I have a taste for romance

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The Independent Online
I had a rather odd novel-reading jag a few years back. I found myself pouring money into Virago's coffers as I explored the world of dead, middle- rank women writers. It was curious, and satisfying, to find that a publishing venture born of a feminist age was putting before me stuff which seemed mostly to have come from an awkward squad of women who were delightfully un-right-on.

I began to run out of obvious stuff to read and was pleased when a hugely successful businessman put me on to Edith Wharton. This was good timing. She was still a minority taste and reading her brought the warm feeling all pursuers of a cult, or better still a pre-cult, like to have.

I was then just developing an interest in the United States, especially what I suppose one might call its Bohemian side. Edith Wharton was born rich and stayed rich, but she was as devoted a Bohemian as someone with a bank balance can be. She decamped to Europe as a youngster and stayed there (though she had a house in the States as well). From her expensive Paris apartment, she considered the provinciality of New York and mulled over the desperate search for class so many Americans displayed.

From her thirties to her seventies (that is, from the 1890s to the late 1930s), Edith Wharton produced big- selling books. I love to think of her early books about glamorous New York society going out to Prairie Madonnas, for whom they must have been an intensely erotic and romantic antidote to the leathery skin and aching back that would be the result of all the sod-busting.

Wharton's heroines tend to be beautiful and engaged in doomed attempts to marry class, money or romance. They fail because they do not know their own natures well enough, or because of the constraints society placed on the capacity of eligible men to be real men. These are good themes for women's magazine writing, which is what Wharton did - at a very high level.

She set her first and last novels in England, and last year the University Press of Virginia had the good idea of bringing them out in one volume: Fast and Loose, hitherto unpublished and the product of a 15-year-old, together with The Buccaneers, unfinished when the author died. For fans, both are of intense interest, but the latter especially is fascinating. It was written by an old woman who had known every sort of literary figure (Henry James was a great friend, and admired her money-making as much as she admired his writing). In it she casts her mind back to the 1870s and her adolescence. She is writing, in effect, a historical novel, except that she had known her setting.

The BBC is now making a serial of the book, which is unlikely to get bogged down as Scorsese's dollars 40m film version of The Age of Innocence did. The BBC's dollars 8m will produce four times the length of material in a far zippier way - I hope.

The Buccaneers involves a bright American girl's search for a romantic husband. She thinks she has found him in Lord Tintagel, mostly because they meet in the mist-enshrouded Cornish fortified promontory from which his family takes its name. Realising her mistake, she falls for Guy Thwarte, scion of minor rural gentry, whose attachment to his land is romantic as well as practical, and who has the guts to reinvent himself by making a fortune in South America.

Do they make a go of it? Wharton died with the novel mapped out but its ending left, in effect, open to the reader. The BBC version takes Wharton's scenario and . . . but perhaps it's best left to unfold for itself.

Bits of this story are very like Trollope. But Trollope is an essentially ethical writer who does not ignore romance; Wharton is an essentially romantic writer who does not ignore ethics.

Rosalind Wolfes, co-producer of The Buccaneers, and I were mulling over this sort of stuff during breaks in filming the other day. I think she had been a little stung by the critical reception given to The Scarlet and the Black, which she also worked on. She wondered if people would say that, like that serial, The Buccaneers was of interest mostly to women? Just a bit, I supposed. But then, that is probably true of any costume drama. In the hands of the BBC, Trollope became of great interest to women, but probably hadn't been in the original.

These reflections were well-placed: part of The Buccaneers has been filmed in the church of the Hospital of St Cross, the oldest almshouse in the country. A scandal there at the beginning of the 19th century was the basis for Trollope's most famous book, The Warden.

Wharton admired Trollope a great deal, as anyone might. The two shared a quality that makes them wonderful but condemns them to the second league. They are so sharp on bits of the world as it is, but just miss creating a world of their own. They are tremendously skilled, and the best company imaginable. It is almost a relief that they do not aim too deep.