Fifty-seven years ago, in her last novel, Edith Wharton told the story of The Buccaneers — a platoon of lovely American girls invading England, plundering titles and winning social success.
Then, last winter, the colonies were again attacking the sceptered isle. Americans were conspiring with the BBC to spice up and Americanize the five-part mini-series based on Wharton’s novel.
The BBC/WGBH coproduction, which has its first U.S. airing Oct. 8–10, opened in February in Britain, and some British critics charged that the “ratings-grubbing American partners had insisted on a sexy ending,” recalled Masterpiece Theatre Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton at the Los Angeles press tour this summer.
“‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘We’ve arrived! We’re now seen as a too-powerful influence on British television.”‘
Indeed, suspicious Britons could see that the miniseries ended more happily than readers would expect of a Wharton story, and the dramatization contained racy, modern elements of homosexuality and marital rape that weren’t in the book.
The ending was true to Wharton, however. Though the author died before finishing the book, she had sketched out a similar conclusion in her synopsis of the plot.
Wharton’s saga centers on five vital and ambitious American girls (reduced to four in the series). Ostracized as “nouveau riche” by unforgivingly snobbish New York society, they try their luck across the Atlantic. The girls are armed with beauty, freshness, wit and (most importantly) wealth, however, and they ultimately take their places in the equally rigid English society.
The story follows the buccaneers’ rocky lives through marriage, pregnancy, affairs and divorce, focusing particularly on the fate of the youngest, most idealistic girl, Nan St. George, and her governess and mentor, Laura Testvalley. As Wharton characters do, the young women struggle with modernity and tradition, conformity and rebellion. And how do they end up?
Wharton had finished only three-fifths of the novel’s manuscript when she died in 1937. The unfinished book was promptly published along with Wharton’s plot summary, including her sketch of the intended conclusion.
In 1993, the BBC assigned the screenwriting job to Maggie Wadey, whose credits include other adaptations of other 19th century novels, such as Northanger Abbey and Adam Bede.
About the same time, Viking published The Buccaneers as edited and completed by Marion Mainwaring.
(Stop reading here if you don’t know the story and want to avoid “spoiling” it.)
Separately, Wadey and Mainwaring edited and rewrote the story and constructed their own endings, loosely following the story line that Wharton left in her summary (see box below): Nan leaves the duke she has married to run off with Guy Thwarte, whom she loves; they are aided by Nan’s former governess, Laura Testvalley, who consequently loses her own suitor, Guy’s father.
There are differences, however, in how Wadey and Mainwaring move the story to its conclusion. In Mainwaring’s book, Nan is driven to drastic action by her deep alienation and the emptiness in her marriage to the duke and in her new life. When she finally meets up with Guy, she does so discreetly, though their relationship becomes public later on.
Wadey’s Nan is also extremely unhappy, but it is marital rape and her husband’s homosexuality that push her too far. And when she leaves him in the BBC/WGBH version, she makes a dramatic scene in front of friends and bystanders.
The Buccaneers, with a “ride into the sunset” ending that contrasts sharply with the desperation, despair and resignation of Wharton’s other novels, readily appears to be a victim of “Americanization” and the tidy, cheerful Hollywood endings that Europeans mock.
In addition, the production came along at a time when the BBC was under rising pressure to support more of its costs through program sales overseas.
“The British press had a wider agenda that we wandered into,” WGBH’s Rebecca Eaton told Current. “They were already critical of the BBC and now were concerned that the BBC might be selling out to the Americans” by giving them too much influence over the selection of programs. And here was WGBH joining the BBC in producing the adaptation of an American novel, The Buccaneers.
Though complaints about the mini-series were heard, however, not every critic joined in the chorus.
“The BBC stands accused of sensationalism . . .” wrote Matthew Bond in the Times, summarizing the hullaballoo. “It stands accused of taking the grossest of liberties with Wharton’s work by introducing ‘modern’ story lines such as marital rape and homosexuality. But anyone hoping to whip themselves into a lather of moral indignation will be disappointed. For The Buccaneers is a delight.”
Although Wadey says she didn’t admire The Buccaneers as much as Wharton’s The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth, she believed the screenplay needed to stress the novel’s distinctive humor, lightheartedness and fast pace. It also needed to contrast these qualities with its dark underlying story, and the happy ending with the price of happiness.
While writing the screenplay, Wadey wanted to respond to the material as if it were her own, “following the current of the book itself, the impulses that were already there.” Even if she hadn’t known that Wharton planned a happy ending, she still would have written it that way. “It was the only ending possible — Nan had to break out of this marriage. It’s the only thing that would have rang true.”
Mainwaring agreed. “I would have created the same ending even without the synopsis — it seemed so fundamental,” she said. In her view, the novel has a magical quality that permitted an ending rarely seen in Wharton’s books.
No one will ever know, despite Wharton’s summary, whether she ultimately would have changed her mind and given The Buccaneers a different ending. Margaret B. McDowell, Wharton’s biographer, said that Wharton’s editor, Gaillard Lapsley, “expressed misgivings about publishing the unfinished work of an author so given to extensive revision.”
The book “comprised some work as good as any she had ever done and some that she would never have allowed to appear as it stood,” Lapsley wrote in his afterword of the first edition in 1938.
Defenders of the TV adaptation say the novel needed some alterations to become dramatically effective. Wadey said she inserted the elements of homosexuality and marital rape to modernize the plot and help its flow. She contended the additions were necessary to demonstrate why the heroine, Nan, had to leave the duke and seek divorce at any cost. Wadey’s additions dramatized Nan’s torture and gave her a motive beyond boredom or dissatisfaction.
Eaton defended Wadey’s innovations, which she said were logical, historically plausible and dramatically useful. If Wharton hadn’t died before completing the novel, she would have had to face its lack of dramatic tension herself, Eaton said.
“I’m sure the Edith Wharton police will question the changes,” said Eaton, “but, for the most part, I think the audience will accept it, taking it as a drama rather than an adaptation.”
Wadey calls the controversy hypocritical and “rather silly” and said the media were outraged over the film before they ever saw it. “Because it’s a classic adaptation, people expected certain things. When the style and pace were different, it caused people to get worked up.” She doubted that Wharton would have objected to the insertion of homosexuality — “she had an affair with a bisexual.”
Scott Marshall disagrees. The deputy director of the Edith Wharton Restoration at the novelist’s onetime home in Lenox, Mass., doesn’t believe homosexuality figures in Wharton’s book at all. “I felt disappointed that people feel the need to add to the novel to make it understandable to 1995 audiences,” he said. To his mind, Nan’s situation in the novel was serious enough to justify abandoning the duke and didn’t require the embellishment.
While the series gives Wharton’s characteristic lavish attention to manners, clothes and location, some critics said it lacked her spirit and her voice. Unlike the screen adaptations of Ethan Frome or The Age of Innocence, the mini-series does not use Wharton’s lyrical language in narration. “It’s very much her wording,” as Mainwaring explained, “that carries her style.”
Though Eaton admitted she was tempted to use Wharton’s narrative in places, she thought it was appropriate to keep Wharton in the dialogue and dispense with narration in a story with so much action.
Wadey said she tried to capture the Wharton spirit but said it’s impossible to reproduce a book, that the two media are too different and that production is ultimately responsible for this. “Screenplay writers have no control over this, as they have little control over production.” Still, she said she enjoyed The Buccaneers after it was made.
Director Philip Saville commented during the July press tour that the story was very much Wadey’s and similar to the original novel. He noted that “a book is not a script and a script is not a film. … And words when you put flesh and blood on them change. And when we did our television production, it became its own voice … it had its own life … and internal rhythm.”
How did Wharton plan to end her novel?
This is how Wharton concludes her summary of The Buccaneers plot line, starting at the point where her completed chapters leave off.
“Sir Helmsley Thwarte, the widowed father of Guy, a clever, broken-down and bitter old worldling, is captivated by Miss Testvalley, and wants to marry her; but meanwhile the young Duchess of Tintagel [Nan] has suddenly decided to leave her husband and go off with Guy, and it turns out that Laura Testvalley, moved by the youth and passion of the lovers, and disgusted by the mediocre Duke of Tintagel, has secretly lent a hand in the planning of the elopement, the scandal of which is to ring through England for years.
“Sir Helmsley Thwarte discovers what is going on, and is so furious at his only son’s being involved in such an adventure that, suspecting Miss Testvalley’s complicity, he breaks with her, and the great old adventuress, seeing live, deep and abiding love, triumph for the first time in her career, helps Nan to join her lover, who has been ordered to South Africa, and then goes back alone to old age and poverty … ”
Wadey said that the English audience was offended by the film’s mocking portrayal of the English aristocracy — a portrayal that she believes echoes up to modern times. “They still want to do things in a gentlemanly way; they are still contemptuous of Americans, of business, but still want the money.”
Wharton was born into the Old Money class that the Buccaneers first tried to invade. Saved from spinsterhood at 23, she married and eventually divorced Edward Wharton. In between, she published both nonfiction and fiction, traveled and suffered a series of nervous breakdowns. Her bondage and liberation came in the form of a tumultuous love affair with American journalist Morton Fullerton.
Wharton’s upbringing, values and the choices she faced were not so different from the ones she described in The Buccaneers. Wadey believes Wharton identified with Julius (the duke), Laura and Nan. “Julius was a victim of society like (Wharton), and this is ultimately a tale of society oppressing people, not men oppressing women.”
The three characters represent different choices. The duke, oppressed by his unwanted role in the peerage, rebels against society with his choice of a wife. When the marriage fails, however, he returns to the society that refused to accept him as he was. Nan, stifled by society and her parents’ expectations of her, finally breaks free of her obligations to be true to herself. And Laura, the conforming governess, finally gives in to her idealism, though it costs her the man she really wants.
Mainwaring thought Wharton identified most with Nan, seeing herself at that age as poetic, imaginative and unconventional. Consequently, she couldn’t resist giving herself a happy ending.
Wharton biographer Cynthia Griffin Wolff offers her own argument that The Buccaneers was a “fictional retrospective” of Wharton’s own life. Wolff wrote in her book A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton:
“Long ago, three-quarters of a century in the past, she began as a frightened child, desolate and lonely; and the lonely child had grown to timid womanhood, filled with confused longings, her character virtually obliterated with fear. And still, by some feat of intellect and passion and will, that nearly extinquished woman had confronted life and become, if not its master, at least its partner. The buoyant optimism of The Buccaneers suggests the jubilation with which the old woman’s intrepid spirit had succeeded in redressing the miseries of her youth.”