Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton completed by Marion Mainwaring

Penguin Books, 1993

This is not a new book, having been published in 1993 and serialized for a dazzling PBS Masterpiece Theatre in 1995. However,I came to it only recently after renting the DVD for a second viewing and learning the novel on which it was based, about a group of Nouveau Riches Americans in the 1870s who take England by storm, was by one of my favorite authors Edith Wharton, though it remained incomplete at Wharton's death in 1937 and was finished by Marion Mainwaring–-a Wharton scholar and writer––and published posthumously.

The ethical question of posthumous publication has long been debated among writers and scholars, and is all the more significant when the work is not just in first draft, but incomplete. According to the "Afterword" Wharton's literary executor, Gaillard Lapsley, first published the incomplete (through Chapter XXIX) work in 1938 with only "'certain verbal emendations required by sense or consistency'." Mainwaring added another 27(!) chapters and made "a few other... changes" in the Lapsley version "when it seemed that Wharton would have revised to avoid repetitiousness, and when she referred to a race in terms repellent to modern readers." Wharton had drawn up a synopsis and outlined the novel, though the written chapters apparently "departed from it in significant respects almost as soon as she began work."

Despite the high praise in the blurbs, mostly saying how Mainwaring maintained the Wharton voice or transitioned seamlessly, I would respectfully disagree. Missing in Mainwaring's style are the ornate, almost Baroque, sentences, and, oddly, for a work with a more upbeat ending, it lacks the tongue-in-cheek observations on society that characterize Wharton's more tragic novels. In addition, many of the chapters added by Mainwaring comprise multiple scenes written in small chunks, many no more than a paragraph long. Before reading the "Afterword" I assumed these had been a part Wharton's original draft that Mainwaring chose not to "fill in." But apparently that was not the case. Mainwaring also departs from the great beauty of Wharton's understated love scenes, with the one major love scene reading like something more suited to a Harlequin Romance.

The Buccaneers is one of those rare cases where I found the TV rendition actually better than the novel it was based on. The three-part Masterpiece series focuses on all the American girls who, due to a lack of pedigree, are scorned by New York's Gilded Age society and make up for it by marrying into aristocratic but impoverished English families. The novel as completed by Mainwaring focuses almost exclusively on Annabelle Tintagel (nee St. George)––whom I found, in many ways, the least interesting character––and seems out of sync with the plural title.

As novels go, in general, this wasn't a bad read. As Edith Wharton novels go, I found it lacking and disappointing.


Dave_Mainwaring said...

Wharton scholar Marion Mainwaring finished the novel, which was published by Viking Press in 1993. Independently, the same year the BBC hired screenwriter Maggie Wadey to adapt and finish the novel for a television serial adaptation, which was produced by the BBC and American PBS broadcaster WGBH, and screened on BBC One in the UK and in the Masterpiece Theatre strand in the United States, airing in 1995. As a result the novel has two different endings. A previous television series was produced by ITC Entertainment in 1956.

Nannette Croce said...

Thank you for this additional information. I wasn't aware of that.