The Buccaneers

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Last Updated January 31, 2024.

Part scathing social satire and part investigation into the psychology of love among the wealthy at the height of America’s Gilded Age, The Buccaneers (1938) tells the story of five nouveau-riche (referring to the new class of wealthy elites) New York girls who journey to London intent on securing marriages to landed aristocrats. Their parents hope such prestigious matches might elevate their social standing back home.

The novel was the last work published by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edith Wharton. Wharton, who died in 1937, completed 29 of the novel’s projected 35 chapters. In 1993, Wharton biographer and novelist Marion Mainwaring (1922-2012) completed The Buccaneers (expanding it to 41 chapters) using Wharton’s outline. Wharton aficionados did not universally love Mainwaring's project, though her efforts did result in a new generation of readers discovering Wharton's work. Shortly after, PBS developed the novel into a miniseries (1995) and, later, into a series for Apple+ television (2022-23).

As the novel opens, it is 1874. The parvenu (similarly, refers to new money) families of New York City, escaping the sweltering city in late summer, gather at Saratoga Springs, a mountain retreat some 200 miles north. The opening chapters introduce three families: Colonel and Mrs. St. George and their two daughters, 16-year-old Annabel (Nan) and her older sister Virginia (Jinny); the Elmsworths and their two daughters, friends of the St. George girls, Elizabeth (Lizzy) and Mabel (Mab); and the Clossons, the husband a business associate of the Colonel’s, and their daughter, Conchita (Conchie).

Conchie is Brazilian by birth, bohemian of spirit, and quite beautiful. As such, she easily attracts the attention of Lord Richard “Dick” Marable, who is also vacationing in Saratoga. Although he has a title, Marable’s family faces catastrophic financial ruin. Their romance is as pragmatic as it is whirlwind, and in the early fall, they marry.

On the advice of the St. Georges’ new British governess, Laura Testvalley, the families send the four remaining girls to London for a summer. Laura, although hired by both families to watch over their daughters, feels a special bond with young Nan. They share an interest in art and poetry, particularly the romantic poetry of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Laura’s third cousin. The parents hope their daughters will attract marriage offers from titled British aristocracy, as they see in such match-making the chance to gain respect in New York.

Through Laura’s connections, Nan attends an elaborate dinner party where she meets young Guy Thwarte, a civil engineer and the only son of an established aristocratic family. The attraction is instantaneous. However, Guy's family’s fortunes have fallen, and the Thwarte estate, Honourslove, faces massive restoration work beyond the family’s means. The situation is so dire that the family has begun selling the estate’s art masterpieces. Guy plans to work in South America designing bridges, secure a fortune, and return to help his family.

At the same soiree, Nan meets the Duke of Tintagel. The Duke, whose name is Ushant, is uncomfortable in public and dislikes that he must pretend to be wealthy, even as his family’s estate falls into ruinous disrepair. Instead, he dreams of becoming a clockmaker. Ushant finds the young American girl intriguing and sees her as the type of girl he might rebuild into a perfect wife.

Nan’s companions each find their way to satisfying marriages—Lizzy to the affable Hector Robinson, of considerable wealth, no title, and many political ambitions; Jinny to Lord Seadown, whose family crassly pursues her family’s fortune; and Mabel, who returns to the States and marries a wealthy middle-aged widower from Illinois.

Nan marries Ushant and becomes the Duchess of Tintagel, but...

(This entire section contains 1086 words.)

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the marriage proves uneven, as there is no passion. Ushant wants only to provide the family with a male heir. He is happy when Nan announces she is expecting. Nan, however, cares deeply about the impoverished tenants who work the Tintagel estate. Against her husband’s orders, she attempts to help the families by bringing them food when cholera strikes. Exhausted, Nan collapses by the side of the road and loses the baby.

Months after the miscarriage, Nan hears that Guy Twarthe has returned from South America a wealthy man. Nan is determined to meet him and invites him to attend a party at her London home. They reunite and find they are still attracted to each other.

When Nan’s mother-in-law coldly suggests it is time Nan provides an heir to the family, Nan balks, feeling trapped. Conchie visits and asks Nan for a hefty loan to help her through a difficult time. Her marriage in shambles and her husband a drunkard, Conchie took a lover. The money would help free her from the marriage.

Nan approaches the Duke for the money, but he will spare nothing unless Nan tells him why she needs the money. Nan refuses. Nan understands she has only one friend—Laura. By this time, Laura has developed a tender relationship with Guy’s father, a widower with whom she shares an interest in art and poetry.

Nan heads to London to see Laura and visits her tutor's sister, Lizzie, at her estate. While Nan goes out riding to clear her head, she meets Guy, who is also out riding. He confesses that her marriage devastated him and that he has never forgotten her. Nan is pitched into confusion.

After a brief trip to New York, Nan returns to London. She is summoned by Ushant, who tells her that the time for her silliness is over; they need to produce an heir. Nan refuses, saying her heart belongs to another and declaring she will leave the Duke and her marriage.

In a pique, she heads to Laura for help. Laura tells Nan she can stay for the time being with her family in their modest home in Denmark Hills. When the Duke consults a divorce attorney, gossip begins to swirl about London. Nan decides she will return to New York although she has no way to support herself.

It is then that Guy arrives at Denmark Hills. Overwhelmed by their emotions, Guy and Nan kiss passionately. Guy offers to take Nan away, explaining that he has accepted an engineering project first in Greece and then in South America. Nan agrees to meet him in Paris. Laura helps get Nan to the train station. In helping Nan, Laura understands she is sacrificing whatever future she might have had with Guy’s father.

Nan arrives triumphant in Paris ready to start her new life.