An unfinished book by a favorite writer always raises questions: How would it have ended? How would the story have changed as the author developed the characters and explored their lives? If the author started out with a plan, would that have changed as the book progressed? Stories inspired by real people and events also intrigue us, because they show us the writer at work, transmuting life into art through imagination.
Edith Wharton’s last novel, The Buccaneers, has both of these fascinations, besides being a great story that’s both romantic and humorous, cynical and touching. The “buccaneers” are a group of young American women who set out for England in the 1870s in search of the social success that has eluded them at home. Armed with beauty and wealth (or the reputation for it) they conquer the English aristocracy, though the consequences are not always the stuff of romance. Unfinished at Wharton’s death, the novel was published the following year in its incomplete state along with her detailed plan for its story; many years later it was given not one but two endings at more or less the same time: one by Wharton scholar Marion Mainwaring and one by screenwriter Maggie Wadey, who also wrote the script for a BBC adaptation. Two of the plot lines echo aspects of the life of Consuelo Vanderbilt, an American heiress who married, and later divorced, an English duke; Consuelo’s later wrote an autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold, and there are also two biographies about her: Consuelo: Portrait of an American Heiress by James Brough, and Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: the story of a daughter and a mother in the gilded age, by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart.
All the best stories leave you wanting more, and fortunately, with The Buccaneers, there’s plenty of more to explore!