Books: Then and Now

Category: Then

Review: The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton

By: Richard E. Gower

“Life is always a tightrope or a featherbed. Give me the tightrope.”

                                                                          EDITH WHARTON

I received a hard cover edition of The Buccaneers by the incomparable Edith Wharton, for Christmas. I have been a fan of Wharton’s fiction ever since I first read False Dawn —one of the four novelettes in her Old New York series, and a touching and incisive testimonial to cultural shifts in aesthetic taste— more than thirty years ago. I had read much of her literary legacy but not this one, and The Buccaneers was an unexpected surprise and welcome addition to our already bulging bookcases that are giving away, evermore, at every dado joint.

What is there to say about The Buccaneers? Well, as it happens, quite a lot. To begin with there are actually three versions of the novel, with three different endings. It was first published in unfinished form in 1938, the year after the author died when she was at her commercial pinnacle as a short story writer, novelist and playwright. The second version was published in 1993, with an ending constructed by Marion Mainwaring, a Wharton scholar. This happened closely coincident with a television version with yet a different ending, written by Maggie Wadey, co-produced by BBC (UK) and PBS (USA) and aired in both countries in 1995.

…Both the 1993 and 1995 versions of the book were criticized by Wharton acolytes… 

The last version of the novel (the version I have) was also published in 1995. In this one the ending was completed by novelist Angela Mackworth-Young and written based on the television screenplay, with minor changes to some character names.

Both the 1993 and 1995 versions of the book were criticized by Wharton acolytes for their respective endings when they came out (the screenplay however drew most of the heat), which (I would submit) is a normative reaction to any alteration of original work by a cultural icon. I will leave the comparisons and detailed deconstruction of the three books to others, except to say that — as someone who has read a lot of Wharton’s writing — in the 1995 version of the novel, I could tell the difference between the style of the two (Edith Wharton and Angela Mackworth-Young) writers. It was subtle, but distinctive nevertheless.

The 1995 novel is divided (by Roman numerals) into five sections or ‘books’ listed on the contents page. The first three sections were written by Edith Wharton – essentially the ‘unfinished’ version that was published in 1938. Sections IV and V comprise the 30,000 word ending written by Angela Mackworth-Young.  I thought that although the last two sections followed the first three quite well, and were very evocative of Edith Wharton’s original narrative, Wharton’s descriptions were more fulsome.

… it was most likely due to the fact that there was a sixty-year difference in cultural vernacular between the two draftings… 

I don’t think this was because Edith Wharton was necessarily a better writer (although I believe her creative skills to be exemplary); it was most likely due to the fact that there was a sixty-year difference in cultural vernacular between the two draftings (Edith Wharton began writing The Buccaneers in 1934) and almost a hundred years separated the birth dates of the two women (Wharton and Mackworth-Young).  Their creative output was (naturally) influenced by the periods they lived in.

The world of fiction has its ingrained snobbery like every other aspect of life (would you believe that there is even such a thing (as brilliantly depicted on a cover of The New Yorker) as beer snobbery?) and, among those who subscribe to such distinctions, much of Edith Wharton’s work in its day would have (sadly) fallen into the oft-denigrated category currently referred to as ‘chick-lit’. Unfortunately, those who take such disparaging classifications to heart, and select their reading accordingly, miss out on understanding an entire stratum of humanity.

…her body of work as a major influence in nineteenth and twentieth century literature cannot be discounted.

I confess to bringing a bias to the party when it comes to comment on The Buccaneers. I hold Edith Wharton’s writings in high esteem, for several reasons. Firstly, her body of work as a major influence in nineteenth and twentieth century literature cannot be discounted. She was also a humanist and philanthropist of the first order. Born into privilege and wealth, she nevertheless devoted a great deal of time and money toward helping others. That alone rates for high marks and extra credits, in my book.

Her humanitarian sentiments are evident throughout her fiction and her philanthropic efforts in France during World War I (including visits to the front lines to deliver medical supplies and assess needs) were remarkable for their munificence. She opened a workroom in Paris where a hundred seamstresses were employed at war work. She provided hostel care for thousands of civilian refugees. She arranged for the rescue and succour of almost a thousand children, elderly people and nuns from destroyed homes and scorched villages in war-torn Belgium. She also organized a cure program for French soldiers who had contracted tuberculosis in the trenches.

But then there is raw talent when it comes to craft. In her time (and afterward) Edith Wharton achieved awards and public acclamation for her written work well beyond what most writers will ever attain. She was modest about her abilities however.

…she was almost the human equivalent of a video recorder; able to accurately capture and play back perfectly the Zeitgeist of that period.

In a letter (from The Letters of Edith Wharton, © 1988, Macmillan, Collier) to Robert Grant, a novelist whose work she admired, she says in response to his analysis of her work: “The fact is that I am beginning to see exactly where my weakest point is.— I conceive my subjects like a man—that is, rather more architectonically & dramatically than most women—and then execute them like a woman; or rather I sacrifice, to my desire for construction & breadth, the small incidental effects that women have always excelled in, the episodical characterization, I mean.”

It’s my view that whatever Edith Wharton might have thought of her skills as a writer, the work speaks for itself and I regard everything I’ve read as sterling, including The Buccaneers. What she excelled at was layering nuance upon nuance in both her physical descriptions of objects, places and people as well as when she was exposing the emotional nadirs of her characters. She was, in that regard, in the top ranking among her peers. Her Pulitzer Prize for Fiction alone makes that plain.

For those seeking an introduction to Wharton’s work, or just as a stand-alone book for a weekend indulgence, The Buccaneers should be an enlightening read.  What I have always found fascinating about her work is its delineation of century-old culture. Before such technology existed, she was almost the human equivalent of a video recorder; able to accurately capture and play back perfectly the Zeitgeist of that period. What today’s readers will have to wrap their heads around is that this is a book that was (except for the ending) written eighty years ago and it is necessary to adjust one’s mindset to the attitudes, social mores and prose of that period. If you can do that, you’re in for a treat.   REG

Links for additional information: 

The Buccaneers

Edith Wharton

Angela Mackworth-Young

Pulitzer Prize