By James Hilton
James Hilton’s novella about an aging schoolmaster at a boarding school first appeared in an evangelical newspaper called the British Weekly in 1933. When a friend of The Atlantic's editor, Ellery Sedgwick, happened to see the piece in galleys at the British Weekly’s offices, he liked what he saw and cabled Sedgwick to tell him about it. Sedgwick soon met with the obscure young author and obtained permission to publish the story as the lead feature in the April 1934 Atlantic. It thereupon found widespread popularity, vaulting Hilton to the ranks of best-selling authors, and Mr. Chips to the status of a beloved classic. The actor Robert Donat later earned an Oscar for his portrayal of Mr. Chips in the 1939 film version.
Across the road behind a rampart of ancient elms lay Brookfield, russet under its autumn mantle of creeper. A group of eighteenth-century buildings centred upon a quadrangle, and there were acres of playing fields beyond … It was the sort of school which, when mentioned, would sometimes make snobbish people confess that they rather thought they had heard of it.
But if it had not been this sort of school it would probably not have taken Chips. For Chips, in any social or academic sense, was just as respectable, but no more brilliant, than Brookfield itself.
It had taken him some time to realize this, at the beginning. Not that he was boastful or conceited, but he had been, in his early twenties, as ambitious as most other young men at such an age. His dream had been to get a headship eventually, or at any rate a senior mastership in a really first-class school; it was only gradually, after repeated trials and failures, that he realized the inadequacy of his qualifications. His degree, for instance, was not particularly good, and his discipline, though good enough and improving, was not absolutely reliable under all conditions. He had no private means and no family connections of any importance. About 1880, after he had been at Brookfield a decade, he began to recognize that the odds were heavily against his being able to better himself by moving elsewhere; but about that time, also, the possibility of staying where he was began to fill a comfortable niche in his mind. At forty, he was rooted, settled, and quite happy. At fifty, he was the doyen of the staff. At sixty, under a new and youthful Head, he was Brookfield—the guest of honor at Old Brookfeldian dinners, the court of appeal in all matters affecting Brookfield history and traditions. And in 1913, when he turned sixty-five, he retired, was presented with a check and a writing desk and a clock, and went across the road to live at Mrs. Wickett’s. A decent career, decently closed; three cheers for old Chips, they all shouted, at that uproarious end-of-term dinner.
Three cheers, indeed; but there was more to come, an unguessed epilogue, an encore played to a tragic audience.
Volume 153, No. 4, pp. 385–512