The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton
rating: 4 of 5 stars
I've fallen in love, readers!
It took me about 12 hours from start to finish to read the last of Wharton's novels, left unfinished for decades and then completed in Wharton's style by scholar Marion Mainwaring. As I mentioned earlier, I've watched the PBS series three times now and there's something about it that gets to me. Perhaps because it's sexier and funnier and looser than what one would expect from the era, and because [SPOILER ALERT:] its ending which actually arises from Wharton's notes, is decidedly un-Whartonian. I'm terribly moved by the idea that at the end of her life, Edith Wharton would decide to write a novel about a heroine who behaves in the exact opposite way of nearly all her other major characters, who--to put it quite frankly--doesn't give a shit about social convention and flouts it utterly. I like to think of it as the author's reconciliation to romance, her final, deathbed middle finger raised to the rules and hierarchies with which she had such a deeply-tortured relationship.
Reading The Buccaneers is a dream for those who like comedies-of-manners for their own sake. Wharton will never be Austen: she takes ten lines to explain the social relationships that Austen dispatches with a sentence (this, I think, is evidence of Wharton's psychic struggle with society). But the first two thirds of the book, written by Wharton without revision, each page dropped off the side of her bed as she finished it, are blithe, satirical, sexy and both funny and sad.
The many scenes where the characters forge connections over poetry and art as well Nan St. George's stifling marriage and post-marital sexual awakening make me feel as though this is Wharton's Persuasion. And like that novel and other novels with heavy autobiographical elements--Copperfield, The Song of the Lark, etc. it has an emotional immediacy that feels startling and gives it a value different from a more controlled, classically perfect novel.
Wharton's contrast of Laura Testevalley, who gives up on romance and sacrifices her chance of happiness so that Nan can run away with Guy Thwarte, and Nan, who finds happiness with Guy after having giving up on it in her role as duchess, fascinates: one feels that Wharton is both Laura, in middle age loosening her scruples, and Nan herself.
Mainwaring's best contributions are a number of concluding love scenes that are satisfying (if not as satisfying as the wheat-field fornication in the film ;)) and a deft weaving-in of the horribly sexist divorce laws of the time that existed to punish women, humiliate them, and treat them as property. Marital rape is legal, and Nan's refusal to "produce heirs" for her huband after becoming emotionally estranged from him is a pivotal plot point.
This was definitely the best read I've embarked on in a while. I couldn't recommend it enough for Wharton fans who have long desired a less "thwarted" ending for her characters. I'd add that picturing Greg Wise in the romantic leading role definitely added a lot to the reading experience.
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