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The Buccaneers is the last novel written by Edith Wharton. The novel is set in the 1870s, around the time Edith Wharton was a young girl. It was unfinished at the time of her death in 1937, and published in that form in 1938. Wharton's manuscript ends with Lizzy inviting Nan to a house party to which Guy Thwarte has also been invited. The book was published in 1938 by Penguin Books in New York.[1] After some time, Marion Mainwaring finished the novel following Wharton's detailed outline of the novel in 1993.[2]



The story revolves around five wealthy and ambitious American girls, their guardians and the titled, landed but impoverished Englishmen who marry them as the girls participate in the London Season. As the novel progresses, the plot follows Nan and her marriage to the Duke of Tintagel.

The novel begins with three socially ambitious families looking for the status needed for their daughters to live successful lives complete with European titles. The young women's fathers' money is very attractive to European aristocrats to maintain their version of wealth: collections of art, property, and societal status. While some girls live in unhappy marriages, they often take lovers to make their marriages work- or they file for divorce. While these young women were not in the best of situations with high expectations from the dukes, some fall in love such as Nan. Nan eventually falls in love with Guy Thwarte.[1]

Edith Wharton (1915)


Over the years there has been criticism and division over the success of the completed novel. There has been chapter by chapter analysis of the novel to find the key differences between Mainwaring's and Wharton's writings.[3] Lee Sigelman has written on the question of " Did Mainwaring do what Wharton would have done herself?". After following her writing patterns of Wharton's other works such as Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, and The Age of Innocence he concluded it was easy to see where Edith Wharton's version ended and where Marion Mainwaring's began due to Edith Wharton's methodical writing style and patterns.[3]

The analysis of Wharton's twenty-nine chapters indicated a standard progression of her words and according to Lee Sigelman, "...the "completed" version of the Buccaneers reveals the substitution of Mainwaring for Wharton as an author caused a decisive break from her well established pattern." The different words and number of words were tracked in the Buccaneers to measure the "vocabulary richness". It is understood to be a reasonable characteristic to understand the writer's thought process and writing style.[3] Critics such as Sigelman also question if Wharton's vocabulary was just richer than Mainwaring's twelve chapters she completed for the novel.

Reception in 1938 of incomplete novelEdit

Edith Wharton's final novel circulated positive and negative reactions from critics. It was often referred to by the New York Times as the "unfinished novel."[4] The main questions asked by critics were: "Is this really her legacy?" and "Was there enough left of the book to publish in the first place?" According to close friends to Wharton such as her literary executor Galliard Lapsey stated the story was brought to her intended conclusion.[4]

There were also positive remarks regarding the unfinished story. According to literary critic May Lamberton Becker, The Buccaneers was one of her greatest works and one of the greatest works of the period.[5] Lamberton-Becker also stated, "To the last, Mrs. Wharton kept faith with her public, even in the novel for whose complete she could not stay. The Buccaneers is complete as far as the story goes, and may be read without the sense of final frustration that attends to so many unfinished novels. By far, the greater part, all indeed but the climax, the conclusion, and the scenes by which these were to be directly approached, are not only in print, but in what amounts to final form. What was to happen in these unwritten chapters her own synopsis- unusually rich in detail and in emotional undercurrent-leaves in no manner of doubt." [5]

Time Magazine also wrote an editorial on her last novel in 1938. It begins with, "Death last year ended Edith Wharton's work on a novel that might have been her masterpiece.She has written 29 chapters of a book apparently planned to run about 35 chapters. The story had reached its climax; the characters were at a moment in their careers when they were compelled to make irrevocable decisions. While Mrs. Wharton left notes suggesting how she intended to end the novel, she gave no hint of how she intended to solve its moral and esthetic problems."[6]

Lastly, there were critics who became defensive of Wharton's last work. Literary critic Christopher Money referred to critics who responded negatively to Wharton's last work as a "low class lot", and respected her humor towards the upper elite.[7] Money even complimented Wharton's literary executor on his "eloquent, but surely unnecessary apology for the publication of this incomplete novel." [7]

Reception for the 1993 Marion Mainwaring's complete versionEdit

The criticism for Mainwaring's finished novel was harsh in 1993. In The New Yorker, John Updike stated regarding the completed “we have a text that in no typographical way discriminates between her words and Wharton’s, and that asks us to accept this bastardization as a single smooth reading unit.” Secondly, In The New Republic, Andrew Delbanco likened Dr. Mainwaring's efforts to an act of “literary necrophilia.” [8] Also, in a Globe review, Katherine A. Powers wrote that certain sections of “The Buccaneers” showcased “Wharton at her finest: subtle figures and tropes, eagle-eyed irony and a pathologist’s acuity in matters of class and morality. But there are also sketchiness, lacunae, and a central implausibility, this perhaps the reason she never could complete the work... (Mainwaring's editions) were frankly no help. Under her pen, the narrative loses its ironic torque, the Prince of Wales strolls in, and the story, lobotomized and docile, becomes a blueblood infatuated gush.”[8]

Mainwaring's statement back to these critics was, "The argument that she was a great writer and how dare I? Well, I don’t think she was always a great writer, at least not as great as some. I wouldn’t have attempted this with a George Eliot or a Jane Austen novel. … Edith Wharton was not at her stylistic best here; that made it easier for me." [8] Mainwaring was not well known before her work with the Buccaneers, but she was known for being a translator and scholar.

1993 completion and 1995 miniseriesEdit

After careful study of the synopsis and notes, Wharton scholar Marion Mainwaring finished the novel with an ending very uncharacteristic of that found in any of Wharton's novels. Mainwaring's version was published by Penguin Books (ISBN 978-0140232028) in 1993. Independently, around the same time, screenwriter Maggie Wadey was commissioned to adapt and finish the novel for a television version co-produced by the BBC and American PBS broadcaster WGBH; it was screened on BBC 1 in the UK and in the Masterpiece Theatre series in the United States during 1995. This serial adaptation was directed by Philip Saville and executive produced by Phillippa Giles.[9]

Wadey's version of The Buccaneers, ending with the inclusion of homosexuality as well as its climatic romantically dramatic showiness and seemingly "happy ending", received widespread criticism from both the BBC viewing public and Wharton fans and scholars alike. The general protest was that Wadey's development was far too unrealistic and stereotypically "Hollywood" in its closing development and end as Guy Thwaithe and the Duchess, Annabel "Nan", literally go riding off into the sunset to live happily ever after. This is starkly different from the ending of every one of Wharton's previous novels which all have markedly realistic and distinctly solemn endings for all of their characters and plot lines. Many viewers felt that in using this ending, the BBC was "selling out" to American Hollywood.

While Wadey's BBC ending was at the heart of the controversy, both Mainwaring's and Wadey's endings were heavily criticized for their "sensationalism" and perceived lack of "trueness" to Wharton's style of work and both writers independently made the claims that they sought to romanticize and "Americanize" the story, despite it having been penned by American novelist Wharton to explore the intersections and clashes of class, commerce and marriage in Old and New World cultures and high society. A companion book to the BBC series was published by Viking in 1995 (ISBN 0-670-86645-8). For this book, Angela Mackworth-Young finished the novel based on the screenplay of Maggie Wadey. As a result, the novel has three endings: Wharton's unfinished novel published in 1938, the Mainwaring finished novel published in 1993, and the Mackworth-Young finished novel published in 1995.

A television series titled The Buccaneers (1956), produced for ITC Entertainment, has no relation to the Wharton novel.

List of charactersEdit

This list includes the characters names alongside a link to the actor who portrayed the character in the 1995 mini-series.

NOTE: Maggie Wadey's BBC screenplay changed the names and eliminated some characters. The Wadey changes are in parentheses. The characters eliminated in the Wadey screenplay are Mabel Elmsworth, Lizzy' sister, and Teddy de Dios-Santos, Conchita's half-brother.

In the second paragraph of the Mackworth-Young's first chapter, Mabel Elmsworth is written out of the story as having turned down the marriage offer of the Duke of Falmenneth and married a "dashing, intelligent, young captain of the Guards". Teddy is written out completely.

In the Mainwaring version, Mabel Elmsworth marries an older American steel tycoon and later returns to England as an extremely wealthy widow. Mabel, Lizzy Elmsworth and Hector Robinson have more significant roles in the Mainwaring finished novel.


  1. ^ a b Wharton, Edith (1938). The Buccaneers. New York: Penguin Group. ISBN 9781440621390.
  2. ^ Steiner, Wendy. "Finishing Off Edith Wharton". Retrieved 2018-11-29.
  3. ^ a b c Sigelman, Lee (1995). "By Their (New) Words Shall Ye Know Them: Edith Wharton, Marion Mainwaring, and The Buccaneers". Computers and Humanities. 29: 271–283 – via JSTOR.
  4. ^ a b Hutchson, Percy (1938). Edith Wharton's Unfinished Novel and Other Recent Fiction. London: D. Appleton-Century Company. pp. 545–546.
  5. ^ a b Lamberton-Becker, May (1938). Last of Edith Wharton: Wherein She Reverted to the Secure Mood and Period of her Greatest Books,. London: D. Appleton- Century Company. pp. 546–547.
  6. ^ "Last Novel,". Time Magazine. 1938.
  7. ^ a b Money, C (1938). "Edith Wharton's Unfinished Novel,". Saturday Review. p. 10
  8. ^ a b c Reporter, Bryan Marquard-. "Marion J. Mainwaring, 93; scholar completed 'The Buccaneers,' Wharton's final unfinished novel - The Boston Globe". Retrieved 2018-12-05.
  9. ^ Clarke, Steve (31 January 1995). "Confessions of an unfaithful TV director". The Independent. Retrieved 23 December 2016.

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