The Buccaneers

When Edith Wharton died in 1937, she had completed about three-fourths of THE BUCCANEERS, which was published in its unfinished form the next year. Fifty-six years later, Marion Mainwaring, who assisted R. W. B. Lewis in researching his prize-winning biography of Wharton, completed the narrative along lines Wharton had indicated. Reviewing the 1937 version, TIME magazine judged that if Wharton had lived to finish it, it might have been her masterpiece. It is hardly that, but it is a skilled and thoughtful entertainment with an uncharacteristically romantic ending. Set in the 1870’s it deals with the clash of cultures when Americans marry Europeans.

In this case, the daughters of three socially aspiring American families, the St. Georges, Elmsworths, and Clossons, who are not altogether accepted by the wealthy society of Saratoga and New York, go to England, where their free spiritedness, beauty, and their fathers’ money are irresistible to aristocrats who need an infusion of American cash to maintain their noble houses and lands. Conchita Closson marries unhappily and takes a lover, Virginia St. George and Lizzy Elmsworth eventually make reasonably satisfactory marriages. The narrative gradually focuses on the youngest of the daughters, Nan St. George, who marries the Duke of Tintagel in a moment of mutually mistaken sentiment. Neither turns out to be what the other hoped for, as the new duchess finds herself constrained by the duke’s expectations. Nan finds that her true soulmate is the intellectual Guy Thwarte, while her former English governess, Laura Testvalley, a cousin of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, has an abortive romance with Thwarte’s father. Wharton, born into high society, knew the international social scene intimately, and she combines deft satire of social nuances with complex characterizations. Mainwaring completes the plot and for the most part imitates Wharton’s style plausibly, but occasionally her prose lapses into the language of romance fiction. Still, it is good to have an ending for a promising novel cut short by its author’s death.