Louis Auchincloss (2002) – The Rector of Justin

I have to disclose up front that I have a hard spot in my heart for novels about New England private schools for boys, which is a reflection of my own assessment of the damage they appeared to have done to many of my Harvard classmates.  There seem to be enough novels about New England and British private schools to deem them a subgenre of the novel.  It is a subgenre I visit with trepidation.  Is the author going to regale us with tales of  the character-building properties of the remarkable cruelty the students visit upon one another?  Will I have to sit through yet another adolescent from a (choose one) penurious or luxurious family learning not to reflexively judge his (or her, now that the schools have become co-ed) opposite harshly?


That said, I did manage to read all the way through, though it became a bit of a slog at the end.  I kind of enjoyed the first part (Chs. 1-4, pp. 1-58), even though it trots out a lot of the standard new-teacher-must-prove-himself situations.  Brian, the unifying narrator, seems to be someone Auchincloss would be pleased to spend time with.  I found him to be more self-effacingly self-doubting than anyone has, I think, the right to be.  His desperate pleas to God to help him out  would give migraines to the Good Humour man.


Brian’s more or less instant idolatrous reaction to Rector Prescott seems at best to portray Brian as one of the walking wounded desperately seeking a father figure.  (I note in passing that Herb Appell has pointed out the frequent appearance of the ‘fathers and sons’ motif in the books we read, but I have to say that it is, after all, one of the Big Ten literary themes–and life themes, as Freud would add.)  I use the term idolatrous advisedly: Does not the author have Brian proclaim (as assertively as he ever gets) in Ch. 3 (p.37), “What I am trying to say is that I may have a call [sic!] to keep a record of the life and personality of Francis Prescott.”  Oh, dear!


And while I’m close to the text, I offer in evidence of some of what I have asserted above: Ch. 3, pp. 42-43

Prescott says, “You’ve got to let the boys be animals once in a while….  Social life was more attractive when gentlemen defended their honor with swords and not lawsuits.”


Brian challenges him and Prescott backpedals a little, but only a little.  “Well, of course there’s no hazing now.  All the schools have done away with it, and we had to, too.  The snowball fight is the last vestigial remnant of it.  You have just witnessed a rare survival, my friend.”


To his credit, Brian’s retort is a literary gem of understatement.  “It did not make me nostalgic.”  Thud!


And off Prescott goes on a not so tangential tangent in what narrator Brian characterizes as a “more reasoning tone.”


“Perhaps my bias for things English has made me see a moral value in hazing where none existed.  There was a great deal of cruelty in English public schools in the last century, but it went hand in hand with a certain intensity of friendship between boys–almost a passion, you might say–that gave a kind of golden glow to Victorian youth.”


I was afraid he was going to wax ecstatic about the pleasures of vigorous application of a disciplinary paddle to the bare bottoms of miscreant boys.  I lucked out.  He didn’t.  But, check out the next paragraph as Brian naively asks, “But, you never discouraged close friendships between boys, did you, sir?”


“Did I not?… I was one of the Worst!”

“Why, sir?”

“Because, sir, … I did not think a hundred examples of David and Jonathan were worth one of sodomy.”


        I rest my case.


In a sentence: I don’t like the prissy, less-sexual-than-thou tone adopted by both the Brian narrator and the Havistock narrator, and for that matter attributed to Himself, the Prescott.  Methinks the author doth protest too much.


The story of the Twelve Black Marks (Ch. 2) has a certain charm for all its predictability.  Horace Havistock’s story of how he discouraged Eliza Dean from marrying Prescott has its charm, but I ended up feeling that the author invented her to make a point and when the point was made discarded her without a second thought.  I was miffed.  She, at least seemed alive and not caught up in the portentous navel-gazing of Brian, Havistock, and Prescott (sounds like a law firm, no?)


The Totten-Tanager episode (Ch. 10) about who threw the overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s chowder–no, about to whom the bootleg translation belonged, is a sort of mini-mystery complete with bluffs, reversals, and poorly concealed motives.  It seems to work, but it’s a bit too pat.  I knew before the denouement was revealed that Totten had confessed falsely in order to get in good with Tanager the Elder.  Not enough suspects for a one-hour TV drama, though.


By this point, the book begins to seem like a TV series.  Interesting guest stars every so often, but somehow it feels contrived.  I can see the gears behind the scenes.


Prescott seems not to *be* as compelling as people in the novel *say* he is.   I consider this a major weakness of the work.


I couldn’t figure Cordelia caving in first to her father and then to her mother.  It seemed to me that her characterization up to the first cave-in had suggested that she was more than just bluster.  I know parents wield a great deal of power, but it didn’t feel consistent and the author didn’t see a need to account for it.  Maybe I’m naive.


Charley is every bit as sappy as narrators Brian and Havistock.  As Brian might write: Dear God, will there ever be an end to it?  As we near the end, Jules Griscam gets to be added to my sappy list, too.


I have to look up the precise meaning of the word “sanctimonious” for it is a word that springs to mind in connection with this novel.  Aha.  “Feigning piety or righteousness.”  Not the individual characters, however.  The author is trying to give them real piety or righteousness.  It’s the novel as a whole that sets me on edge that way.


For all that Brian (Ch. 23, p. 341) emphatically declares to us that Dr. Prescott’s “genius was for persuading his fellow men [sic!] that life could be exciting and that God wanted them to find it so”,  I never saw that in any of the views of Prescott the novelist provided.  It is the failure to show and not tell.  Admittedly, Brian is shown to be besotted with Prescott, but I don’t think the novelist wanted the reader to discount Brian’s account of Prescott.


I end with a number of fairly obvious questions that occur to me at this point.  Is this a portrait of a person who might have been or might be?  Does it communicate something true or valid?  Does it make the reader think?  Does it provide an epiphany–an aha-experience–something that awakens in us a new appreciation of the world as it is?  Is it well drawn?  Do the words suit the subject?  And finally: Is there any character in this book that one would actually want to spend any time with?  Not I, sir.

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