Friday, March 18, 2016

"My Name is Might-have-been": Edith Wharton's Last and Unfinished Novel

When Edith Wharton died in 1937, she left a half-finished manuscript of what promised to be a masterpiece on the scale of The Age of Innocence and The Reef. The Buccaneers is a kaleidoscopically narrated story of young, wealthy American girls in London, on the hunt for titled aristocratic husbands. These are not marriages based in love, and this in keeping with Wharton's work in general. One of the central themes of her oeuvre is marriage as a woman's career, her work, marriage as a contract that gives its participants financial, social, or political benefits, marriage as a means of class consolidation, marriage as a form of cruel bondage, even enslavement, for women. The Buccaneers certainly seems to have been heading in the expected direction as the manuscript ends with the three of the five young girls married to English aristocrats and a fourth to a promising M.P. However, since the novel was originally published in its unfinished form, several writers have attempted to supply an ending, though all have met with criticism. In 1993, Marion Mainwaring published her ending, approximately a hundred pages to tie up the loose ends, integrated with the main text.

I'm not sure it would have been possible for any writer, short of a genius of the same stature of Wharton herself, to adequately complete the novel. In a short note at the end, Mainwaring explains that she inserted a few passages "to reconcile discrepancies in the narrative or prepare for later developments." After reading Mainwaring's ending, I inevitably wonder if the occasional false note in the text, the occasional awkward phrasing or uncharacteristic aside, were not her work. Frankly, her ending is not terrible - but it suffers from comparison to Wharton's writing, more elegant and subtle even in its unrevised state. 

The most glaring errors are those involving the Garibaldian partisan relatives of Laura Testvalley, or Testavaglia, as it's quite clear that Mainwaring has only the most elementary grasp of Italian language and history. I realize that most readers wouldn't catch these errors, but their presence signals clearly that this is not Wharton's work. Wharton was better than well-traveled; she spent years of her life in England, France, and Italy, read multiple languages fluently and was well-versed in history. Mainwaring, on the other hand, describes an Italian servant as Calabrian, but has her speak Florentine Italian, rather than Calabrian dialect. The servant complains that she is homesick for Italy - even though Italy had existed for less than a decade and culturally speaking, regional and local interests have typically trumped national identity. More crucially (and it would have been impossible for Wharton, versed as she was in social etiquette, to make such a glaring mistake), the Calabrian servant speaks to Guy Thwarte, a visitor unknown to her but obviously of the upper classes, with the informal address. "Vieni," she says to him, with shocking familiarity. "Venga," she ought to have said. Another Italian character, supposed to speak poor English, asks about the "serfs emancipated by President Lincoln" even though "serf" in Italian is "servo" and the word "schiavo" - that is, "slave" - was the term that would make sense for him to use historically. Granted, few readers would catch these things, but this is the sort of problem that destroys historical novels. Most readers won't know, but those that do lose their belief in the text.

There are also occasional phrases that lack specificity and subtlety, sound unnatural, out of tune, with the rest of the text ("Such ideas could enter the head of an engineer only by way of a fevered imagination") and Mainwaring slips messily between the third person limited and the third person omniscient, while Wharton stuck almost constantly to the third person limited. The text is peppered with the sort of historical references utilized by the contemporary historical novelist to establish the period, though they very rarely appear in Wharton't writing. Analogies set up by Wharton with subtlety, most notably a link between Proserpine and the main character Annabel, are explicated at length. Perhaps, the worst problem with Mainwaring's text is the dialogue, dense with melodramatic clich├ęs and chock-full of exposition about the characters' previously tacitly preserved feelings. "'Darling, be brave,'" coos the hero in a treacly moment that I rather think Wharton would have ruthless shredded with mockery. For Mainwaring's ending is unrepentantly sentimental, two lovers blissfully eloping to an impossibly idyllic future. A less characteristic ending for a Wharton novel I cannot imagine. 

Mainwaring, however, might make a top-notch historical fiction novelist, of the sort uninterested in evoking the writing of the period and more invested in conjuring up a fantastic past wherein the reader might escape to fulfill wild romantic fantasies. She's not a great writer by any means and she never succeeds in inhabiting Wharton's rather acerbic, slyly witty voice with its delicately bitter edge. But then, who would succeed in such a task? A great genius on the scale of Wharton would have her own distinctive voice, her own ineluctable articulation, but a solid, capable writer without such distinction could never do better than a pastiche. Though I do believe each case of an unfinished novel should be considered on its own, The Buccaneers would be a better book if left well enough alone. Yes, it ends in medias res and one would wonder whether Annabel could bear to stay with the stuffy Duke of Tintagel or not, but it's far more disappointing to see the changeable, maturing Annabel and the dreamy, unwillingly impulsive Guy be reduced to cardboard fainting damsel and lovelorn hero.

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