The Rector of Justin (1964), by Louis Auchincloss

The Rector of Justin is at the very least a good yarn. It proceeds at just the right pace, introducing characters and dropping in unanticipated problems with surprise solutions at just the right rate. These problems in turn each give us important insights into the personalities of the main characters in the book. It’s well-worded, with articulate characters and an equally articulate and easy-to-follow narration, while being easy to follow, making any reader feel erudite. What’s also interesting is that it gives us an intriguing glimpse into a world that’s strange to most of us. Most people who read this book will get this much out of it.

What’s less obvious is that this is a mystery story, with an amateur detective who remains puzzled by the extraordinary success of an Episcopal boys’ school, but who leaves us enough clues to get a pretty good idea of how this came about. However, had this detective (Brian Aspinwall, a teacher at the school) studied his Freud instead of focusing on preparation for the ministry, he might have been clued in by the preoccupations of the time the novel was written.

Despite all this clarity, the orderly unfolding of that mystery, some critics think it leaves us hanging at the end. Why is this? We know so much about the Rector (who is never called by that word in the book), i.e., the headmaster of the Episcopalian boy’s school Justin Martyr, Francis Prescott, D.D. (known as “Frank” by those close to him) at the end that further curiosity seems almost morbid. Born in about 1857, he was an introvert and an all-round achiever, who let only one other boy enjoy his friendship gradually less reluctantly until a misstep by the latter separated them for decades. He became religious early in life, apparently largely because of his own experience at a private boys’ school run by a “religious fanatic,” in the words of that friend, Horace Havistock. He studied divinity at Harvard and Oxford, dabbled in business in New York City, fell in love with an unsuitable woman, decided to start a school very much like the school he’d gone to before Harvard, broke up with her, married a more prudently chosen woman, Harriet (apparently on the rebound), and started the career that lasted him the rest of his life, all by about the age of 25. He ran the school for almost 60 years very much as his old headmaster had, becoming more and more out of touch with the increasingly secular orientation of the school’s board of trustees and with growing disenchantment with his harshly religiously doctrinaire and authoritarian style. He was finally talked into retiring at age 82 by the school’s board’s influential head trustee (David Griscam), with whom and with whose soul-sick son, Jules, he had had a long and troubled relationship. Over this period of time, he had three daughters whom he admitted not to loving enough, and deeply regretted that he didn’t have a son; the first two daughters fade into family life and the third causes him no end of grief. His wife established a pattern of reaching out to the new instructors at the school for friendship. He took up residence just outside the school campus and tried to undermine the new headmaster for a while but finally realized that opinion has turned against him. He became terminally ill four years later, was initially at peace with his prognosis, but later torn by fears of judgment in the next world. This is just a bare-bones run-down of the plot.

This tale is entrusted (by Prescott and an interesting variety of other parties with varying motivations) to a new English literature instructor (Brian Aspinwall), who arrives about two years before Prescott’s retirement and shortly before Mrs. Prescott dies. These accounts, in addition to several entries from Aspinwall’s diary, constitute the content of this novel. Aspinwall tries to capture the essence of Prescott’s greatness, which seems obvious to him because of the stellar reputation that the school has developed over the many years of his tenure as headmaster. At first he feels honored, flattered by the apparent trust in his good character and adaptability that this role seems to imply, but increasingly comes to regard it as more of a hot potato tossed to him because of his naivete. At the end of the story, his last diary entry, he admits defeat in his quest to pin down how the larger-than-life Prescott led Justin Martyr to its current prominence, and speculates that it had something to do with his one-on-one interactions with its students. He is right about that, but the complexity of those interactions, and the social chain reactions they triggered, worked in a way that no one anticipated and only a few understood. And though he records the evidence of frustrated love that drives so many of these events, he fails to recognize the extent of its significance.

David Griscam is arguably the major character in the book. He was indeed a boy whose personal relationship with Prescott had a major impact on the school’s development. He had first encountered Prescott when he was a small boy and the latter an affectionate young man and a frequently visiting friend of the family; Prescott’s playful attentions stood in marked contrast to the tense atmosphere created by that family’s dependence on his grandfather after his failed, debt-ridden businessman father had fled the country. The young Griscam understood none of the motivations of these adults; his interpretations, even as an adult, range from the bitter to the suspicious. Even when he attends Justin Martyr and his dark nature leads to a cruel act of revenge against a bully, Prescott’s affectionate mercy fails to heal his troubled soul, apparently because what Griscam takes away from the experience is a negative one. Apparently more comfortable with justice than mercy himself, he becomes a lawyer and returns to serve the school as a trustee on its board. Inspired by loyalty and material ambition, he launches a successful campaign to increase the school's prestige by enriching it via increasing its enrollment and donations. Although he has some awareness that Prescott is happy to keep the school’s enrollment at about 200, Griscam’s desire for power and glory and his effectiveness in realizing his ambitions eventually becomes its signature driving force. It's no surprise, in fact, that Griscam is the one who persuades Prescott to relinquish his post, replacing him with a much more modern, pragmatic leader. Throughout, he remains within Brian’s blind spot, however.

Another two characters make the underlying issues clear with their outspoken honesty: Cordelia, Prescott's rebellious ironically named third daughter and her fiance' Charley Strong, whose breakup ("my sad duty") Prescott ingeniously engineers for Charley's sake, even as Charley is dying of tuberculosis. Cordelia, who would perhaps have been described as "dissipated" at the time, criticizes Prescott unsparingly for favoring men over women, indeed having homosexual inclinations, in her interview with Brian; her later attempts to seduce him seem to cause him to doubt her trustworthiness as a source of character information. Yet what Prescott tells Brian backs up Cordelia's suspicions; he admits, just a little indirectly, that he loved Charley more than he did his daughters and broke up his relationship with "Cordie" for his sake and not hers (221).

However, Charley's account, in the form of the one chapter of an otherwise destroyed book, explain the process by which Prescott emotionally distanced the two. He has apparently undergone the same type of experience with Prescott that David Griscam had, but with greater intensity: enlisted as "senior prefect" at Justin, he finds himself making Prescott and the latter's concerns the emotional center of his life simply because this role keeps calling his attention to it. This role might have been pivotal in Prescott's growing harshness in enforcing discipline: through the use of prefects, Prescott was able to maintain tighter discipline over the students. Yet he achieved this by lavishing attention and affection on the prefects, who in turn enforced rules and perhaps informed on their troublemaking charges. This made it possible for Prescott to focus on David Griscam's son Jules when he rebelled openly.

If there is a take-home message in this story, it is that there are many unsuspected factors in the success of an organization, and that no one person should take credit for this success. Some failures of an individual's character and of actions can have significant beneficial results for that organization through the oddest twists of fate.

So in the end, we find that Justin's prestige is due to many factors, some ironic, and very many not setting a good example.