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...
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