The story takes place from 1870 until 1933. Chips lives a very long life, most of it spent as a schoolmaster at Brookfield, and over the course of that life, he sees many great changes take place, both at the school and in the world outside. Chips begins his long, illustrious career against the backdrop of the Franco-Prussian War. When he meets his future wife, Katherine, Great Britain is going through rapid social and economic challenge. All kinds of radical ideas are in the air—socialism, votes for women—and Katherine is a firm believer in them, much to Chips's initial horror.
The First World War has a devastating impact on Brookfield. A number of old boys and serving masters are killed in the conflict, including one of Chips's very close friends, a German teacher who fought for the Kaiser. As Chips approaches retirement, there are dark, disturbing developments in Europe that foreshadow yet another war; and in the year of Chips's death Adolf Hitler comes to power in Germany.