THE BUCCANEERS By Edith Wahrton. Completed by Marion Mainwaring. Viking, 406 pp., $22.
FOR all those readers perennially in search of a good old-fashioned read, there's a ``new'' novel out by that venerable grande-dame of novelists, Edith Wharton.
``The Buccaneers,'' left unfinished at the time of Wharton's death in 1937, published a year later, although highly praised, has long been out of print. With the same blithe overconfidence that inspired Thomas Bowdler to ``clean up'' Shakespeare, Marion Mainwaring evidently decided to finish this unfinished novel, based on her examination of Wharton's outline for the book.
Although Mainwaring brings scholarly credentials to the task (she's described as a Harvard PhD and Wharton scholar who is currently working on a biography of Wharton's lover, Morton Fullerton), her ``completed'' version of ``The Buccaneers'' offers no explanation of her methods. Nor is there any indication in the text of where Wharton leaves off and Mainwaring commences.
The story is set in the 1870s (the era Wharton portrayed so memorably in ``The Age of Innocence''), a time when great fortunes made in America were being joined in matrimony to financially shaky English peerages. Under the wise and watchful eye of a remarkable governess, Laura Testvalley, five beautiful young American girls, snubbed as nouveau riche by stuffy New York society, set off to conquer hearts in the highest realms of the English aristocracy.
Sultry, red-haired Conchita Closson has already landed herself the impecunious, rather dissolute, younger son of a marquess, who's met her on a visit to the States. (``Is she black?'' wonders his anxious mother back in England, on hearing that Conchita's mother hails from Brazil. ``No, but comely,'' responds the governess in a witty biblical allusion that is quite lost on the dim-witted marchioness.)
In England, Conchita's friends Lizzy Elmsworth (a clever, scintillating brunette) and Virginia St. George (a chilly, beautiful blonde) pique the interest of Lord Seadown, the older brother who is heir to the title. The girls' younger sisters, Mabel Elmsworth and Nan St. George, wait in the wings for their turns to shine. Mabel is jolly; Nan, dreamy, impressionable, unpredictable -
alive to the poetry and history of her surroundings in a way that her worldlier sister and friends are not.
The novel focuses on Nan, whose innocent and romantic nature, ironically, catapults her into the most exalted social position of all, when she unwittingly engages the attention of a reticent duke looking for a girl who is not interested in his title. Nan's special qualities of innocence, honesty, and impetuousness guide her through the tangled complications of a life she fears may be a ``mistake.''
``The Buccaneers'' is a delightful novel, as diverting as any modern-day bestseller, with its bevy of beautiful heroines, its social conflicts, and its romantic intrigues. The story moves along swiftly, narrated with vigor, wit, and dash. Wharton's novels were often bestsellers in her day, and it's easy to see why she was a popular writer as well as an esteemed one. For all her considerable sophistication (she was an immensely cultivated woman, who read everything from Schiller to Schopenhauer, a seasoned traveler, and a close friend to Henry James), there is a certain crudeness to her writing - not coarseness, but a kind of obviousness that is almost the exact opposite of James's well-known subtlety and ambiguity.
The obviousness becomes rather more pronounced when Mainwaring's narrative takes over. Unaware as I was reading of exactly where the change occurs, I had the distinct suspicion, by Chapter 31, that this was no longer Wharton's prose. (Chapter 30, apparently, is where Mainwaring's ``completion'' begins.) But, to give credit where due, Mainwaring manages a reasonable simulation of Wharton's style, and by the end of Chapter 29, I was eager enough to know ``what happened next'' as to be grateful to Mainwaring for carrying on with the story.
In return for this satisfaction, however, the reader must also put up with an uneasiness about the authenticity of what is being read. And in fact a subsequent comparison with the original text (a new edition featuring ``The Buccaneers'' and ``Fast and Loose,'' Wharton's first novel, written when she was a teenager, has just been issued by the University Press of Virginia) reveals that Mainwaring has actually added a chapter between chapters eight and nine of the original, not to mention other dubious embellishments.
From the bowdlerization of Shakespeare to the Hollywoodization of classic novels, the temptation to tamper, distort, or ``improve on'' the original has always been around. Completing an unfinished novel may be one of its more benign forms, but it's a disturbing tendency nonetheless.