BOOK REVIEW / Ended with no finish: 'The Buccaneers' - Edith Wharton; completed by Marion Mainwaring: 4th Estate, 14.99 pounds

Hermione Lee
Sunday 14 November 1993 00:02 GMT

WHILE writing her last novel, The Buccaneers (left unfinished at her death, aged 75, in 1937), Edith Wharton noted in her diary:

What is writing a novel like? The beginning: A ride through a spring wood. The middle: the Gobi desert. The end: going down the Cresta run . . . I am now in the middle of the Gobi desert.

Marion Mainwaring's 'completed' version gives no indication of where she has interpolated or taken over, or corrected Wharton when she 'referred to race in terms offensive to modern readers'. She has tried for the Cresta run, but ends up (like Wharton's unfortunate sledders in Ethan Frome) crashing down a slippery slope.

The Buccaneers is set in the 1870s and deals with a famous topic of the time, the marriages of ambitious young American beauties to English aristocrats. (Lord Randolph Churchill and Jenny Jerome, and the Duke of Marlborough and Consuelo Vanderbilt, were sensational examples.) Henry James and Trollope both adopted the subject, and so The Buccaneers has a mood of literary as well as social nostalgia: it wants to be a 19th century novel.

In Henry James's treatment of these 'international episodes', the bright fresh Puritan girls (Daisy, Isabel, Milly) are alone against the repressive old-world forces of custom and corruption. They win (ie keep their integrity) by losing: their joy, or their life. Trollope is more hopeful: his vigorous pretty democrats successfully take on, and take over, the English stately homes. Wharton nods at both: her girls fail to grasp 'the texture of an old society', and suffer from 'these awful English marriages, that strangle you in a noose when you try to pull away from them'. Yet they also liven up a stuffy culture and gain pleasure from the rich deep layers of English history. But she is incomparably cynical about her 'marauders', her 'usurpers and adventurers'. Almost everyone in The Buccaneers has their plan, and their price.

The original plot is diffuse, and fairly toshy. There are five main girls, with stupid mothers (all good) and mostly off-stage Wall Street fathers. Conchita, of dubious Brazilian descent, marries (unhappily) a spendthrift younger son; beautiful dumb Virginia lands an heir, and moves into the Prince of Wales' circle; scheming Lizzie gets a rich young Conservative MP, and her sister marries a wealthy American but returns to England, widowed, for second pickings. Virginia's little sister, the sensitive Nan, makes the mistake of marrying the Duke of Tintagel, whose only passions are winding clocks and providing his domineering mother (also good) with a family heir. Nan hates being a Duchess and is really in love with the romantic Guy Thwarte, whose commitment to maintaining his lovely old house 'Honourslove' provokes him to travel the world building railways. Nan's plain, clever half-Italian governess, Laura Testvalley, has a late flowering liaison with Guy's father. But (the plot summary envisaged) because Laura helps Nan scandalously escape her marriage and run off with Guy, she loses her own chance of happiness.

Because there are so many girls, and because neither Nan nor Laura quite comes into focus, there is nothing in this to approach the great scene of cultural confrontation in The Custom of the Country between Undine Spragg (a wonderful predator) and her husband, a French count, whose family tapestries she has tried to sell:

'You're all alike . . . You come among us from a country we don't know, and can't imagine . . . You come among us speaking our language and not knowing what we mean; wanting the things we want, and not knowing why we want them . . .'

The Buccaneers makes lighter work of the same conflicts, with the satire - its best feature - sprayed evenly at both sides of the Atlantic. Its tone is cool. (For instance, Lady Brightlingsea sends a cable, on hearing that her son is to marry a Brazilian, which reads: 'Is she black?') There are flashes of powerful insight into women's injured lives, but by far the strongest passion is for interior decoration: Wharton loves to do (as in life she loved to do up) the novel's numerous stately homes, with all their fixtures and fittings.

Mainwaring piles on the props and the plot, but she gets the tone wrong. Concealed motives are made explicit (Lord Tintagel considers raping his wife to get his heir), events are thunderingly underlined ('Hence the catastrophe which had ruined their marriage') and steamy down-market cliches ('in a turmoil of emotions . . . agonized in Annabel's behalf') take over from Wharton's dryer phrasings: 'Her voice dragged, as if she were struggling through the long desert reaches of her own future'; 'In her busy life there was no room for dead love-affairs.' Mainwaring crunches to a close with the kind of happy ending which Wharton typically thwarts: Nan and Guy come ecstatically together; Laura's renunciation is sidelined. I wish this interesting, patchy novel had been reissued well-introduced and unfinished, so that we could have been left guessing, with Wharton's voice undiluted in our ears. Why are we supposed to want these 'sequels' and 'completions'? Aren't we all meant to be post-modernists, happy with fragments, resisting closure?

(Photograph omitted)

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