James Hilton (September 9, 1900 – December 20, 1954) was an Oscar-winning English novelist, and author of several best-sellers including Lost Horizon (which popularised the mythical Shangri-La) and Goodbye Mr. Chips.
Born in Leigh
, in Lancashire
, England on 9 September
, he was the son of John Hilton, the headmaster of Chapel End School in Walthamstow
. His father was one of the inspirations for the character of Mr. Chipping in Goodbye, Mr. Chips
. (Hilton was born on Wilkinson Street in Leigh — there is a teacher in Goodbye, Mr. Chips
called Mr Wilkinson.) The setting for Goodbye, Mr. Chips
is believed to have been based on the Leys School
, where James Hilton was a pupil. Chipping is also likely to have been based on W. H. Balgarnie, one of the masters of the school who was in charge of the Leys Fortnightly,
where Hilton's first short stories and essays were published.
Hilton wrote his two most famous books, Lost Horizon and Goodbye, Mr Chips while living in a rather ordinary Semi-detached house on Oak Hill Gardens, Woodford Green. The house still stands, with a blue plaque marking Hilton's residence.
He was married and divorced twice, first to Alice Brown and later to Galina Kopineck. He died in Long Beach, California from liver cancer on December 20, 1954, aged 54.
Hilton found literary success at an early age. His first novel
, Catherine Herself,
was published in 1920, at the age of 20. Several of his books were international bestsellers and inspired successful film adaptations, notably Lost Horizon
(1933), which won a Hawthornden Prize
; Goodbye, Mr. Chips
(1934); and Random Harvest
(1941). Lost Horizon
(1933), which sold briskly in the 1930s as one of the first Pocket Books
, is sometimes referred to as the book that began the paperback revolution. The novel is said to be inspired by reading the National Geographic Magazine
articles of Joseph Rock
, an Austrian-American botanist and ethnologist exploring the Southwestern Chinese provinces and Tibetan Borderlands. The Danish father of the mathematician Sir Christopher Zeeman
, Christian Zeeman, has also been claimed to be the model for the hero of the story. He disappeared while living in Japan (where Christopher Zeeman
was born in 1925, and was reputed to be living incognito in a Zen Buddhist monastery.
Hilton, who lived and worked in Hollywood
beginning in the mid–1930s, won an Oscar
in 1942 for his work on the screenplay
of Mrs. Miniver
by Jan Struther
. He hosted The Hallmark Playhouse
(1948–53) for CBS Radio
He popularised the term "Shangri-La" in his novel Lost Horizon, which may have been inspired by the Tibetan travel articles of explorer Joseph Rock. It has been claimed that the isolated valley town of Weaverville, California, in far northern Trinity County, was an inspiration, but this is the result of a misinterpretation of a comment by Hilton in a 1941 interview, in which he said that Weaverville reminded him of Shangri-La. Coincidentally, Junction City (about 8 miles from Weaverville) now has a Tibetan Buddhist center with the occasional Tibetan monks in saffron robes. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt named his Maryland presidential retreat "Shangri-La" after it, and the name has become a byword for a mythical utopia — a permanently happy land, isolated from the world. (Later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower renamed the retreat Camp David after his grandson, the name by which it is known today.) Zhongdian, a mountain region of southwest China, has now been renamed Shangri-La (Xianggelila), based on its claim to have inspired Hilton's book.
- Catherine Herself, 1920
- Storm Passage, 1922
- The Passionate Year, 1924
- Dawn Of Reckoning (Rage In Heaven), 1925
- Meadows Of The Moon, 1926
- Terry, 1927
- The Silver Flame (Three Loves Had Margaret), 1928
- Murder at School (U.S. title: Was It Murder?), published under the pen-name Glen Trevor, 1931
- And Now Goodbye, 1931
- Contango (Ill Wind), 1932
- Knight Without Armour (Without Armor), 1933
- Lost Horizon, 1933
- Goodbye, Mr. Chips, 1934
- We Are Not Alone, 1937
- To You, Mr Chips, 1938
- Random Harvest, 1941
- The Story Of Dr. Wassell, 1944
- So Well Remembered, 1947
- Nothing So Strange, 1948
- Twilight Of The Wise, 1949
- Morning Journey, 1951
- Time And Time Again, 1953
Hilton's books are sometimes dismissed as sentimental celebrations of English virtues. This is true of Mr. Chips, but some of his novels had a darker side. Flaws in the English society of his time — particularly narrow-mindedness and class-consciousness — were frequently his targets. His novel We Are Not Alone, despite its inspirational-sounding title, is a grim story of legally approved lynching brought on by wartime hysteria in Britain.
Adaptations and sequels of his works
Some of Hilton's novels were filmed:
Hilton co-wrote the book and lyrics for Shangri-La, a disastrous 1956 Broadway musical adaptation of Lost Horizon.
There are two sequels to Lost Horizon, Messenger by Frank DeMarco and Shangri-La by Eleanor Cooney and Daniel Altieri. Neither achieved any lasting fame.
A furore was caused in the late 1990s, when Wigan Council
(the Metropolitan Borough responsible for Leigh) announced that a blue plaque
in honour of Hilton would be placed not on his house in Wilkinson Street, but on the town hall. This caused great debate amongst the populace of Leigh, which considered it more appropriate to have it on the house itself, which is only a few hundred yards from the town hall.
James Hilton was for some time the Chairman of Leigh Rugby League Football Club, now Leigh Centurions. During the War, the club was forced to leave its ground as the adjacent cable factory extended onto the land. The townsfolk of Leigh, under Hilton's inspiration, cleared some fields on the edge of the town, and built a new stadium, including moving and rebuilding the old grandstand from the original ground. In 1947, the ground was renamed Hilton Park.