BoatGirl’s #CBR4 Review #31: The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton, finished by Marion Mainwaring
The Buccaneers are the wealthy young nouveau riche American women who, upon being deemed unacceptable in upper class US society, decamp to Europe to find husbands. This novel was left unfinished upon Edith Wharton’s death and later finished by one of her primary biographers according to notes left behind. The unfinished version was also published, but I read the finished version for my book club. I would really like to go back now and read the unfinished version for comparison, because as I read I repeatedly had the thought that certain things seemed anachronistic, especially compared to The Age of Innocence which is set in the same time period. I enjoyed The Buccaneers much more than Age of Innocence, probably due to it feeling more in keeping with modern thought. There wasn’t the type of unnecessary self-sacrifice that was glorified in AoI.
The story follows five friends from three rich but unreceived families and the governess for the youngest girl. The impetuous Conchita (rumored to be essentially a prostitute’s daughter) marries the younger son of a titled British family, providing the remaining girls with entry into British society. They all go on to make varying degrees of “successful” marriages. I don’t call them mercenary, as they aren’t. They simply realize that marriage is their job, and entering a marriage that will ensure social acceptance is their best bet. They realize that they are the commodity since their fathers are wealthy and will provide necessary funds. Raised outside the accepted class system in the US, they don’t recognize the class system in England and are seen as refreshing, innovators and independent. They have such innovative ideas as smoking, having lemonade or cocktails instead of tea, eating tea outdoors and hanging out in groups in men’s bedrooms.
The way the five young women approached their lives were really interesting. Conchita responds to a crappy husband and marriage by having affairs until she can buy her way out. Virginia, Conchita’s sister-in-law, tries her best not to rock the boat. Lizzy turns out to be the most modern one, and makes some very conscious decisions that allow her to marry a man who may not be titled yet, but shows promise and meanwhile clearly sees her as a partner. Mab marries a hugely wealthy American and dominates society through sheer wealth; as a widow, she sees clearly that she can pick and choose. The primary heroine of The Buccaneers is Nan St. George, a sensitive young girl who is greatly influenced by her beloved governess, Laura Testvalley, a cousin of the artistic Rosetti family. Nan is probably the least open-eyed of the group and certainly the most romantic. She marries a truly dreadful, highly titled prat. For him, her primary attraction is that she doesn’t stammer over his title. Aside from that, he thinks she is young and moldable into a proper duchess. It is rather like the Dorothy Parker poem about men
…If you return the sentiment,
They’ll try to make you different;
And once they have you, safe and sound,
They want to change you all around…
It doesn’t work, the marriage fails and she falls in love with another man. However, she is lucky in that she has a really good support system in the other women.
The descriptions of the British class system and assumptions are fantastic, as are the period details. A truly fun book and much more upbeat than AoI, although I find it hard to believe that Wharton intended it that way.