Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Edith Wharton’

The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton

When The Classics Club announced a Club Dare for February, Love is in the Air!, I couldn’t go past Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers.

I’ve only ever read one other book by Wharton, Ethan Frome, but I don’t think it’s too soon to say that I love Edith Wharton’s writing.

After finishing Ethan Frome I did something I hadn’t done since childhood, which was to turn straight back to the first page of the story to read the story again. It turned out that I loved it just as much on my second read and I’ve read the book several more times since then.

Since Edith Wharton has written other novels, I added them to my list but have put off reading them for fear of being disappointed that I wouldn’t like love them as much Ethan Frome.

This reminded me of the fear I had after Honey-Bunny was born which was that if I had more babies, I might not love them as much as her. Another mother set me straight without laughing at me, which was very good of her, by explaining that my heart would expand, rather than being sliced into smaller and smaller and potentially unequal portions for each subsequent child.

As it turned out my heart expanded to fit The Buccaneers without me losing any of my regard for Ethan Frome. Both stories are like children in that they are very different to each other, but equally interesting, enjoyable and loveable. I can tell you right now that I’m not going to wait years and years again before reading another of Wharton’s books. I already know that I’m going to love them all.

The first thing that struck me about The Buccaneers is that it was an extraordinarily feminine story. The main characters were all female and were mostly at the mercy of their fathers and husbands’ social standings and finances, and most importantly, the decisions these men made. I don’t know if Wharton wrote with readers of a particular sex in mind, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that she wrote The Buccaneers expressly for female readers.

More trivially than The Buccaneers being a story about female characters, I called this a feminine novel because of the descriptive nature of the story. The descriptions set every single scene.

The story began during 1870 at the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga, New York. While the men were off at the races, their women sat on the verandah drinking lemonade, listlessly waiting for their husbands and fathers to return.

While waiting, Mrs St George evaluated the desirability of her daughters in comparison with the other girls of their age at the hotel, based on the beauty of their faces, hair, figure, their hair and their clothing. Although I’m a product of a different time and place, Mrs St George’s appraisals were interesting and apt. I would also have to say that 160 years later, not much has changed. Women still compare themselves physically to others and are valued according to their physical beauty by both men and women. I don’t think this will ever change.

I liked the descriptions, though. I liked reading about the women’s clothes, how they did their hair and what their faces looked like. However, I also liked reading about how they behaved, how the dealt with the limitations put on them by society, how they pushed those boundaries, and most of all, how these women felt about their lives.

The characters included Virginia St George, a blue-eyed blonde beauty without much personality and her more interesting younger sister Nan. Their mother, Mrs St George, did not want her daughters to associate with another girl living at the hotel, Conchita as her mother was rumoured to be a divorcee but when Colonel St George ordered his wife and daughters to befriend the Clossons so he could secure a business deal, Virginia and Nan were delighted to make friends with Conchita.

When Mrs St George secured an English governess to take charge of Nan, the story became Nan and Miss Testvalley’s, although the reader was kept up to date with what Virginia, Conchita and another of their American friends, Lizzie, were up to at all times.

Despite Virginia’s beauty, Nan’s enchanting and child-like style and their father’s wealth, the girls were unable to break into New York society so on Miss Testvalley’s advice, their parents took them to London for a season. There, the girls were successfully launched into the aristocracy on the back of their friend Conchita having snaffled Lord Richard Marable, whose parents had telegraphed Miss Testvalley, who had previously worked for them, to ask if Conchita was black when they learned their son was marrying the Brazilian-born heiress.

It wasn’t long before Virginia married Lord Seadown, Richard’s older brother and the family’s heir. His parents, Lord and Lady Brightlingsea (pronounced Brittlesea, don’t you know), were pleased by the money Virginia brought to the alliance, her beauty and that she had prevented their son from marrying an older, unsuitable woman with whom he had been having an affair, although they were not at all pleased that their daughter-in-law was an American. Knowing nothing about America, the English characters assumed Americans to be an uncivilised, barbaric people and their comments, although amusing to the reader, were hurtful to the American people in the story, all of whom swallowed their pride and took every insult as it came, rather than challenge the ignorance of the socially superior English aristocracy.

Nan, who had enjoyed Miss Testvalley’s company and reaped the benefits of having been educated by someone who taught her to love art and good writing and to think for herself, became the greatest success of all when she married Ushant, the Duke of Tintagel, despite the pair being completely intellectually unsuited to each other. Ushant, (since I don’t know what to call a Duke I’ll stick with his first name) would have been happier if he had been a clock-maker who was free to follow his own heart, went on to domineer Nan on the advice of his own mother, who had been just as unhappy as Nan was when her own husband had been alive.

The reasons for Nan falling in love, or at least for marrying Ushant were completely understandable. She fell in love with Tintagel itself, a famous ruin on the cliffs of Cornwall which was said to have been King Arthur’s castle.

Not surprisingly, Nan eventually fell in love with another man who ‘got’ her and shared her love of beauty, causing difficulties for all involved.

The women, be they the American ‘buccaneers’ or the English aristocracy, put up with a lot from men. Mrs St George was proud of her husband’s handsome face, charm and swagger and felt sorry for women whose husbands were not as wonderful as hers, but she also had to ignore the Colonel’s constant dalliances with other women and the up and down nature of his finances, which depended on his success or otherwise playing poker or from making stock exchange deals with characters who she didn’t care to associate with.

Conchita, who had made an early marriage with Lord Richard, should have sought advice from Miss Testvalley before marrying, as her husband turned out to be an unfaithful no-hoper who came to a bad end, leaving her begging her friends for money while having a succession of affairs with whoever came along.

Virginia’s husband also continued his affair after their marriage. Interestingly, she was, at least initially, portrayed as being less sensitive that Nan’s was and the reader was not so sympathetic towards her pain, but she must have felt humiliated and sad to have been treated so badly by her husband and in-laws.

Laura Testvalley was one of the only female characters in this story who was able to live her life as she saw fit. Although Laura was poor and had to work to support her family, she was free to choose who she worked for and had actively sought out better paying and more interesting opportunities for herself. At one stage she almost married Sir Hemlsley Thwaite, who was the father of the man Nan loved. Laura was very fond of Sir Hemlsley, they were intellectually suited to each other and her social standing would have been elevated and her finances improved had their marriage gone ahead, but even though Laura’s heart was broken after he broke off their engagement, I was pleased for her as I think she was better off with her freedom.

The only other character who had a similar freedom to Miss Testvalley was Miss March, another American who had been living in England for so long that the English had forgotten that she was American. Miss March was poor but maintained her friendships with English aristocrats and was often invited to the great houses, although she endured a great many of their unconscious insults. I was particularly aggrieved on Miss March’s behalf when she stayed at the home of a man who had jilted her many years ago – after she had ordered her wedding dress – but he barely remembered her name, let alone that they had ever been engaged. I much preferred Miss Testvalley’s life as an independent single woman to Miss March’s way of hanging on to the edges of society.

Towards the end of the story Miss Testvalley reflected on the success of her advice to launch the American girls in England, and wondered if they might not have been happier had they been left to find their own place in American society. Who knows? Maybe they might have been better off, but there wouldn’t have been a story.

The Buccaneers should be read with the understanding that the story was written in the late 1930s, set in 1870 and that it includes racism. Some of this is expressly directed to Conchita but it is also casually included throughout the rest of the story, as is sexism.

The introduction in my copy of The Buccaneers explained that Edith Wharton died before she finished writing this story, which was her last. My understanding is that Books One, Two and Three in my edition was written by Wharton and books Four and Five were finished by Maggie Wadey, the author of the BBC television series of The Buccaneers. I have no complaints about the sections written by Wadey or about how she completed the story, which I understand were based on Wharton’s original synopsis, but I would obviously love to have read the last sections in Edith Wharton’s own words and learn exactly how she intended for things to work out for her characters.

During my research I learned that another writer, Marion Mainwaring, also completed the story, so I intend to find her version of The Buccaneers to see what differences there are between the two. I’m also hopeful of watching the BBC television series soon, and not just so that I can see the dresses worn by the girls for myself!

As much as I loved The Buccaneers I think the entire novel would also have benefitted from another draft by Wharton, even though I would rather have read this story in this form than have the book not exist at all.

The Buccaneers was book thirty five in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton


Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton is the best book I have read all year. Edith Wharton’s style and choice of words and plot were so good that when I finished reading, I turned back to the first page and read the book again. I’ve never done that before.

The story is told by an un-named narrator who is working near Starkfield, Massachusetts, an imaginary village in the mountains where the winters are extraordinarily harsh. Ethan Frome, his wife Zeena and Zeena’s cousin Mattie Silver live together in extreme poverty on the Frome farm. Ethan is a taciturn man, who has been lame since a “smash-up” in his youth. Ethan appears to the narrator to be much older than his 52 years.

The narrator hires Ethan to drive him to and from work in his sleigh, and after a week of travelling together through the snow, a bout of particularly bad weather forces Ethan to offer shelter to the narrator overnight at the Frome farmhouse. The narrator imagines the story of how Ethan, Zeena and Mattie came to be living in poverty and unhappiness based on the gossip he has heard from the Starkfield townspeople and on his own experience after staying in Ethan’s home. The narrator’s vision of how Ethan’s life came to this makes up the remainder of the story.

Ethan was quite young when he married Zeena, who is seven years older than him. Zeena came to Starkfield to nurse Ethan’s mother. Later, it comes out that Ethan would not have suggested Zeena stay with him if his mother had died in the spring, but the thought of a lonely, harsh winter was too much for him and he latched on to Zeena.

Within a year of their marriage Zeena became a miserable hypochondriac, who held Ethan back from selling his unprofitable farm and sawmill, unable to leave Starkfield to try and make something of himself in a town with better opportunities.

Mattie Silver, who is Zeena’s poor relation, came to live with Ethan and Zeena in order to assist Zeena with household chores. Mattie is young and light and bright and of course Ethan fell in love with her. Zeena appeared oblivious to Ethan’s feelings for Mattie, and uninterested in everything apart from her own health, to the point of leaving Ethan and Mattie alone overnight when she goes to town to visit a doctor.

Ethan’s pleasure in being welcomed home after his day’s work by Mattie, eating together and later sitting by the stove talking in Zeena’s absence is the high point of Ethan’s life. The message in this part of the book for me is to be careful of what you wish for.

When Zeena returns the following night, she tells Ethan that Mattie has to go, as she needs a hired girl who will take on more of the household work than Mattie is capable of. Ethan can not afford to keep a hired girl and Mattie. He is unable to stand up to Zeena, particularly when it becomes clear that his wife does know of his feelings for Mattie and he ends up taking Mattie to the train station. Ethan considers leaving Starkfield with Mattie, but he realises that Zeena would be left in terrible poverty. He is also aware that his and Mattie’s future would be financially precarious, and decides to stay with Zeena.

Ethan had previously promised to take Mattie coasting, and on their way to the train station, he delays their parting by offering to take her down the hill on a sled which was left behind by someone else.

Ethan and Mattie coast down the hill once and then kiss. Suddenly desperate for each other, and with no way to be together, Mattie convinces Ethan to form a suicide pact. Their plan is to coast down the hill again and kill themselves by smashing into the big elm tree at the bottom of the run. Ethan fails miserably, and instead they are both injured terribly. Zeena, who has been portrayed by the narrator’s vision throughout the novel as being unkind and unloving, ends up looking after a paralysed Mattie, and Ethan, who was lamed in the smash up. Ethan, Zeena and Mattie live together in extreme poverty and misery for the next 24 years, with Ethan sandwiched between a wife he doesn’t love and Mattie, who has become a querulous, whining, invalid.

Funnily enough, Zeena is a good nurse and actually seems to recover her own health as a result of being needed, but this and the happy night Ethan and Mattie spent together in Zeena’s absence are the only successes the characters enjoy in the novel. The misery of their poverty and the harshness of Starkfield is overwhelmingly sad.

It has been a few weeks now since I read this novel, but I can’t let go of the characters. I keep thinking of Zeena, and wondering why she was the way she was. The story is told from Ethan’s imagined point of view, but poor Zeena was a victim too, trapped in a loveless marriage and watching her husband fall in love with a younger, prettier woman. Even Mattie’s story may be different from the narrator’s vision. I can’t understand why Mattie didn’t flirt with and try to secure Denis Eady’s affections, another character who appeared to be romantically interested in her, and more importantly, was well off and eligible. Despite the narrator suggesting that Mattie had been in love with Ethan for eight or nine months, Ethan was another woman’s husband.

I would love to read a tribute style novel (fan fiction, I think they are called) based on Ethan Frome, perhaps from Zeena or even Mattie’s point of view. Even Ethan’s own point of view may be different to this story, which meets up with the facts the narrator learns, but may otherwise be imagined.

I haven’t read anything else by Edith Wharton, but don’t expect that to be the case for much longer.

Tag Cloud