Review: The Buccaneers, by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton died before completing The Buccaneers; her unfinished manuscript was published in 1938.  Author Marion Mainwaring worked from Wharton’s notes to publish a finished novel in 1993. The Buccaneers is a satirical look at society’s “marriage market” in the 1870s, seen through the eyes of five debutantes who, having been unsuccessful in American society, travel to London to spend a social season in pursuit of eligible, wealthy Englishmen.

In true Wharton fashion, the girls are initially successful, but their long-term prospects and happiness are far from certain.  The story eventually centers on Annabel St. George, the youngest and the one who makes the most promising match by marrying a duke.  Annabel is stifled by her dull husband and controlling mother-in-law, and is unable even to enjoy the benefits of wealth, since she is given very little spending money.  After finding mutual attraction with another man, Annabel must make difficult decisions about her future.

Yawn.  This is the stuff of dime-a-dozen romance novels.  The Buccaneers is less sophisticated than Wharton’s better-known works, like The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country.  The characters lack depth, the plot is too simple, and there are too many little sub-plots that drain energy from the novel.  I’m a huge Wharton fan, but I can’t recommend this one.

17 thoughts on “Review: The Buccaneers, by Edith Wharton

  1. Haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, but if the miniseries form the 90’s is representative of the book, this may be the only Wharton novel that has a happy-ish ending.

  2. Read Ethan Frome and Summer this year which I enjoyed, though believe they are not typical, will eventually venture into the more society novels, but shall steer clear of this one, life’s too short! Thanks for reading it though and sparing me the trouble. 🙂

    • ladylavinia, I think this book suffered from being an unfinished work, and if Wharton had lived to complete the manuscript and any subsequent revision, it would have been up to her usual standard. I suspect a good screenwriter could work with what she left and make it something better.

      • I have to admit, after reading so many Wharton novels in which the characters fail to find happiness it was sort of refreshing to see one where the characters find self-fulfillment (again, if the miniseries is representative). I wonder if Wharton had intended for it to end that way, or if that was a decision made by the person who finished it. I would dearly love to know.

    • Chris, I realized it was an unfinished manuscript just before I started reading, and I almost put it back on my shelves. I’m glad to knock it off my TBR, but I’m thinking of reading another Wharton soon as an antidote.

  3. I was disappointed to see the “yawn”!!!! The book sounded kind of intriguing, especially since she died during the midst of writing it! But I guess it’s one I will skip! 🙂

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