A ladylike adventure, Saratoga-style.
In search of something a little more classical to read, I chose The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton as my pick for this week. I've always found Edith Wharton to be a fascinating historical figure, aside from enjoying her work as a novelist. An astute social critic of the wealthy, American upper class to which she belonged, she published her first novel at age 40 and continued publishing until her death in 1937. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature three times and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 for The Age of Innocence. She was close friends with the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Henry James and fought to support and protect refugees during World War I. All in all, an incredible woman. She is probably best known for The Age of Innocence and House of Mirth.
The story of how The Buccaneers came to completion is a little more complicated than your average novel. It was the last book Wharton ever worked on, but she died before it was completed. It was published in it's incomplete form shortly after her death and remained that way until 1993, at which point endings were added by two different people. Wharton's biographer, Mario Mainwaring, completed the first, which is the version reviewed here. The second was done by Maggie Wadey in order to adapt the story for television. The BBC later commissioned a companion novel to the television show which had a third ending. The Mainwaring and Wadey endings were both critically received, fans complaining that the ending was too sensational and dramatized for a Wharton novel, that the writers had capitulated and given their version too much of a Hollywood flair as opposed to staying true to Wharton's intentions.
There is some truth to the complaints, in that Wharton's novels tended to end on a somber or thoughtful note as opposed to the more optimistic one which Mainwaring chose. However, I am not a Wharton scholar and, regardless, I didn't set out with the intention of comparing The Bucanneers to the rest of her work. I wanted to evaluate it on its own merits. And, considered in those terms, the novel is a success.
The Buccaneers follows a group of teenage girls of the nouveau riche in America, seeking entry into aristocratic society in order to find respectable husbands. When they have little luck in the conservative and insular circles of New York, they take their hunt abroad and do a tour in England. While the narrative ostensibly revolves around the singular goal of husband hunting, the core of the novel seemed to focus more broadly on coming of age. Though the point of view shifts through a number of characters, the central figure of the book is Nan St. George. At the beginning, she is a child, watching her sister and their friends move about society with envy and admiration. By the end, she is arguably the most self-actualized and worldly of them all.
What I appreciated most about the novel was how it perfectly captured the bittersweet feeling of growing up. Whereas the childish Nan sees the world through a haze of imagination and dreams as something utterly fascinating and attainable, the adult Annabelle understands just how little she really understands, about herself and others. Wharton, and later Mainwaring, brilliantly articulate that sense of dissociation you feel when you look back on things you did at a younger age, and the longing many people feel to return to the simpler times that came earlier in their lives. I perfectly understand the pride in realizing that you've grown up and become your own person, while simultaneously regretting actions you took before you knew yourself so well. Despite the distance in time and circumstances between Nan and I, I related to her perspective and understood her feelings entirely. She felt real to me.
The transformation of Nan from child to woman takes center stage in the novel, particularly in the last two parts, but Wharton and Mainwaring do an admirable job of showing the development of all the girls, the decisions they make and the resulting impacts to their character and circumstances. The narrative managed to confirm my expectations for the girls at some points, while surprising me at others. Each of the characters added something different, and the cast as a whole was entertaining.
Technically speaking, the book is well written and I feel that Mainwaring did a good job with the ending. I couldn't tell you where Wharton left off and Mainwaring picked back up. The book feels cohesive and complete, with the exception of some early transitions, which are a little rough. Some chapters left off in a suspenseful place and were followed by a leap forward in time, which was disorienting. I was left feeling like I'd missed out on something. This happens less as the novel goes on, but it left me wondering if those were rough edges that Wharton would have dealt with had she had the time. A lot of the book begs that question. Though it is enjoyable, I couldn't help by wondering, what if? How would Wharton have done it differently.
Regardless though, the current edition is the only one we'll ever get, and luckily, it's a good one! It managed to rekindle my interest in classic literature, and I plan on throwing in a few more over the coming months. I encourage everyone to give The Buccaneers a try, and feel free to come here and post your responses. I would love a good discussion!
You can find a copy of The Buccaneers here.
And here is the BBC's television series.
And you can find more information about Edith Wharton here.