Wow! What a great story. I am accustomed to tragic, fatalistic, even fatal,
novels coming from the pen of this great American author, but this one is a great romance filled with sly humor, and with an uncharacteristically happy
ending. Having said that, I must also say that it was not Wharton's ending at all. She died, leaving the book unfinished in 1937. It was published incomplete
in 1938. In 1993, Wharton scholar Marion Mainwaring published her version of the completion. Screenwriter Maggie Wadey also created a completed
version for a miniseries that aired in 1995 on BBC 1, and here in the States on Masterpiece
Theatre. Though I don't remember that one, I must have certainly seen it, as I was a great fan of Masterpiece Theatre when I owned a TV. Angela
Mackworth-Young also finished the novel, based on the screenplay, in 1995. This present copy is the one completed by Mainwaring.
It doesn't matter, really, whose story it is, it is still entertaining and enlightening. I flew through those 406 pages. And its theme is one dear to Wharton's heart—the pretentiousness of the very wealthy, social classes and mores in the U.S., and an added bonus for this one: the wealthy girls go to England and marry into the even more rigid caste system there, and not without major problems. In this novel, Wharton has made the wealthy and powerful on both sides of the ocean look ridiculous. Though Wharton, who was a Jones, as in "keeping up with the Joneses," she found the inflexible rules of the upper class stifling. After 28 years of marriage, she divorced her husband, Edward Wharton in 1913, and moved to Paris where she felt more supported in her art. She also had an affair during her marriage. Most of her major works were written after that date.
The story centers around three American families in New York. We meet the ladies as they are lazily wasting their time on the verandah of the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga, while the men are off at the races. Mrs. St. George is the mother of two daughters, Virginia (Jinny), and Annabel (Nan) and her friend and rival, Mrs. Elmsworth also has two daughters, Lizzy and Mabel (Mab). Jinny and Lizzy are "out," which doesn't mean what it does now, but was the term used for young ladies who had been presented to the public as marriageable. The other woman, Mrs. Closson is fat and spends her day on her couch reading and smoking cigars. And to make things even worse, she is from Brazil, and it is rumored that she has been divorced. Mrs. St. George orders her daughters not to associate with her lovely and charming daughter, Conchita, (and her dancing poodle), and for that reason, Nan makes a point to become her friend. And as it turns out, they are best friends throughout the whole story.
Mrs. St. George is aghast that her husband requests, bribes, actually, his wife to be friends with Mrs. Closson, because her husband is brilliant on Wall Street and has just enabled him to makes a great deal of money. And so the three families become thus tied. Things become even more strained when Conchita's half-brother, Teddy de Santos-Dios arrives from Brazil, along with his friend, Lord Richard Marable. Mrs. St. George doesn't find anything at all acceptable with either of the two, other than new entertainment for the girls, and the fact that Marable is a British nobleman. But he obviously has eyes only for Conchita.
Because Nan is still too young to come "out," her mother has decided she will have a governess, to Nan's dismay. She braces herself to hate this person who is being hired to keep her in check and make her proper. But Miss Laura Testvalley has references from prominent families, including noble ones in England. And so on the day of her arrival, she is met at the station, not by Nan and her family, but by a strange hotel hack, filled with a bevy of giggling girls (and a poodle), along with an English Lord and a Brazilian guitar player. Rather than reacting with disdain, Miss Testvalley finds the whole thing amusing, and immediately picks out Nan as her charge. Nan realizes that she will love this woman. What the others do not realize is that Miss Testvalley served as a governess to Lord Richard's sisters, and even worse, she had an . . .er . . . indiscretion with him during that stay. Well!
When they return to New York City, Mrs. St. George and Mrs. Elmsworth are frustrated that their daughters have not made the lists of invitations to the important social events, even though both families are quite wealthy. Conchita, however, finds herself in the right circle, since she is dating a British nobleman. She also finds herself pregnant. Their engagement is announced and the others are to be bridesmaids. Richard cables his family, but there is no reply.
Meanwhile, Lord Richard visits Miss Testvalley to ask a favor. He is not a particularly well-behaved young man, and has incurred the wrath of his family. Everyone wonders why the family hasn't replied. He wants to make sure Miss Testvalley will keep his personal information to herself, since she knows a great deal about the family. She, of course, has her own reasons to hope she can trust Lord Richard to not speak of her brief imprudence, but he doesn't even remember! She also asks a favor of him: since he is engaged to Conchita, could he please find a way to get her bridesmaids—at least Lizzy and Jinny—invited to the Assemblies. He does.
Eventually, a cable does arrive from Lady Brightlingsea, Richard's mother, but it comes to Miss Testvalley. It is very brief:
IS SHE BLACK HIS ANGUISHED MOTHER SELINA BRIGHTLINGSEA
Miss Testvalley puzzles over this, until she remembers that though there are two globes in the Allfriars library, no one ever used them.
. . . Lady Brightlingsea's geographical notions, even measured by the family standard, were notoriously hazy. She could not imagine why anyone should ever want to leave England, and her idea of the continent was one enormous fog from which two places called Paris and Rome indistinctly emerged; while the whole western hemisphere was little more clear to her than to the forerunners of Columbus. But Miss Testvalley remembered that on one wall of the Vandyke saloon, where the family sometimes sat after dinner, there hung a great tapestry, brilliant in colour, rich and elaborate in design, in the foreground of which a shapely young Negress flanked by ruddy savages and attended by parakeets and monkeys was seen offering a tribute of tropical fruits to a lolling divinity. The housekeeper, Miss Testvalley also remembered, in showing this tapestry to visitors, on the day when Allfriars was open to the public, always designated it as "The Spanish Main and the Americas"—and what could be more natural than that poor bewildered Lady Brightlingsea should connect her son's halting explanations with this instructive scene.
Laughing, Miss Testvalley cables her reply:
NO, BUT COMELY
That's from the Songs of Solomon, 1:4, by the way.
And that ends Book One. In Book Two, we find the girls (and their mothers) now in London, attempting to get them married off to British titles, while the British titles often needed American money. Here, the story turns to the vast differences between the stodgy old ways of British aristocracy and the fresh new ideas (and behaviors) of these loud and flirtatious American Beauties. In many ways, this story reminds me of Henry James' writing, since comparing American romance to European was also one of his favorite themes. James and Wharton were also good friends.
And the marriages do happen, but not with the expected results. Conchita is the first to realize what a dull and badly behaved husband she has chosen, not to mention the fact that they are deeply in debt. She unflinchingly takes her own lovers, and puts up with her family unhappiness, the first to exclaim that, such as it is, she would never trade it in for a return to New York. Jinny marries Lord Richard's brother, Seadown, the future Marquess.
But the main character turns out to be little Nan, a mere child compared to the rest. Miss Testvalley has returned to England with the girls, and though she is no longer governess to Nan, they remain close.
But it doesn't take Nan long to marry, and before she understands what has happened, she finds herself the Duchess of Tintagel. She knows nothing about how to behave like a Duchess, nor does she care. She realizes she was swept off her feet by the castle rather than its occupant, who is dull and cold. When she miscarries very soon after their marriage through a careless act, Ushant, her husband doesn't forgive her. She begins to hate him, and no longer allows him in the marital bed, thus not offering much hope for a ducal heir. Her boredom and misery grows. But fortunately, there is a good man (Guy Thwarte, Esquire), who does love her for who she is.
Here are some other amusing and profound quotes from the story, to illustrate its acerbic wisdom. First, we read a segment of a letter from Sir Helmsley Thwarte to his son Guy, who has temporarily gone to Brazil to work, yes, work. He has determined to save the family estate, which is in need of cash and repair because of his father's rash expenditures, and he is determined to earn the money by his own hands, rather than marrying it. Sir Helmsley is referring to the invasion of American women who have no clue about old British society:
. . . and their guests cannot grasp the meaning of such institutions or understand the hundreds of minute observances forming the texture of an old society. This has caused me, for the first time in my life, to see from the outside at once the absurdity and the impressiveness of our great ducal establishments, the futility of their domestic ceremonial, and their importance as custodians of historical tradition and of high (if narrow) social standards.
And here is another from the rather dim Lady Brightlingsea, who thought all Hispanic-Americans were black. She is now the mother-in-law of both Conchita and Virginia St. George. They are at a dance, performing American dances, which bewilder the older British ladies:
"Oh, yes, do tell us," exclaimed Lady Brightlingsea, coming to anchor between the two. "It's called the Virginia reel, isn't it? I thought it was named after my daughter-in-law—Seadown's wife is called Virginia, you know. But she says no; she used to dance it as a child. It's an odd coincidence, isn't it?"
The Dowager was always irritated by Lady Brightlingsea's vagueness. She said, in her precise tone: "Oh, no, it's a very old dance. The Wild Indians taught it to the Americans, didn't they, Jacky?"
And here, Miss Jacky March, an American by birth, jilted years ago by Lord Brightlingsea, and stoically remaining in England to become friends with his chosen wife, has thoughts about Nan's behavior:
Since Annabel's unexpected visit, Miss Jacky March had quivered through gradations of amazement, horror, and, yes, something like exultation! at behavior so unlike her own. She felt drawn to a compatriot who would demonstrate that one American scorned the greatest marriage in the United Kingdom! (Other than Royal, Miss March corrected herself, scrupulously; but, of course, Royal marriages were inviolable.)
Of course, here in 2017, we can look back and see, horror of horrors,
that divorce can even happen to British royalty! I wonder what Wharton would have thought if she could have seen into the future.
And last of all, why the title The Buccaneers? I thought buccaneers were pirates! Well, they are. Here, Sir Helmsley is livid with Guy for falling in love with the Duchess.
"She, she, she—! And what about me? Look at what you're doing to me!" Sir Helmsley, shaking with bitterness, subsided, panting; then rose in a new crescendo. "You! You would desert; you would have Honourslove go to a child by an—an—an American? A woman with no scruples? one of those damned pirates?"
And later, Lizzy speaks with her husband, Mr. Robinson. He says:
. . . But never had there been any phenomenon to match this, this—he recalled an article—this "invasion of England by American women and their chiefs of commissariat, the silent American men. . . ." "What a gang of buccaneers you are!" he breathed to his wife.
"Buccaneers," Lizzy reminded him gently, "were not notorious for paying fortunes for what they took."
And let us not forget that, way back when, America was founded by English people. . . . Wharton did not make up this term, incidentally. According to Wikipedia:
Of particularly strong resemblance are the ill-fated marriages of American heiress Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough to the Duke of Marlborough and American heiress Lady Randolph Churchill to Lord Randolph Churchill of the family of the Dukes of Marlborough, and the especially advantageous marriages of other vastly wealthy American socialites, whose generation of nobility marrying American heiresses was originally labeled "Buccaneers" in both American and English society.
This is only a smidgen of what happens in this complicated (but easy-to-read) novel. So far, it is my favorite Wharton book, but I still have many more to read. Highly recommended.
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