Saturday, April 25, 2009

Goodbye Mr Chips by James Hilton

Mr Chips, for readers not familiar with the 1934 novel by James Hilton – or with the 1939 movie starring Robert Donat - is the archetypal crusty-but-humane public school master. His subject is Latin, his theatre the Lower Fourth, and his finest moment comes during the First World War as the Germans are bombarding the school from a zeppelin. ‘You cannot judge the importance of things by the noise they make,’ he says to a classroom of boys as the drone of zeppelin engines gets nearer. ‘These things that have mattered for a thousand years are not going to be snuffed out because some stink-merchant invents a new kind of mischief.’

But it wasn’t originally Chips, but Chops. That in any case was the nickname of a master, so-called because of his impressive mutton-chop whiskers, at the Leys school in Cambridge attended by the young James Hilton. This is the probable origin of the name: the actual personality of Mr Chips came from a different source - another master, William Balgarnie. Hilton wrote: ‘Balgarnie was, I suppose, the chief model for my story. When I read so many other stories about public school life, I am struck by the fact that I suffered no such purgatory as their authors apparently did, and much of this miracle was due to Balgarnie.’

Hilton’s other great best-seller was Lost Horizon, which introduced the Himalayan paradise of Shangri-La: it and Goodbye Mr Chips were both novels about lost utopias, one set in an idealized public school, the other in a hidden mountain valley.

The Oxford Companion to English Literature notes tersely: ‘Hilton became a Hollywood scriptwriter and died in California.’

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