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Friday, May 10, 2013

The Comfort of an Old, Familiar Book

What a host of little incidents, all deep-buried in the past – problems that had once been urgent, arguments that had once been keen, anecdotes that were funny only because one remembered the fun. Did any emotion really matter when the last trace of it had vanished from human memory; and if that were so, what a crowd of emotions clung to him as to their last home before annihilation! He must be kind to them, must treasure them in his mind before their long sleep. - James Hilton, Good-bye, Mr. Chips (1934)

It was another sunny morning on Thursday, with orchards breaking out into first bloom, yellow violets smiling in happy little knots at the edge of the woods, trees dripping with leaves and first flowers and catkins, but temperature dropped in the afternoon, and so, with lawn all mowed and straw bales in place for this year’s garden, and after two days filled with outdoor exertion, I was ready for a slow, quiet, indoor evening and the comfort of a small, old volume.

Old Mr. Chipping! There he was on the shelf, that old retired schoolmaster living in a boarding house across the way from the school where he had taught for so many years, still serving afternoon tea to boys new and old (dismissing them when his energy flagged), remembering the years before and during World War I, marveling at the changes brought by the postwar period, and imagining the memoir he knows he will never write. The fictional Mr. Chips, as they all called him, lived his life for the most part within a small geographical plot, but the area covered contained as much of England as of himself. Maybe this is part of why the book was so popular. The passage above on memory, though, is very personal – universal but necessarily personal, for all that – that sense that every memory, even the least scrap not shared with another living person, is priceless for living on in one’s own mind.

Good-bye, Mr. Chips was a runaway bestseller in 1934. My copy shows that the book was first published in June of that year and reprinted twice the same month, then reprinted twice in July, again in August, twice in September, and then again in October. That’s as far as the printing history opposite the half-title page goes, from which I conclude that my copy is from that October printing. A slight novel, only 125 pages, the main character’s entire life was centered on his students at a second-tier English boys’ school (not the best, but decent) before, during, and following a brief, happy marriage to a beloved bride who died in childbirth, leaving him alone again. It’s a simple story of a simple man who over time made himself irreplaceable in his small world. Reprints continued through 1935, 1936, 1938 and ’39, and there were further printings by Little, Brown (the original American publisher) in1948 and 1959, along with paperback and school editions. It was probably the 1959 issue that my parents had in the house when I was young, and I probably read it then on the front porch on a summer afternoon, lying on my stomach on the day bed, bare feet waving in the air.

A stage play was produced in 1938, and the first film version appeared in 1939, starring Robert Donat in the role that won him that year’s Academy Award for Best Actor, over the heads of Laurence Olivier in “Wuthering Heights,” Clark Gable in “Gone with the Wind and Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith goes to Washington.” The film was remade in 1969 with Peter O’Toole, in 1974 as a television mini-series with Roy Marsdon, and most recently in 2002 with Martin Clunes in a Masterpiece Theatre production. The older he grew, it seems, the more beloved he was.
He had to take care of himself when there were east winds, but autumn and winter were not really so bad; there were warm fires, and books, and you could look forward to summer.
On a cool, overcast spring evening, looking forward to summer myself but not in any hurry for it, I enjoyed having imaginary tea again with Mr. Chips. He is still good company, as he has been to thousands of other readers and viewers over the decades. An old friend.

Friday morning, May 10: Wake to patter of rain. Have proof-reading to do, and I'll be in and out of the bookstore, where Bruce will be working today in my stead. That works. The occasional indoor day is not so bad.


Dawn said...

Lovely....such a peaceful post, exactly what I need after a frenetic week away. Deep sigh of contentment...I also am not in too much hurry for summer, though it was hot here much of this week. I like the slow move through spring, like the anticipation of warm evenings and sunny tomatoes and the smells of rain and lawn even more than the actual events.

P. J. Grath said...

This morning is cold, and there's fog over
Grand Traverse Bay. We may get snow tonight.
Everyone will be hoping tender buds and blossoms
don't freeze.

Dawn said...

Oh no!!!

Kathy said...

Lovely post, Pamela. You have me thinking about the old familiar books on the shelf. In the school library this week I happened upon the book "The five little peppers and how they grew." Do you remember that old book from childhood? It was like meeting an old friend again. (Even though I only leafed through its pages.)

P. J. Grath said...

We had snow on Saturday. Sunday night's forecast was for a dip into the 20s. Monday morning is dawning now, and I'm anxious about the little buds....

I know the FIVE LITTLE PEPPERS as a bookseller, though I didn't know it in childhood, but if I were to launch into a list of childhood favorites I enjoy re-reading there'd be no getting anything else done today.

Kathy said...

I know what you mean, Pamela!