Himself a lawyer by profession, Louis Auchincloss has centered much of his considerable and impressive novelistic output around the lives of socially prominent attorneys whose work, often intersecting with politics, brings them in close touch with the major social and political forces of their time. Characteristically, their time coincides with or overlaps the author’s own lifespan. In Watchfires, however, Auchincloss reaches more than a hundred years into the past, attempting simultaneously to re-create nineteenth century society and to establish strong parallels between that society and his own. In a brief prefatory note, Auchincloss explains that he found “the germ of this tale” in the diary of one George Templeton Strong and that Watchfires is in fact his third reworking of the material, following Reflections of a Jacobite (1961) and The Winthrop Covenant (1976).
It would be misleading, however, to consider Watchfires as primarily a “historical novel.” Despite its temporally remote setting, perhaps at times even because of it, Watchfires remains from beginning to end a rather typical Auchincloss novel of manners that focuses primarily upon the conflict between breeding and impulse as exemplified in the life of one individual and the effect of that conflict upon those close to him. As elsewhere in Auchincloss’ work, the social background is carefully and convincingly presented, marred only (for some readers) by what appear to be twentieth century concepts and locutions in dialogue attributed to nineteenth century characters. Still, the author’s preference for anachronism over archaism provides for a well-paced account that is credible and generally pleasurable to read, peopled with lifelike and generally well-rounded characters.
Despite the heavily weighted and slightly ridiculous name assigned to him by the author, Auchincloss’ protagonist Dexter Fairchild is both credible and sympathetic, his viewpoint well-informed and useful with regard to the social upheavals of his time. Some forty years of age at the outset of the novel, Dexter Fairchild is intelligent, industrious, and more than moderately successful in a profession that he truly enjoys. His life is shadowed only by the memory of his father, who during Dexter’s childhood forsook wife, children, and the Episcopal priesthood to elope with “another woman.” Dexter’s mother, although not one of the novel’s principal characters, nevertheless figures prominently in Dexter’s life both past and present. Quite in keeping with the tenets of twentieth century psychology, Dexter attributes no small measure of his success to a continuing attempt to please his mother, who in turn has sacrificed much of her life to smooth the path of his ascent.
Like many other, more contemporary Auchincloss protagonists, Dexter Fairchild feels intense external pressure in midlife from the various persons and groups that his life has trained him to serve and to please. The first hint of a break in his solid, decorous demeanor occurs when he hears of an extramarital affair involving Annie Fairchild; his wife’s younger sister, Annie has been married for some six years to Charley Fairchild, a cousin, law partner, and protegé of Dexter with an unfortunate fondness for strong drink. At first apparently motivated by the role of family protector that he has long had to assume in the absence of his father, Dexter determines to put a stop to the affair and begins to assemble evidence against the alleged paramour, an upwardly mobile journalist and columnist named Jules Bleeker who is already somewhat notorious for his charming ways with women. Before long, however, Dexter’s pursuit of Bleeker assumes the character of a personal vendetta, causing nearly everyone but Dexter to question his intentions. Nevertheless, Dexter’s intended social punishment of Bleeker soon appears to be considerably out of proportion. True, Bleeker’s narcissistic behavior and coarse speech mark him as anathema to the Dexter Fairchilds of the world, whose function it is to maintain established order. Still, it is Bleeker who understands instinctively, long before Dexter himself, that Dexter is in fact motivated by a long-repressed personal passion for his wife’s sister. Only gradually does it become apparent to Dexter and the reader alike that Charley’s marriage to Annie was in fact arranged (by Dexter) as the pragmatic solution to a problem neither stated nor fully confronted at the time.
Having emerged as a novelist of manners in the 1950’s, alongside such older writers as J. P. Marquand and John O’Hara, Auchincloss soon distinguished himself with a particular kind of analysis both psychological and social. Although owing much to these writers, Auchincloss drew also upon such earlier models as Henry James, François Mauriac, Marcel Proust, and Edith Wharton to provide a type of observation that is deeper and more satisfying than that of Marquand, for example, and which remains valid some thirty years after the heyday of American social satire. Never content with simple description, Auchincloss probes beneath the surface of events in an attempt at explanation, or at least interpretation, that succeeds more often than it fails. Thus, in Watchfires, the lawyer-protagonist comes to see and describe himself as a secular high priest with counterparts in ancient Rome, a keeper and preserver of sacred (if also profane) mysteries without which the social order would presumably collapse. Such...
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