Goodbye, Mr. Chips was written in just a week — “more quickly, more easily, and with fewer subsequent alterations than anything I had ever written before, or have ever written since,” James Hilton noted. Based in part on the life of Hilton’s own father, the novel is just over 100 pages long and tells the simple, elegant tale of Mr. Chipping, or “Chips,” and his own “coming of age” alongside the thousands of boys he teaches over the years. The story begins on the day in 1880 when Chips arrives at Brookfield Academy and has his first, disastrous encounter with a class of rowdy students. With gentle wit and kindness, however, Chips quickly earns enough respect from his boys to teach well, if not brilliantly. As he approaches middle age he is content enough at Brookfield, although he knows something is missing. As the novel puts it, Chips “had been there long enough to have established himself as a decent fellow and a hard worker, but just too long for anyone to believe him capable of ever being much more.” But when Chips meets and marries Kathie on a holiday from school, everything changes: he becomes “to all appearances a new man.” Although Kathie dies in childbirth just a year later, Chips carries his new confidence into life at Brookfield and becomes not just respected but beloved. When World War I breaks out, Chips is finally asked to take over as headmaster of the school. “For the first time in his life,” Hilton writes, “he felt necessary — and necessary to something that was nearest his heart.” Mr. Chips’s calm wisdom sees the school through the war. When he dies peacefully in his bed years later his last words are the names of the boys he taught over the years. BEFORE AND AFTER WORLD WAR I
The world changed completely during the years in which Mr. Chips was at Brookfield. He would have entered the school in the late Victorian era, taught through the Edwardian era, and died between the two great wars of the 20th century, thus witnessing the dawn of the modern world. This was a time of dizzying technological advance: the early years of the 20th century saw the first electric lights, telephone, telegraph, transatlantic cable, elevator, car, and airplane flight. It was also a time when Britain went from being at the height of its imperial power — with countries under its flag around the globe –to seeing its might begin to wane as other nations competed for technological, political, and economic advantage. As Mr. Chips began his tenure at Brookfield, English class structure was still rigidly defined — everyone had a place in society, and everyone knew his or her place. But the changes wrought by World War I opened up new opportunities for women, as well as for the working classes. In their first meeting, Kathie asks Chips his opinion on women’s suffrage. By 1906 women were taking to the streets to demonstrate for the right to vote. Public sympathy for the cause grew, and when women had to take on the jobs that men left behind during World War I, they proved their capability. In 1918 women won the right to vote in Britain. For an evocative look at English life in Edwardian time, you may want to view portions of the PBS television series The Manor House, which portrays modern-day volunteers going “back in time” to become an upper-class family and their servants. Other films that portray this era are Gosford Park and The Shooting Party. WORLD WAR I AND PUBLIC SCHOOLS
When World War I broke out in 1914, it became the largest conflict history had ever seen. In the end, the British Empire sent nine million men to war and lost nearly one million of them. Of these men, many were public school boys like those in Goodbye, Mr. Chips. The film shows the first ominous stirrings of war as the new headmaster brings in an Officer Training Corps, and the boys develop a growing distrust of the German teacher, Herr Staefel. When the war first began, many in England thought it would end soon and be “the war...