Goodbye Mr Chips was a random library choice. The title rang a bell so I picked it up and the reviewer’s assertion that “Here is a triumphant proof that a little book can be a great book” clinched it for me. Of course in typical style, I loaned it out and promptly forgot about it until its’ due day loomed when I thought I should get on and read it!
Although it was evidently quite a popular book in the 1930’s when it was first published (first in a newspaper, then by Hodder and Stoughton), it seems to have been forgotten a bit. I myself, didn’t have a clue what it would be about, but had a feeling that it would be quaintly old-fashioned and very English. I found that it was both of those things, and though a sentimental book (possibly why it’s not so popular these days), I also found it charming.
We are introduced to Mr Chipping, (or ‘Mr Chips’ as he is known by the boys at the school where he teaches) when he is the twilight of his life. The book is a portrait of his life as a much-beloved and long-serving teacher at a boys school and gives glimpses into his life before and after the turn of the century. Old enough to have been a child visiting The Great Exhibition of 1851, yet with a teaching career lasting until after the First World War, Mr Chips is known to his boys and colleagues as just a kindly old bachelor but it is also revealed that he had a happy marriage with a bold and adventurous young woman in his younger days.
Goodbye Mr Chips is a gentle sort of book. I did like the nostalgic feel to it and the way that Hilton creates such a vivid and warm character. It made me giggle to think of Mr Chips with his detective novels, a guilty pleasure:
“Sometimes he took down Virgil or Xenophon and read for a few moments, but he was soon back again with Doctor Thorndyke or Inspector French.”
However although he is for the most part tucked away in his rooms or teaching his boys at school, he is also quietly aware of the world changing around him. His life spans the latter half of the 19th Century, he is witness to the development of the “New Woman”.
“For he did not, he would have said, care for women; he never felt at home or at ease with them; and that monstrous creature beginning to be talked about, the New Woman of the nineties, filled him with horror. He was a quiet, conventional person, and the wold, viewed from the haven of Brookfield, seemed to him full of distasteful innovations…”
That is until he meets his wife-to-be, Katherine. Mr Chips attitude to the world changes forever after a happen-chance meeting with an intrepid young woman who he meets out climbing.
The book has some poignant moments, especially in the latter half where the First World War begins to make its mark on his beloved school, claiming the lives of ex-pupils:
“…but Chips, in the back pew under the gallery, thought: They are only names to him, he doesn’t see their faces as I do.
1916. The Somme Battle. Twenty-three names read out one Sunday evening.“
Mr Chips’ unconventional outlook in his later years is also demonstrated in his warm words for an old friend, an ex German teacher.
Goodbye Mr Chips, is a book about a an educator who has lived many years, been touched by the sentiments of the time and has shepherded generations from boyhood to manhood. It is also about an old world being left behind and a new, tumultuous yet exciting one taking its place. It can’t say that reading this book exactly changed my life, but it was sensitively written, gave me a glimpse into another era and left me with a warm happy-sad nostalgic feeling. As comforting and typically English as a buttered crumpet in front of the fire.
7 out of 10