Messrs. Chips & Polly et al.

The film of Goodbye, Mr Chips was always on TV when I was a child but I don’t think I ever got round to watching it; even so, I knew it was about a teacher at a public school. I just happened to see this book in the library yesterday and picked it up with the intention of reading it if I felt the urge for such a book; well, I had the urge today and I was glad that I read this charming little book. We get to hear Mr Chipping’s (the children call him Mr Chips) reminiscences about his forty or so years of teaching from about 1870 to his retirement in 1913 and beyond. At first he is unsure of himself and tends to be quite stern with the students but over the years as he gains experience he allows himself to relax a little. His marriage, at forty-eight, to a beautiful and modern twenty-five year old, called Katherine, is a short but enlightening experience for Mr Chips; naturally conservative Mr Chips is not so close-minded that he can’t learn from his younger and more adventurous wife. He is a mild man who realises before long that he isn’t going to achieve ‘great things’ or make a name for himself so instead he dedicates his time to the school and the boys that pass through from year to year. As he ages he gets a reputation for having a sense of humour which makes him beloved by his students, past and present. Of course, the First World War is looming and many of his old boys go off to fight, not to return. Goodbye, Mr Chips is a rather quaint, sweet, story of a mild-mannered teacher; I would probably have disliked it when I was younger but these days, well, I can find room for these more gentle books. I dread to think what a modern version of this book would be like.

The History of Mr Polly, a 1910 novel by H.G. Wells, is a book that I’ve been meaning to read since I was at school and so, as I’m trying to read books that I’ve been meaning to read for ages and books that I physically own, I felt that it was high time I got round to reading it. I knew that it was about a man that becomes so tired with life that he decides to set fire to his shop and kill himself. But I’d thought that that happened near the beginning of the book, instead it appears quite late in the novel. Mr Polly is a brilliantly humorous character by Wells, a character who blunders through life, with no real aim or ambition. He has a limited education, but he enjoys reading even if he feels he doesn’t grasp everything but he enjoys playing with words and ends up making up words of his own, much to the confusion of others. There are some great comic moments, my favourite is probably where he accidently marries the wrong girl but is too timid to extricate himself from the mistake. Standing at the altar he ponders matters:

At the back of his mind he was speculating whether flight at this eleventh hour would be criminal or merely reprehensible bad taste. A murmur from the nudgers announced the arrival of the bridal party.

Needless to say that his marriage is not a happy one. He is unsatisfied with his little haberdashery shop and ends up making enemies of all his neighbours. This is when he decides to burn down his shop with himself inside, but even this he bungles and instead becomes a bit of a local hero. I won’t say much about the end but I was impressed with how the story developed from this point, Wells really surprised me with how he continued this story. Near the end of the book Mr Polly becomes quite reflective and tries to explain his life to another character:

“I often wonder about life,” he said weakly.
   He tried again. “One seems to start in life,” he said, “expecting something. And it doesn’t happen. And it doesn’t matter. One starts with ideas that things are good and things are bad—and it hasn’t much relation to what is good and what is bad. I’ve always been the skeptaceous sort, and it’s always seemed rot to me to pretend we know good from evil. It’s just what I’ve never done. No Adam’s apple stuck in my throat, ma’am. I don’t own to it.”
   He reflected.
   “I set fire to a house—once.”

Image source: scan of personal copy

I have had an excellent run of great books just lately and one of the best of this group of books is William Trevor’s The Children of Dynmouth. This is another one of the books off of my TBR pile that I’ve decided to attack this year. It is also my first book by William Trevor, although I have seen the excellent film (and no doubt the book is just as good) of Trevor’s Felicia’s Journey. I still hope to write a lengthier post on this book but as time drifts away I realise that I may never get round to it. But it was an astounding novel right from the first page. The main character is a fifteen year-old boy called Timothy Gedge, who is, well, a little strange. He’s mostly given up on school, preferring to watch TV instead, and he’s left on his own as his mother and sister are out at work during the day and socialising during the evening—his father left home years ago. He spends most of his time ‘observing’ the inhabitants of the small seaside town and as such he knows all their secrets. He likes making jokes, jokes that most people don’t ‘get’, and so he gets it into his head to participate in an upcoming talent contest with a rather macabre comedy skit based on a serial killer. The only problem is that he has no money and he needs some props; he then embarks on a series of blackmail attempts to get what he wants. Gedge is at times quite a menacing character but also rather pathetic as he doesn’t really know the ramifications of his actions—he just wants his props for his amazing comedy skit. I loved Trevor’s ending of this novel; it wasn’t what I was expecting.

Image source: GoodReads

Michael Frayn’s book Headlong is about an academic (a philosopher called Martin Clay) who, when visiting his country retreat, believes that his neighbour has an unknown Bruegel painting, amongst others, that he is intending to sell. He believes it is the sixth painting in Bruegel’s ‘Months of the Year’ cycle of paintings, a series which includes the famous The Hunters in the Snow. Much of the novel is taken up with his research on Bruegel’s life and times and the rest of the novel consists in Martin trying to get access to the painting to verify whether it is a Bruegel or not. Martin offers to help to sell his neighbour’s paintings with the intention of getting the Bruegel for himself. In trying to get to see the painting again he inadvertently gets mixed up with the neighbour’s wife. The novel is part art history and part farce and didn’t quite work for me though it was an ok read overall. I see that some reviewers call it a comedy, which I can sort of see, but it’s not a label I would automatically pin on it. The only other book I’ve read by Frayn is Spies which I much preferred to this one.

I’m trying to decide what to read next. It may be time for some more non-fiction, maybe some more books on the Russian Revolution, especially as it’s the centenary year.

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12 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Frayn, Michael, Hilton, James, Trevor, William, Wells, H.G.

12 responses to “Messrs. Chips & Polly et al.

  1. I liked the Mr. Polly book. Actually, I seem to prefer Wells’ non-science fiction books to his more famous ones. Didn’t really care a lot for War of the Worlds or The Invisible Man. The Island of Dr Moreau is a difficult book for me to rank because I’m so enamoured of the old Michael York movie.

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  2. I’m not sure how you avoided watching Goodbye Mr Chips. Brings a tear to my eye just picturing that final scene (a new boy coming to the school house where ‘Mr Chips’ is dying).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      There is a possibility that I did watch it at some point but it would have been when I was quite young and it wouldn’t have made an impression. It’s a sad and joyful story and I’m glad I took the time (about half a day) to read it.

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  3. I really liked Headlong. I’ve never read Goodbye Mr Chips and I haven’t seen the film either, but I’m a huge fan of HG Wells when he wasn’t writing science fiction.

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    • Jonathan

      I noticed on GR that Headlong split opinions. I thought it was ok but no more than that. I tend to get bored of plots that get too complicated and I couldn’t see why his wife and mistress were prepared to lend him large amounts of money when they both thought he was wrong about the painting. I must admit I sometimes get bored of trying to work out what motivates characters in these situations which is probably why I don’t read detective novels.

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  4. I’ve only read William Trevor’s Love and Summer, but I’d really like to read more by him. The recent Penguin reissues of his work are very smart, so maybe I’ll treat myself to one or two in the future. The Children of Dynmouth sounds excellent, in an off-beat sort of way – I’m also a sucker for a seaside location in fiction, so I’ll definitely keep it in mind.

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    • Jonathan

      I’d been meaning to read something by Trevor for quite a while so was glad it exceeded my expectations. Trevor could well become a new favourite author of mine if Dynmouth is anything to go by. My local library has three of the recent Penguin editions and they all look interesting.

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  5. Vishy

    Beautiful reviews, Jonathan! I loved Goodbye, Mr.Chips! So glad you liked it too! I should read it again one of these days. I haven’t read a non-science-fiction novel by H.G.Wells! Polly looks like a wonderful place to start. That book by William Trevor looks wonderful! It makes me remember Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which has one or two characters who are very similar to the boy in Trevor’s book. I am sorry you didn’t like Frayn’s Headlong. I have it on my shelf and was hoping to read it sometime. Now I am not sure whether I should.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Thanks Vishy. Both Polly and Chips were great reads. I hope to try some more non-sci-fi books by Wells. I was hoping to post a fuller review of Dynmouth at the weekend but it didn’t happen- I just didn’t feel like it. But it’s certainly worth finding a copy. I have some more works by Trevor lined up so I hope they’re as good. I’ll have to have a look at the hedgehog book, thanks.

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