Wednesday, 21 March 2012

James Hilton, the author of “Lost Horizon” and “Goodbye Mr Chips”, deserves to be read

James Hilton wrote the novels on which two of my favourite films - Lost Horizon and Goodbye, Mr Chips - were based. He’s also the author of Random Harvest, which was turned into another hit movie starring Ronald Coleman and Greer Garson. No less than five of his other novels – Knight Without Armour, We Are Not Alone, Dawn of Reckoning (as Rage in Heaven), The Story of Dr Wassell and So Well Remembered – were also filmed. He also won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for Mrs Miniver. And, of course, he gave us that useful word Shangri-La.

Hilton's first bestseller was 1933’s Lost Horizon, which is credited with kicking off the paperback era when Pocket Books issued it in that new format in the US: it later became the second paperback published by Pan in the UK.

By any measure, Hilton – who died of liver cancer in Long Beach, California at the age of 54 - was one of the most sensationally successful novelists of the last century. He was by no means a great or ground-breaking literary writer: he was a terrific story-teller, but his solid technique, a nice feel for character, and an ability to make unlikely plots believable and compelling put him in a different league from the likes of Dennis Wheatley and Jeffrey Archer – you don’t feel as if you’re slumming while reading Hilton. He was one of those popular writers who somehow manage to hook into the zeitgeist without having to resort to sensationalist rubbish. He is impossible to categorise - there’s a thriller here, an historical novel there, but most of his stuff falls into that amorphous genre described by the English blurb-writers of his day as “novels of kerecter”.

He learned his craft the hard way, churning out twelve books between 1920 and 1933 – mostly while working as a journalist - before Lost Horizon made his fortune. He was living in an ordinary suburban house in the unremarkable North-east London suburb of Woodford Green when he hit the big time. Two years later, he decamped to Hollywood, and stayed. He evidently loved the glamour, even marrying a Hollywood starlet (his second wife – they divorced after eight years), but it doesn’t seem to have had a great effect on his writing style, or his subject matter.

Hilton has often been dismissed as a purveyor of dinosauric social attitudes, of depicting a world of stiff upper-lips, snobbery, boarding schools, emotional reserve and clipped exents. And, yes, there’s quite a bit of that, but that’s the movie versions of his novels – the books themselves are far more nuanced and questioning.

What Hilton excels at is creating upper-middle class Englishmen who don’t feel comfortable in their own skins or at home in what should be their natural milieu. Given that his most popular works were written in the decade that covered the run up to World War II and the early years of the war itself, we can assume that a lot his readers were feeling pretty damned uneasy themselves, what with the doubts about their personal survival and all the social upheaval.

In Lost Horizon, the high-flying diplomat Hugh Conway is sick of his job and his life, and finds his natural home in the serene atmosphere of Shangri-La - where, suddenly, life makes sense to him.

Brookfield boy receiving an ASBO
In Goodbye Mr Chips, the young fogey schoolmaster, Mr Chipping, initially has a miserable time of it when he fails to connect emotionally with his pupils – he’s too dry, too shy, too reserved – and only his marriage to a charming, socially confident, empathetic woman earns him a nickname, the affection of his pupils, and the realisation that Brookfield is his true home.

Forgot to bring the picnic - again!
Random Harvest is the story of Charles Rainier, who is so utterly alienated from his old life that he literally loses his identity after being invalided out of the First World War with amnesia. After several years in mental institutions, he escapes – helped by a lively, charming, empathetic showgirl. An accident causes his memory to flood back – but he has forgotten everything about his intervening, amnesiac years.

Rainier reconnects with his posh but useless family (or fimlee) and decides to devote his life to scholarship (Hilton’s father was a headmaster, Hilton attended my old Cambridge college, and one gets the sense that he felt he should really have been an academic). But his useless siblings screw up the fimlee business and Charles has to step in and save it, albeit reluctantly. He eventually marries his long-term secretary, who – evidently non-pukkah – becomes a leading socialite. Meanwhile, Rainier – a classic Hiltonian “troubled man” – tries to regain the memory of his amnesiac years. SPOILER ALERT: The book ends with Rainier realising that his current wife is actually the showgirl who helped him escape – and whom he loved. In effect, he already lives in the home he has been searching for all these years.

All together now: aaahhh!

A ridiculous plot, certainly – but Hilton makes it work.

I recently read Hilton’s last published novel, Time And Again (1953). Charles Anderson, a relatively minor dry stick of an English diplomat - his office nickname is “Stuffy” – looks back over his life. There’s lots of descriptions of haute cuisine, and our “hero” moves around the globe a bit, and even bags an Iron Curtain defector right at the end, but it’s essentially a quiet novel of “kerecter”. Anderson – another scholar manqué – is alienated from his upper middle class background by the contempt his father feels for him (a much-loved roister-doistering elder sibling died young). While at Cambridge, where Anderson doesn’t really feel at home, he has an affair with a (very) young secretary who lives with her fantastically ordinary family in a stupendously dull lower-middle class London suburb, both of which Hilton describes with affection, an Orwellian eye for detail, and not a hint of hauteur.

As in Goodbye Mr Chips, Anderson marries a vivacious, socially accomplished wife who breathes life into the dull dog, and helps his career no end before dying (Hilton's women do that a lot). Unlike Chips, Anderson does not go on to find great satisfaction in his job or to discover his true home – any chances of doing so are scuppered by his increasingly deranged father’s war-time support for the fascist regimes attempting to destroy England.

There's a sad scene near the end where Anderson visits the far-flung suburb where his first love lived. He finds her amiable municipal gardener dad propping up the bar in the local where they'd had a chat decades before. The old man tries to be jolly, but all his friends have moved away, and the pub staff barely deign to acknowledge his existence - having lived too long, he's a stranger in his own home.

I found Time After Time - which reminded me strongly of William Boyd’s fictional biographies, only quieter - very poignant: one gets the sense that Hilton, living some five thousand miles from his home, is looking back over his own life and trying to make sense of it. (The novel was published posthumously.)

I make no claims for James Hilton except that, like Boyd, he’s well worth reading. His work certainly doesn’t deserve the semi-obscurity into which it has been allowed to sink.

There’s a James Hilton Society, set up in 2000, whose website can be found here. If you possess a mobile reading device, twelve of his novels – including the four I've talked about – can be downloaded at no cost from the excellent Arthur’s Bookshelf site. A few titles are also available on Amazon.


  1. This is an excellent post. You mention some of my favourite films, but I knew nothing of James Hilton. I am off to LoveFilm and Amazon.

    I was going to go on, but I have just remembered the final scene in "Random Harvest" [the scene is almost exactly repeated frame-by-frame in Gregory Peck/ Virginia Mayo version of "Horatio Hornblower"] and my chin has gone wobbly.

    Apropos of nothing at all did you know that the Russian alphabet does not have the letter "H" so the great naval hero is known as "Goratio Gornblower" [ditto "Gitler"].

    Anyway, great post.

  2. The film version of Lost Horizon, directed by Capra and starring Ronald Colman, suffered studio cuts and re-editing for various reasons and still has bits missing but is still one of those films that conjures up visions of a world that most of us would rather live in. I've never read the book so thanks for the post, even though Arthur's Bookshelf doesn't seem to like I-pads.

  3. Does that mean that "In Gartford, Gereford and Gampshire, Gurricanes Gardly ever Gappen"? Hood Hod!

    My next target for reappraisal is Nigel Balchin - another bestselling English writer in his day who had several novels filmed and was also a successful screenwriter. I've only ever read "The Small Back Room" (1943) - about a bomb disposal expert - and that was terrific (the film was good, too). Unfortunately, Arthur's Bookshelf doesn't offer any Balchin novels, they aren't available for Kindle, and there's practically nothing in print, so I'm going to have to keep my eyes peeled in second-hand bookshops - not that there are many of those about these days.

  4. Ex-KCS, have you tried both formats on Arthur's Bookshelf? - i.e. ePub and The latter works for Kindle, but I thought the former was meant to work on practically any device. If not - bad luck!

  5. Nigel Balchin. I have tried to trace the film "The Small Back Room" for a couple of years, but couldn't remember the names of the actors or the title [I thought it was called something like "The Green Bottle"]. Does he get blown up at the end? Don't tell me.

    So Bingo! Poor old David Farrar - good actor but not a pretty boy like Steel, Purdom or Bogarde so J.Arthur Dickbeater gave him the wide berth and he ended up in Hollywood in "Solomon and Sheba" and "300 Spartans" [in which he played Xerxes in a performance that defies belief and which basically ended his career in 1962].Anyway, good steer.