Friday, December 25, 2015

The Bucccaneers, by Edith Wharton

"All that London could give, in rank, in honours, in social glory, was, to Mrs. St. George, a knife to stab New York with -- and that weapon she clutched with feverish glee."
-- The Buccaneers, p. 342

Sometimes you just have to embrace being a cliche, so yes, I did read The Buccaneers because of Downton Abbey. The character of Cora is well-known for being in the mold of the novel's Nan, an American heiress making a social triumph in England. It's amusing to note that, in the novel, the reason they go abroad in the first place is because New York society is too snobby to accept them. At home, they were just gauche and nouveau riche, but in London, they're a novelty and a breath of fresh air.

This soap opera of high society, left unfinished at Edith Wharton's death in 1937,  is written with a penetrating perceptiveness about human behavior, and an ability to render inner thoughts and feelings in a natural way, as characters get in various romantic and/or marital entanglements.

In particular, Nan's sensitive inner feelings are finely delineated -- for a quick random example, when she's chastised for a moment of fancy, "an iron gate seemed to clang shut in her; the gate that was so often slammed by careless hands" (239).  Along with the clear, flowing prose style, that quality is what I expect from Wharton's work. But this is much wittier than I remember her being. Age of Innocence: bleak; House of Mirth: bleaker; Ethan Frome: the second-most despressing thing I've ever read, after Hans Christian Andersen's "Fir-Tree".

Much of the humor comes from the contrast between the British and the Americans. Such as:

From the father of conflicted hero (Guy Thwarte, whose name struck me as a bit on-the-nose -- even Dickensian): "You know how I hate the whole spitting tobacco-chewing crew, the dressed-up pushing women dragging their reluctant backwoodsmen after him ... Marry an American! There won't be a family left in England without that poison in their veins" (234).

From a Lady (with a capital L), puzzled by the new arrivals: "I don't see how they can tell each other apart, all herded together, without any titles or distinctions ... Their ways are so odd, you know ... And they speak so fast -- I can't understand them -- They toss about so -- they're never still. And they don't know how to carry themselves" (220). These are still pretty fair stereotypes of American behavior! As is the description of their "their forth-coming manner. their surface-gush, as some might call it," which can sometimes hide an "odd reticence" (354).

And I've never forgotten this advice on how to fit in with the English upper crust: "Behave as if you'd never combed your own hair or rummaged for your stockings" (242).

The edition I read includes Wharton's first novel, a piece of self-assured juvenilia called Fast and Loose, completed when she was 14 years old. A bit too much incident may be crammed into the end, where it has that we-need-to-wrap-this-up feel to it, but otherwise, it reads as quite publishable! See, that's what literarily inclined teenage girls did in the years before YA novels were marketed to them: they wrote adult novels to pass the time!

Wharton, Edith. Fast and Loose & The Buccaneers. Edited by Viola Hopkins Winner. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1993.