For four decades Louis Auchincloss has averaged about a book of fiction a year-usually a novel, occasionally a collection of closely related stories. In the 1960’s and 1970’s he penned several best-sellers and received his share of critical acclaim; thereafter, his output has continued, but his popularity has reigned primarily among a loyal readership who have come to expect a competently crafted narrative focusing on the manners and mores of Auchincloss’ world, whose axis typically runs from the New England boys’ preparatory school to the Manhattan financial district. It is a world of conservative, autocratic headmasters and dedicated teachers at one end and worldly corporate executives and attorneys at the other, often linked by school trustees with a foot planted firmly at each end. The world also includes wives and sons and daughters, but the protagonists are likely to be the men.
Auchincloss’ readers are seldom disappointed. His eye and ear are nicely attuned to all nuances of his well-endowed, comfortably situated characters. He shows them dealing and double-dealing, gravitating to positions of power and trust of which they are sometimes unworthy, often expressing their thoughts almost as articulately as does their creator. If they act and sound a bit rarefied, they experience recognizably universal passions and conflicts. They are never monsters—although they sometimes seems so to one another—but frail human beings largely incapable of heights of heroism or depths of depravity.
In many respects The Lady of Situations continues the pattern. In the foreground looms Averhill School, tucked away somewhere in New England. There the sons of the rich prepare for their corporate life by studying the poetry of John Donne under the guidance of men whose theology differs very little from Donne’s seventeenth century Anglicanism. Although Auchincloss has returned several times to the quintessential pre- World War II preparatory school which he evoked so memorably in The Rector of Justin (1964), Averhill is his most thoroughgoing re-creation of Justin Martyr. There are some significant differences. Rufus Griswold, while fully as dedicated, ruthless, and tyrannical as Frank Prescott in the earlier novel, lacks the grandeur of Justin Martyr’s venerable headmaster. The Lady of Situations does not remain at Averhill, although more than half the book is set there. Most significantly, this novel does not focus on a headmaster or a teacher or an Averhill boy but on Natica Chauncey.
Is Averhill an updated Justin Martyr, with coeds? Not at all. Natica is at the school by virtue of having married a faculty member, Tom Barnes. The novel focuses on Natica, with only brief omniscient excursions to introduce people who will become part of her life. Most of the time Auchincloss limits his omniscience to Natica; at intervals there appear extracts from a “memoir” written by Natica’s Aunt Ruth, a spinsterish teacher in a New York school for girls, who, while not unaware of Natica’s faults, loves her, encourages her, lives out her adventures vicariously, and finally breathes a sigh of relief that she need not share in the consequences.
At the beginning of the story Natica is fourteen. Her father has been ruined in the 1929 Stock Market Crash, and the Chauncey family are endeavoring to hold their heads high among their more fortunate neighbors in a well-to-do Long Island enclave. Natica must attend the public high school and go to parties in borrowed dresses. Later she must assume the ignominious role of tutor to a neighbor who attends the private school at which Natica’s aunt teaches. She forges bravely on, for she has resources: good looks, intelligence, and a vast—though ill- defined—ambition. Too young to know better, she marries a devout young cleric of limited imagination and far less worldly aspirations and thus finds herself one of a small knot of females, mostly older faculty wives resigned to life in the male bastion presided over by Rufus Griswold.
Tom reveres Griswold; Natica finds him useful. She fills his need for a secretary with a cool proficiency that for a time delights the headmaster, who is himself intelligent enough to recognize her as the brains of her family. For a time she is stimulated by her task of balancing the headmaster’s need for diplomacy and the assertion of his authority in internal and external Averhill conflicts. There are also a few souls at Averhill who enjoy gathering to read plays together—everything from Renaissance tragedies to the contemporary verse dramas of Maxwell Anderson. These sessions foster an attraction between Natica and a handsome English teacher from a prominent family. From this point Natica’s penchant for “situations” estranges Griswold, humiliates Tom, and blights the academic career of Stephen Hill, the English teacher, who assists in the process.
The novel takes its title from the first section of T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land (1922): “Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,/ The lady of situations.” With...