Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Book Review - Edith Wharton's The Buccaneers

The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton
Published by: Viking Books
Publication Date: 1938
Format: Hardcover, 416 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy (different edition then one reviewed)

Nan doesn't want a governess. Her sister Jinny didn't have to have one, neither did the Elmsworth girls, and the irrepressible Conchita surly never needed one, not that she would have accepted her fate as Nan does. But Nan's mother is convinced that Miss Testvalley will be able to not only help Nan, but get some good British refinement that is lacking in her little American savages and perhaps help as an entree into New York society. But New York society isn't ready for these girls. Conchita makes a match with a third son in a great British family and it gives Miss Testvalley an idea. If New York society is so shocked by these young bloods, why not take them over to England. Give them a season where anything they say or do is unique and alluring compared to the dull English roses the aristocracy is used to.

In no time at all the girls are settled into the highest echelons of the British Isles. Jinny is married to Lord Seadown, the Brightlingsea heir and older brother to Conchita's husband. Both the Elmsworth girls, while not in the peerage, make very advantageous marriages monetarily and politically. While Nan surprises everyone and marries Ushant, the Duke of Tintagel, the wealthiest man in England. Yet Nan isn't happy. It becomes clear that her husband married her not for wealth or even for love, but because she was naive as to what a duke was and wasn't hunting for a title, that and her youth makes her malleable. Though the longer she is married to Ushant, the more she realizes that their marriage is a mistake. This realization has nothing to do with the fact that she is falling in love with the young Guy Thwarte. She would be fine if Guy never knew of her love as long as he was happy and she was free once more.

Back in the days before DVRs and having anything you could possibly imagine to watch just at the flick of a switch, spending the midnight hours surfing the channels always yielded the most interesting results. On channels like A and E, before they became the home of reality programing, you could often find interesting miniseries airing at anytime of day or night. It was on this channel that I first saw Nathaniel Parker deflate a sheep in Far from the Madding Crowd. I'm not sure what channel it was on that I first stumbled across The Buccaneers, but it was definitely in one of these late night surfing sessions. Much like how I caught Louisa May Alcott's The Inheritance in bits a pieces, it wasn't until years later when it was released on DVD that I got to watch the series in all it's glory. The cast alone is a who's who of British and American actors, from the omnipresent James Frain (seriously, he was recently in Grimm, The White Queen and Sleepy Hollow AT THE SAME TIME), to Greg Wise and Michael Kitchen to Mira Sorvino and Connie Booth. This miniseries had it all, including Castle Howard!

At the time I was unaware that the miniseries was based on an incomplete manuscript of Edith Wharton's. I mean, I knew it was Wharton, I just didn't know the she died before she could finish it, much like Elizabeth Gaskell and Wives and Daughters. I do remember stumbling across the "finished" book one day at a used bookstore and picking it up. I mean, seriously, how could I NOT buy it? Firstly, I liked the miniseries, and secondly, well, it had a John Singer Sargeant painting on the cover that happens to belong to the Devonshires. What I didn't know until I was researching the book before I read it was that the miniseries and this specific book have different endings and that both endings are kind of reviled by fans of Wharton. This made me wonder if perhaps I should have read the incomplete manuscript, but then, even knowing that there was no ending, I might get that unexpected sadness that I did when reading Wives and Daughters. Also, having seen the miniseries didn't spoil me for the book. Is the wrong ending maybe acceptable because at least it is an ending? The fact that it ends "happily ever after" is what gets most Wharton fans... it wasn't her style. Edith's MO was more, and everyone is sad, some are dead, there is no striding happily into the sunset. Yet maybe it was this change up that made the book appeal to a wider audience? But what would Wharton herself think? There's a part of me that really wants Martin Scorsese to get his hands on this and come up with a bleaker ending...

The problem with a book with two authors writing the same book more then fifty years apart is the question where does Wharton end and Mainwaring begin? To me, there's a complete seismic shift at the beginning of the third section, wherein Nan hijacks the book as the heroine she was always meant to be. The book definitely falters here because until now the focus of the book had been more egalitarian. Nan taking over, while she is our heroine, is unable to shoulder the narrative much as she is unable to shoulder her duties as a duchess. How can we really connect with someone who doesn't know her own mind or even who she is? While humans are more realistic when faced with internal conflict, her conflict combined with her lack of personality made my growing love of the book falter. How can she love that Guy has this connection to his ancestral home yet not see the same connection in her husband? Is this a flaw of Ushants? Or is it a flaw in Nan? Looking to see where Wharton's writing ceased, it appears to be long after these problems start cropping up in the book. Wharton was just roughing it out and because she herself changed the feel and style of the book Mainwaring was never able to get The Buccaneers to rebound and seemed to be so desirous of tying things up quickly that the book ended abruptly and the reader is left with the sad realization that this could have been a true masterpiece if Wharton had lived.

While the book does have it's problems because of the situation it was put in because of Wharton's death, the overarching theme of the power of art and literature is captivating to me. The character of Miss Testvalley with her connection to both art and literature through her cousin Dante Gabriel Rossetti, breathes life into the book. The characters that are most alive are those with an appreciation of the beauty of the world. In fact, this might be why Nan loves Guy over Ushant, despite them both having this underlying connection and obligation to their ancestral homes, Ushant views his stewardship as an obligation and a duty, not a privilege bound in love. He never appreciates the art for it's beauty and ability to transport you, he views it as part of the house. It is this ability of beyondness that Nan talks about, this transcendence that can be found in art and literature that made me sit up and say yes! You need to look beyond, you need to expand your horizons to make yourself all that you can be. This is not an insular little world we live in, no matter how hard you might try to make it. Go out and read a book, go to a museum, capture some beauty for yourself and you will maybe find a little happiness, because as Wharton shows us, art is life.


I've read quite a few of Wharton's books over the years, but have only seen the BBC production of the Buccaneers.
I couldn't get excited about a half finished book - but your review has made me think otherwise - thanks :-)

PS I'm hosting a Wharton readlong during May if you another one of books on your TBR pile :-)

Thanks Brona! I'll stop by and check it out!

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