Brian Aspinwall, a graduate of Columbia and Oxford (Christ Church), accepts a position in 1939 to teach English at Justin Martyr, a residential school for boys located in rural Massachusetts. The school is still under the tutelage of its founder and headmaster, the Reverend Francis Prescott, who is, at the age of eighty, still a force to be reckoned with. Aspinwall is torn between returning to England to be part of the war raging in Europe and staying in the United States to study for the clergy, a calling he expresses some doubts about.
Although Aspinwall starts off rocky at Justin Martyr by not adequately disciplining his charges, the Reverend Prescott helps him out by demonstrating the proper way to dispense demerits and otherwise intimidate the boys in his house. He soon becomes a favorite of Mrs. Prescott—Harriet Winslow—the head’s aristocratic wife, who is dying; she requests that Aspinwall read to her Henry James, an author not appreciated by her husband. Harriet, a grandniece of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the New England Transcendental philosopher, apparently was of great help to her husband during the school’s early years. After her death, Aspinwall is made assistant to the headmaster to lessen his administrative duties as he enters the final year of his headmastership. It is in this capacity that Aspinwall decides to construct a biographical portrait of Prescott by collecting impressions of him from those who have known him through the years.
The first set of impressions comes from Horace Havistock’s manuscript for his unfinished work “The Art of Friendship,” and it provides the earliest memories of Prescott, who was Havistock’s boyhood friend. Havistock and Prescott met at the residential boy’s school St. Andrews in Dublin, New Hampshire, in 1876, and Prescott provided the less athletic and more effete Havistock with not only friendship but also protection from the bullying of the other boys. Later, Prescott founded his own school and...
(The entire section is 810 words.)