' marital happiness was short-lived (Katherine died in childbirth), the lessons Katherine taught the teacher stuck, and Chips himself began to take root in his pupils' hearts, and by the time a brash new headmaster tried to force him into retirement he was considered a venerable Brookfield institution, a sort of school mascot, who had taught generations of boys, and they rallied to his defense and saw that he was assured a place at Brookfield as long as he lived.

Though Chips chose to retire voluntarily in 1913, taking rooms across the street from the school so he could always be nearby and have the boys for tea and cake, he temporarily returned to see the school through the war years (World War I), and with tears in his eyes read out the names of the fallen, the former students and faculty of Brookfield who had lost their lives on the battlefields of Europe, every evening in Chapel. He died after giving sixty-three years of his life to Brookfield, well beloved and fondly remembered.

"Goodbye Mr. Chips" is a simple story, short in pages though long in years, but it goes straight to the heart. Though some readers may find it a tad reserved, like Chips himself, and the style somewhat dry and terse, it is nonetheless an endearing story.

It was made into a wonderful film, as true to the book as a film can be, for which Robert Donat, in the title role, won a well-deserved Oscar, though up against Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in "Gone With The Wind" it was a close match and not a universally popular decision, which "Gone With The Wind" fan that I am--it is my favorite movie--I can well understand. Greer Garson as Katherine was also nominated, as Best Actress, but lost out to Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara.