Title: The Buccaneers: A Novel
Author: Edith Wharton
Completed by: Marion Mainwaring
Publisher: Penguin Books, Reprint Edition
Copyright: October 1, 1994
Format: E-Book/Audiobook, 416 Pages
Genres: Classic Literature, Gilded Age Literature, Women’s Fiction
Price: $11.99 [Kindle], $7.49 [Audible], $17.00 [Barnes and Noble Paperback], $11.99 [Nook], $25.00 [Barnes and Noble Audiobook], $11.99 [Google Play], $16.95 [Google Play Audiobook], $11.99 [Apple Books], $19.99 [Apple Books Audiobook]
Set in the 1870s, the same period as Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, The Buccaneers is about five wealthy American girls denied entry into New York Society because their parents’ money is too new. At the suggestion of their clever governess, the girls sail to London, where they marry lords, earls, and dukes who find their beauty charming—and their wealth extremely useful.
After Wharton’s death in 1937, The Christian Science Monitor said, “If it could have been completed, The Buccaneers would doubtless stand among the richest and most sophisticated of Wharton’s novels.” Now, with wit and imagination, Marion Mainwaring has finished the story, taking her cue from Wharton’s own synopsis. It is a novel any Wharton fan will celebrate and any romantic reader will love. This is the richly engaging story of Nan St. George and Guy Thwarte, an American heiress and an English aristocrat, whose love breaks the rules of both their societies.
It is the 1870’s. Just a hundred years before, America was fighting in the Revolutionary War. Ten years before, the nation was torn apart with the Civil War between the Union and the Confederacy. It is the genesis of the Gilded Age and the Age of Imperialism. The United States, albeit only 100 years old is still a young country but it is quickly growing stronger. With the Industrial Revolution, there are many self-made men and millionaires as well as those who are considered nouveau riche.
Mark Twain is the genius behind the term “the Gilded Age.” He used it to describe in a satirical manner the thin layer of gilding that covered all of the real nitty-gritty issues of the day. While Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers is a tale of elegance and is centered upon four upper-crust American heiresses, there was so much in the Gilded Age that needed to be changed. Sexism, racism, feminism, the popularity of labor unions, forced Native American assimilation, and a great deal more. America was in dire need of transformation.
In New York City, Caroline Astor was the de facto and undisputed queen of Manhattan’s upper-crust. She was famously the one known as “the Caroline Astor.” It was her and her exclusive circle that stipulated who the doors of society were closed and opened to. Many of the wives of the nouveau riche self-made men were snubbed by Mrs. Astor and she let everyone know it. What were the daughters of these self-made men to do? They were outcasts in all polite New York society and there was great dread about being an old maid. With nowhere to look for possible suitors, many of the wives of these millionaires set their sights across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe.
- Annabel “Nan” St. George: The primary protagonist and youngest daughter of an exceedingly wealthy self-made American man; considered less beautiful than her sister, Virginia.
- Virginia St. George: The Victorian ideal of a perfect beauty and she is the perfect, dutiful daughter; a secondary protagonist.
- Conchita Closson: A young lady of dubious heritage who is renowned for her beauty despite being unconventional in her conduct; good friend of Nan and Virginia St. George.
- Elizabeth “Lizzy” Elsmworth: Known for her small waist and also for her abundant beauty but known to be in competition with Virginia; a good friend of Nan and Virginia St. George as well as Conchita.
- Laura Testvalley: The English governess hired by the St. Georges to instruct Nan in ladylike qualities; She becomes Nan’s kind confidante and best friend.
- Jacqueline March: Friend of Laura Testvalley, an American who has lived in England ever since being left at the altar by an Englishman. She and Laura plot for the foursome of young ladies “The Buccaneers” to sweep England by storm.
Edith Wharton’s last literary work was left incomplete when she passed away in 1936. In the 1990s, author Marion Mainwaring undertook the daunting task of completely Wharton’s final work, The Buccaneers.
It is the 1870’s and the St. Georges are a nouveau riche family who are entirely looked down upon by the rest of New York’s upper-crust. The St. George girls are the statuesque and perfect eldest daughter, Virginia and the precocious and childish younger daughter, Nan. Included in this nouveau riche cadre are the Brazilian beauty Conchita Closson and the lovely Lizzy Elmsworth whose family is rather wealthy.
In this time period, there is only one profession prescribed for wealthy young women: marriage. Mrs. St. George and Mrs. Elmsworth have a sort of “frenemy” (friend + enemy) relationship, engaging in conversation over whose daughter is better. It is apparent from the beginning that these women are playing a game of “your daughter has a lovely eyes” or “your daughter has such a tiny waist” but what is truly meant is “your daughter is nothing to mine.” In this marriage game, it is a competitive business and the mothers of these young women will stop at nothing to have them married.
When it comes to Mrs. Closson, Mrs. St. George and Mrs. Elmsworth immediately dislike and snub her in anyway possible. Mrs. Closson is found to be rather crass and of such lowly character. She has this strange habit of smoking cigars like its no one’s business and playing the piano in such a loud manner. In the case of Mrs. Closson, it’s a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” when it comes to Mrs. Elmsworth and Mrs. St. George. Moreover, both ladies are not at all fond of Conchita Closson whom they find to be wild-looking and almost entirely barbaric.
While the mothers may be petty and nit-picky, the young ladies are affable and kind towards each other. They band together and have fun like any young teenagers would do. When the St. Georges engage an English governess by the name of Laura Testvalley for the young Nan, little do they realize that a world of opportunity is opening up for them. In time, Lord Richard Marabel comes to visit and, right under everyone’s noses, he falls madly in love with the unconventional Conchita Closson. And in time, the couple marries, shocking their small group of acquaintances.
This marriage of Conchita Closson to Lord Richard Marabel sets the stage for the ladies. Assisted by Laura Testvalley and her American friend Jacqueline March, Nan, Virginia, and Lizzy set off for England in search of the best sort of plunder: marriages. Miss Jacqueline March, who was jilted at the altar decades before by Lord Brightlingsea (Lord Richard’s father), affectionately refers to the young ladies as “the Buccaneers” and instructs them in the ways of London society. Virginia, Lizzy, and Nan meet a whole host of suitors from the eccentric Duke of Tintagel, the brooding Lord Seadown (brother to Lord Richard), the charming Hector Robinson, and the splendidly romantic Guy Thwarte.
First of all, I found this book to be rather exciting and it unfolded beautifully from the beginning. The original author, Ms. Wharton did a fantastic job of fleshing out her characters and breathing such life into them that it made them vastly interesting. The names were creative and altogether interesting. The character that I loved best was that of adoring governess Laura Testvalley. She was halfway between a wise older sister and a cultured best friend, imparting her knowledge to Nan. No matter what, Laura seemed to understand the struggles that Nan faced throughout the novel. It seemed like once you had begun to know Laura as a character, she always had a secret to share.
My only critique of this story as that the ending fell rather flat. I do not in anyway attribute it to Ms. Mainwaring who attempted to complete Ms. Wharton’s final work. There seemed to be a lack of climax and the ending lacked any excitement whatsoever.
Four Husbands for Four Brides
There was really ever only one outlet for young women in the 1870’s and that was marriage. Even if a working woman held a job, once she married, her entire career was over. For young ladies who were wealthy, marriage was the only profession truly available to them. It was the preoccupation on the minds of their mothers and guardians. The most humiliating stigma for a woman most likely was to be referred to as “an old maid.” If a woman was an old maid, she was a burden on her parents financially and had not fulfilled her primary duty. That is, to marry.
Since these young ladies are turned away by American society, they had to adventure to England find suitable husbands. This was an epidemic of colossal proportions in the latter quarter of the 1800’s. In Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace’s To Marry a British Lord: Tales of Wealth and Marriage, Sex and Snobbery, one finds a wealth of knowledge in regards to young American heiresses who were turned away by society. It is said that the character of Conchita Closson was inspired by the elegant and swan-like Consuelo Vanderbilt who married the 9th Duke of Marlborough.
If you like this, you may enjoy…
The 1995 Adaptation of The Buccaneers starring Mira Sorvino, Carla Gugino, Allison Elliot, and Rya Kihlstedt. The acting is superb and the story line is interesting.
To Marry a British Lord: Tales of Wealth and Marriage, Sex and Snobbery by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace. A fascinating read however sometimes dry. If this time in history particularly fascinates you, I strongly recommend this book.