Eliot, a young tutor at a college of Cambridge University, is informed by Jago, a senior tutor, that the master of the college, Vernon Royce, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Jago goes on to tell him that a new master will have to be elected within a few months. Jago himself desires the position. Soon after, Eliot is invited to meet with two other fellows of the college, Chrystal and Brown, about influencing a wealthy London businessman, Sir Horace Timberlake, to make a large contribution to the college. The subject of Jago’s bid to be master comes up, and both Brown and Chrystal agree that he will make a good candidate. Others, too, agree, and it seems that Jago might be elected with a clear majority.
When the faculty of the college is told of Brown’s plan to support Jago, a second faction forms, in support of Crawford, a senior physicist. The announcement of opposition to Jago’s candidacy leads to a bitter argument between Eliot and Getliff, one of Crawford’s supporters, and the college becomes divided between the two factions, with each trying to win converts from the other side. Although he is somewhat confident of victory for the party supporting Jago, Brown warns that they consist mainly of junior, not senior, faculty members.
During the waiting period, a series of political maneuvering takes place. Jago’s party hopes that securing the large grant from Timberlake might give more clout to their side. Internal problems soon begin to take their toll. One of the junior tutors, Nightingale, begins to use his support of Jago as a lever to advance himself at Eliot’s expense. Later, Nightingale switches his allegiance to Crawford’s party. Brown’s attempts to win him back are to no avail. With Nightingale’s defection, Jago’s supporters no longer hold a clear majority. Jago contemplates withdrawing his name, but the others advise against it.
As the master of the college wastes away, the contest between Crawford and Jago becomes increasingly bitter. Insults and insinuations circulate about Jago and his wife, and tension grows. Jago and Crawford agree that it would be proper if they themselves do not cast votes in the contest. Nightingale threatens Luke, a younger faculty member, with loss of...
(The entire section is 919 words.)