Adventures in Bookland: Goodbye, Mr Chips
Goodbye, Mr Chips, James Hilton’s most famous novel, has somehow acquired a reputation for sentimentality and a rose-glow view of the English past, particularly in its public schools, that has done the book few favours. I stand here to tell you that this is not true. Yes, there is sentiment, but it is the sentiment for a time and world that was irrevocably lost in the mud and trenches of World War I, that took the boys who went through the English public school system and fed them through a meat grinder that had no notion of the ideas of honour, valour and playing the game that they had been inculcated with at those public schools. Yet a glance at the rolls of honour of any of the old English public schools will show that those boys played the game to the end, even though, as junior officers, leading their men from the front, they knew that they were deliberately targeted by the enemy. Indeed, the life expectancy for junior officers was the lowest of the lot among the soldiers of the First World War.
This is the story of one of the men who sent them off to war, who made them into the young men they were, made them prepared to lead from the front even though that was tantamount to suicide. Mr Chips, at the end of his life, after his retirment, returns to his old school, which he had never really left, to see it through the Great War, as the roll call of the dead is read out each week and the boys destined for the meat grinder and readied for their own turn upon the wheel. Yes, there is sentiment there, but it’s a true sentiment: a sentiment for what was lost – the ideal of the gentleman – and of what they had done: turned those boys, with all their enthusiasm and courage and hope, into meat for the grinder. Goodbye, Mr Chips is not the story people think it is. Read it for yourself and see.