Book review

And Now Goodbye (James Hilton)

Literature. Personalities. pic: circa 1940. James Hilton, English novelist, (1900-1954), among his works 'Goodbye Mr. Chips' and 'Random Harvest'. : News Photo
James Hilton (1900-1954), circa 1940 (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

And Now Good-bye (1931) is a quietly heartbreaking story, anticipating the tone, features, and arc that appear in James Hilton’s better known works, such as Lost Horizon and Goodbye Mr. Chips (published in 1933 and 1934, respectively). But it isn’t so much what happens that’s the wistful charm of the book. Rather, it’s what tragically does not happen.

But you know that going in: the book’s title tells you as much.

Hilton presents his story in a most intriguing way: he begins after it has (mostly) ended. An omniscient narrator tells of a terrible train wreck and of a brave and selfless, yet modest and unassuming, hero who saves many lives. This is the prologue. The book then divides into several chapters: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and so on, with the last couple of days further broken into a few more chapters — Friday Tea, Friday Dinner, etc. — as the events they relate cannot be contained in a single span. And we know from the first sentence of the first chapter — with something of a jolt — that these days are the ones immediately preceding the prologue: the events that will elicit that heroism.

In the book’s early chapters, Hilton skillfully sketches in the personality and background of his protagonist, the improbably named Reverend Howat Freemantle (yet, think about that name, whose first syllable is a question with the surname a mandate), a dreamy, kindly, tolerant — but vaguely dissatisfied — Nonconformist clergyman (that means one who isn’t affiliated with the Church of England) who lives in the bleak, insular mining town of Browdley, Lancashire (“the whole world stretched out beyond Browdley”) — the setting for at least two other Hilton novels (So Well Remembered and Random Harvest). Hilton also deftly suggests his minor characters in a telling phrase or two, as with Howat’s imposing sister-in-law, who has “a menacing optimism that was not quite matched by a sense of humor.” But mostly he concentrates on developing Howat as he attends to the various duties that make up his drab, cramped existence.

The reverend, who “disliked the trouble that giving trouble caused,” is also acutely aware, primarily through music, of “the beauty of the world that lay everywhere around, in sight and sound and feeling.” This progenitor of Mr. Chips — who even muses that “If I were not a parson I should like most of all to be a schoolmaster” and is scolded by a parishioner as having “a thoroughly unsettling influence on the young people…you put ideas into their heads” — dimly, dumbly, shares Lost Horizon‘s Hugh Conway’s longing for something more beautiful, more ineffable, but has no idea what might be missing:

…his aim had been different — something not very easy to put into words — something, indeed, which he was never quite sure of understanding himself.

Although he soberly recognizes the gravity of the lack:

…life was so tragically short, and it seemed in some sense a kind of divine toss-up whether one succeeded or failed in getting anything out of it during the time allowed.

The contrasts having been established — responsibility versus romance, religion versus free expression, uncertainty versus confidence, dreaminess versus alertness — Friday and Saturday dawn and Howat’s world is seemingly turned upside down, but in reality is enriched, ennobled, sanctified. He had known beauty. But he had not known joy:

the joy of life, that unreasonable and illogical human joy that made a man buy what he could not afford and drink (for once) against his convictions

And he had not known love:

There’s something in you that means all that I’ve been meaning, all those ideas I’ve been trying to spread, everything I’ve been groping for in a blind way for years…

And the magic of Hilton’s understated tale, with its unexceptional characters and their ordinary plights, washed over me. And I remembered again why we read fiction, how we empathize and synthesize and learn and grow from sharing an author’s thoughts:

How short life was, and how brief the moments in it that really mattered!

Perhaps among those moments, for me, would be the ones spent with James Hilton.

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