The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Lacking a plot, save for the events of Frank Prescott’s life and career, The Rector of Justin derives most of its considerable force through the delineation of its characters, often in their own voices. Notably absent from the list of narrators is Prescott himself, whose implied intent to speak through his actions provides the novel’s heavily ironic substructure.

As the various observers among his intimates make clear, Francis Prescott possesses both the talent and the force of character to have succeeded in a number of professions. In A Writer’s Capital, Life, Law and Letters (1974), Auchincloss readily identifies the model for Prescott as Judge Learned Hand (1872-1956), with whom he was personally acquainted. The reasons for Prescott’s particular vocation, barring divine revelation, remain open to question; in any event, the vocation was sufficiently strong that he cut short a promising career in business and allowed his fiancée to abandon him. The irony is that the “unique” institution of secondary education for which Prescott apparently sacrificed so much turns out to be little different from others of the same type, owing to the simple fact that democracy can neither be taught nor fostered in an institution with high tuition and selective admissions policies. To Aspinwall’s implied indignation, Prescott states that he has always admitted scholarship students, yet he concedes in the next breath that the school’s only Catholics are the sons of Justin alumni who happened to marry women of that faith and that all of its ethnic Jews are in fact professing Christians. The blindness of such a stance, or of his guiding principles, appears never to have occurred to him.

Predictably, such single-mindedness as Prescott’s has left frequent casualties in its wake, as Aspinwall will soon discover. Among the major casualties, apart from his former fiancée, Eliza Dean, are his youngest daughter, ironically named Cordelia, and her deceased lover Charley Strong.

Cordelia Prescott Turnbull, although...

(The entire section is 841 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Francis (Frank) Prescott

Francis (Frank) Prescott, the rector, or headmaster, of Justin Martyr Academy. He is the central figure of the novel. Although orphaned, he is able to attend good schools because of family trusts; by the time he is seventeen years old, he has determined to create his own Christian preparatory school. Short of stature, he is imposing in a broad-shouldered, bullnecked way, with a large, handsome head. Educated at Harvard University and the University of Oxford, Frank temporarily loses the faith essential to his ambition and goes to work for the New York Central Railroad. His faith returns, and he goes to divinity school, is ordained, and founds his school thirty miles west of Boston. It flourishes. His methods, progressive when introduced, appear old-fashioned by the time he retires in 1941. Boys are required to attend daily chapel, to wear blue suits on Sunday, and to enter the dining room in marching order. Discipline is strict, and planned activities, chiefly schoolwork, rugged sport, and worship, keep the boys occupied and usually out of mischief. The rector, an inspiring teacher to thousands of boys, becomes a legend. In retirement, though, he has moments of doubt about his life’s work.

Brian Aspinwall

Brian Aspinwall, who comes to Justin in 1939, replacing a teacher who has departed for military service. Slight, timid, sensitive Brian has been rejected because of a heart murmur. He wants to be a minister but lacks self-confidence. Frank admires Brian’s ability to please his dying wife. He consents to Brian’s writing his biography. Much of the story is in the form of Brian’s entries into his diaries; the rest is from memoirs gathered from others.

Harriet Winslow Prescott

Harriet Winslow Prescott, a member of an old Boston family. She meets Frank during his days at divinity school. She marries him following his ordination and works with him to found and run Justin Martyr. She dies shortly before Frank’s retirement. Tall,...

(The entire section is 833 words.)