Edith Wharton's sophisticated last novel: a well-wrought end to the story

September 19, 1993|By Margaria Fichtner | Margaria Fichtner,Knight-Ridder News Service

THE BUCCANEERS

Edith Wharton; completed

by Marion Mainwaring

Viking

406 pages. $22

When Edith Wharton died in 1937, she had completed four-fifths of this sophisticated romp about five bold American girls who set out to storm the slopes of British aristocracy in the 1870s. A year later, her literary executor published the manuscript, thoughtfully including the author's plot synopsis. Though sometimes passed off as a fragment, "The Buccaneers" brilliantly showcased Wharton near the top of her form as a social commentator out to wither the pretensions of the nouveau riche:

"Who, for example, was that new woman, a Mrs. Closson, or some such name, who had such a dusky skin for her auburn hair, such a fat body for her small uncertain feet, and who, . . . was credibly reported by the domestics to lie for hours on her bedroom sofa smoking -- yes, smoking -- big Havana cigars?"

Still, loose ends dangled: Did the lantern-jawed Miss Mabel Elmsworth ever snag a beau? Did the Marquess of Brightlingsea, "who swept through life on a steady amnesiac flow," ever remember the terrible hurt he had inflicted upon poor Miss March? Did the aptly named Guy Thwarte prevail? And was Sir Helmsley forced to sell the Holbein after all? All these questions are laid neatly to rest in this gratifying new edition completed by Wharton scholar Marion Mainwaring.

Purists who fume that "The Buccaneers" ought to remain an imperfect relic will be consoled by the University Press of Virginia's reissue of the long out-of-print 1938 edition. However, less rigid Wharton fans will admire Ms. Mainwaring's unobtrusive entrance into the plot and her collaborative mastery of Wharton's epigrammatic, unruffled prose. Although this new "Buccaneers" lacks the almost line-by-line perfection of "The Age of Innocence" or "The House of Mirth," it is neither gimmick (a la Alexandra Ripley's "Gone With the Wind" sequel, "Scarlett") nor caricature.

Ms. Mainwaring has honed her literary impersonation almost flawlessly. She faithfully imitates the essence of Wharton's visual awareness, her ability to convey an entire way of life in a few details: "Mrs. St. George gestured at a large framed drawing of the Empress Josephine, placed by Mrs. Elmsworth's decorator between two gilt-eagle wall-sconces as a final touch to his Empire interior. It was typical of Mrs. Elmsworth . . . to display a portrait of someone with such a reputation as a . . . a . . . Well, Napoleon must have had some good reason to end their marriage!"

Best of all, Ms. Mainwaring convincingly mimics Wharton's authoritative voice: "Jacky . . . helped make matches that were often, at best, convenient, with the innocence of an ostrich. . . . A phrenologist palping that busy little head under its curls true and false would certainly be struck by the development of Miss March's bump of self-delusion."

And self-delusion, that Wharton hallmark, runs in floods. It infects girls with impossible fairy-tale dreams, their mothers with naivete and idleness, and their fathers with a foolishness for shady deals and questionable women. Most of all, it infects the old order. When news reaches Lord Richard Marable's family that he will wed the Brazilian-born Conchita Closson, the cabled acknowledgment radiates class hysteria: "IS SHE BLACK HIS ANGUISHED MOTHER SELINA BRIGHTLINGSEA."

Set in Saratoga, Manhattan and England, "The Buccaneers" follows Conchita and company from New York's Assembly balls to London afternoons with the Prince of Wales. Wharton knew such trans-Atlantic brides as Consuelo Vanderbilt Marlborough and Jennie Jerome (Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston's mother) and was working on the book during Edward VIII's abdication crisis. Impertinent American beauty was much in the news and on the mind.

As Lady Dick, Wharton's Conchita settles into a lush life, repaying her husband's peccadilloes with her own unwise affairs. After a slow start, Lizzy Elmsworth lands a promising politician. But young Nan St. George snares the showiest prize, the wealthy young Duke of Tintagel.

Alas, Nan has no knack for running her new households, and the humorless duke is no match for her impetuousness. "I don't believe we're any of us really made for this English life," Nan sighs. Unlike the governess, Laura Testvalley, whose wise, consoling nature almost runs away with the book, Nan is too innocent for the intricacies of the world.

In 1934, after she had finished 166 pages of "The Buccaneers," Edith Wharton scribbled: "What is writing a novel like: 1. The beginning: A ride through a spring wood. 2. The middle: The Gobi Desert. 3. The End: A night with a lover. I am in the Gobi Desert."

Now, with Ms. Mainwaring's help, she has turned back, safe, toward home.

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