Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


The Headmasterís Dilemma by Louis Auchincloss




(Mildly Recommended)




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Louis Auchincloss continues to cultivate his niche as the novelist who unravels the mysteries of upper class life as he sets his latest novel, The Headmasterís Dilemma, at an exclusive New England prep school. This is a story of how a contemporary episode of homosexual rape at the school is mishandled by the headmaster, and leads to a confrontation with another old boy, a trustee with a vision for the school that conflicts with that of the charismatic headmaster, an old boy himself. Money, power, intrigue: itís all here. Unfortunately, itís here with an excess of exposition over dialogue, and what dialogue is here comes across as written by a very old man who may lost his ear for the way people speak today. With his age, however, Auchincloss retains wisdom, and the conflict presented, and how each human behaves, makes The Headmasterís Dilemma an interesting book to read. Hereís an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 3, pp. 30-33:


A full partner? An equal partnership? Well, for a time Ione had tried to see it that way. The first year at Averhill had been a busy and distracting one for her: rearranging and redecorating the rather worn headmaster's residence, getting the children settled at the local nursery school, meeting the faculty and the faculty wives, acquainting herself with aca≠demic ways and traditions. But after that it became apparent that there was a wide and impassable gap between the new headmaster's hectic and crowded days and her own so much more placid ones.

For there was really little enough for a headmaster's wife to do, in the highly organized academic schedule, that seemed worthy of her training in law or even of her gen≠eral aptitudes. There was the duty of entertainment, to be sure: visiting parents, trustees, and alumni had to be greeted and sometimes fed; "parlor nights," when selected groups of students came to her house for games and cider, had to be organized; faculty wives had to be visited and certain school functions attended. But it was all a bit like being royalty on a very minor scale; a trained and efficient staff did most of the work, and a gracious smile often sufficed as her contribution. Nor did she find any particularly congenial friends among the faculty wives, who struck her on the whole as a rather dreary lot. Everyone was very kind, very helpful, but she was a long way from the glittering world of her parents, which she at last fully appreciated. And the contrast of her life with Michael's zestful and industrious one was not pleasant.

For he had plunged with energy and enthusiasm into what he didn't hesitate to call the challenging job of hauling the school into the modern era. The introduction of coeduca≠tion had substantially enlarged the student body; a new dor≠mitory had to be constructed, classrooms expanded, women teachers employed. Courses in science and philosophy had to be added to the schedule, and Michael himself, despite the endless administrative demands on his time, had insisted on teaching a new class in current events that included ev≠erything from the arts to government. He even lent an oc≠casional hand in football coaching, and he always attended the Saturday afternoon games with neighboring schools. There was little relief for him, either, on weekends, when he made himself available for conferences with worried parents when he was not traveling to New York or Boston to address alumni on fund drives.

One period each day, however, was rigidly kept for him to be alone with his wife, and that was the half-hour before their bedtime when they discussed the events of the day over a nightcap.

"Darling, you're going to kill yourself if you don't ease up," Ione observed sadly on one such occasion.

"Not so long as I thrive on it!" Michael exclaimed. "So long as I can actually see the barge getting slowly under way as I tug on it, the whole thing is a joy. Arnold of Rugby said there was no happiness on earth comparable to that of a headmaster who feels his school is on the right track."

"And Arnold died of it at age forty-six. Read your Strachey."

"Anyway, I'm sure he died a happy man. But don't worry, my love. I shan't do much dying so long as I have you. Which brings me to something I've been mulling over and which I'm now ready to discuss. I've been very much aware that I cannot expect you to get the same kick out of this Averhill job that I do. And I never forget that you gave up a career you loved for me."

"Oh, Michael, it wasn't all that great," she protested, sud≠denly mortified at receiving so much credit for so minor a resignation. "I rather liked your thinking I'd sacrificed my≠self for you. Not that I wouldn't have, anyway."

"Nonetheless, you did it. And I've been racking my brain to find a way of reviving your law career. The big firms in Boston or Springfield are too far to commute to with any comfort, and I'm too selfish and too crazy about you to contemplate your moving there and our being reduced to a weekend marriage."

"Oh, never. Not that."


Boys will be boys, and old and new boys provide ample opportunity in The Headmasterís Dilemma for a readerís brief visit into the world of an upper class prep school.


Steve Hopkins, June 20, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

in the July 2008 issue of Executive Times


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