Wharton's the Buccaneers and Pre-Raphaelitism

Article excerpt

Whenever a well-known writer leaves a novel unfinished, it often takes on a life of its own-witness Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood or Stevenson's St. Ives and The Weir of Hermiston. Before she died Edith Wharton had written 89,000 words of The Buccaneers, and her friend and literary executor, Gaillard Lapsley, published it in 1938, the year after her death, just as she had left it (with "certain verbal emendations required by sense or consistency") (v). He also provided Mrs. Wharton's own synopsis, "drawn up at a very early stage of its composition," as well as a twelve-page "Note" of critical opinion (355, 360-71).

Now Marion Mainwaring has "completed" the novel published in England by Fourth Estate Limited in 1993 and reprinted in America by Viking.1 In a brief paragraph "Afterward" Ms. Mainwaring admits to "passages" interpolated in the narrative "to reconcile discrepancies . . . or prepare for later developments." These later developments constitute approximately the last one-fourth of the novel with no indication where the other passages appear in Wharton's text. The curious reader must compare the two texts side by side to be sure who wrote what. And like Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence, and The Custom of the Country, The Buccaneers has been made into a film with still further emendations and changes.

Since the most recent extended criticism of The Buccaneers by John Updike does not discuss both authors' use of Pre-Raphaelitism, that subject becomes the purpose of this paper.

One of the effects of Gaillard Lapsley's publishing of Wharton's manuscript is that it serves as a laboratory study in the way she wrote. Lapsley suggests that three detailed chapters are so good that the public deserves to read them. Obviously Wharton carefully wrote these long sections (and possibly rewrote them) because each comes at a crucial point in the narrative. Intervening chapters appear to be first drafts or frames for revision.

The first of these high points is the coming of Laura Testvalley to Saratoga as governess for the St. George girls, Annabel and Virginia, and accidentally for the two Elmsworth girls and Conchita Closson, who are also summering at Saratoga. As Miss Testvalley steps from the train to a jeering group of young ladies not pleased to see a governess during their summer vacation, she immediately charms the entire group. And from that moment she begins to take over the novel of which Annabel, familiarly known as Nan, was meant to be the heroine. She also immediately begins to charm the reader (and perhaps the author as well). Miss Testvalley, a cousin to the Rossettis, belongs to a family of governesses-"the Risorgimento and the Pre-Raphaelites were her chief credentials. . . . 'If I'd been a man,' she sometimes thought, 'Dante Gabriel might not have been the only cross in the family'" (W33).

Having started along this line of building an ancestry for Laura Testvalley (she simplified the spelling of her name), Wharton seems unable to resist hinting a colorful background for her dea ex machina. Her father, she explains, was a hero of the Risorgimento and the author of the novels Arnoldo da Bresca and La Donna della Fortezza. Gennaro Testavaglia, she further states, is a cousin of old Gabriele Rossetti (whose life he seems to echo). The women in her family, she says, "were evangelicals and governesses in the highest families" (like the Polidori ladies of Mrs. Rossetti's family) (W32). The Testavaglias lived in "a shabby house at Denmark Hill" (W42)-thus hinting at a neighborly connection with the great John Ruskin. And later Miss Testvalley fascinates the young Nan by reciting lines from her cousin's "The Blessed Damozel" (W70-71).

Thus by brief references to things Pre-Raphaelite Wharton succeeds in Book I by adding glamour and reality to the character of the governess just as she defined a certain sensitiveness in Newland Archer at the beginning of The Age of Innocence:

That evening he unpacked his books from London. . . . He had declined three dinner invitations in favour of this feast. . . . he lit on a small volume of verse which he had ordered because the name attracted him: "The House of Life". . . . it gave a new and haunting beauty to the most elementary of human passions. (137-38)

Since Wharton began her writing career with The Decoration of Houses (with Ogden Codman, Jr.), it is not surprising that in these two novels with settings in the 1870s she would find the Pre-Raphaelites and the aura of Pre-Raphaelitism a useful symbol in character development. Miss Testvalley with her knowledge of Italian, her interest in art, and her love of poetry is a suitable guide for five young ladies (summering at Saratoga) in their later quests for marriages into the aristocracy of England. What's more, Miss Testvalley has been a governess in the households of the Duke of Tintagel and the Marquess of Brightlingsea.

Having indoctrinated the young Nan St. George and her sister Virginia and their friends the Elmsworth and Closson girls, Laura Testvalley is ready to launch her charges into the fashionable London world by having their parents rent a summer cottage on the Thames owned by financially strapped Lady Churt. Laura continues with instruction in the poetry of Rossetti. "'Aren't you madly in love with him, Miss Testvalley?'" asks Annabel. "'Poor Dante Gabriel! my dear, he's a widower, and very stout-and has caused a good deal of trouble'" (W72).

When Nan is invited to visit Honourslove, the beautiful nearby estate of a would-be painter, Sir Helmsley Thwarte, she herself is able to quote a bit of Rossetti when she sees a small painting by Dante Gabriel belonging to Sir Helmsley. The owner comments later to his son Guy, who wishes he was wealthy enough to marry Nan: "'So the Fleshly School has penetrated to the back-woods. Well, I don't know that it's exactly the best food for the family breakfast table'" (W116).

When Nan tries her Rossetti on the young Duke of Tintagel by asking him, "'Which sonnet do you like best in The House of Life?'" that young gentleman who likes only clocks replies, "'I'm afraid I know very few Italians. . . . I've very little time to read poetry'" (W149). Thus Wharton hints that the coming marriage with the Duke is doomed for a lack of sensitivity between husband and wife. And in the same way she uses Rossetti's painting owned by the Thwartes to foretell Nan's joyful elopement with Guy. Indeed, it is that same little Rossetti painting that initiates a budding romance between Miss Laura Testvalley, who accompanies Nan on this visit, and Sir Helmsley himself. He shyly announces to his son: "Miss Testvalley knows all about the circumstances in which [my] G. G. Rossetti was painted, and knows the mysterious replica with variants which is still in D. G.'s possession" (W193).

Wharton's use of Pre-Raphaelite art and writing subtly appears predictive to the advancement of the plot. When Laura (Testvalley) and Lizzy (Elmsworth) team up to clinch Virginia's engagement to Lord Seadown, eldest son of the Brightlingseas, it is hard not to believe that the author is summoning up a nice reference to Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market," a poem about Lizzie and Laura's "sisterhood" against the devious ways of goblin men with tempting fruit.2 And that is the beginning of the conquests of the four Buccaneers on English soil.

In fact, the number of the Buccaneers is really five because Conchita Closson has already captured at Saratoga the younger son of the Marquess of Brightlingsea, Lord Marable. And that number of conquests, along with Miss Testvalley's own romance, underlines the weakness of the novel: too many characters and a failure to decide whose novel it is-Nan St. George's or Laura Testvalley's. Wharton was already aware of the problems when she put the story aside after some four or five years of working on it. In A Backward Glance, which she was writing at this same time, she says of Laura Testvalley, "a character fighting largely in an adventure I know all about, and have long wanted to relate. She is strong-willed, and even obstinate. . . . she will eventually force her way into my tale hardened with her impossible name" (202-03).3 Laura Testvalley is a familiar feminine character in Wharton's fiction: a sensitive female doomed to abnegation. Yet in Wharton's early outline for her publisher it is evident that she wants also to write about a young Keatsian heroine who escapes the old tired ways and customs. Unfortunately, however, she never got around to fully prepare Annabel St. George for this leading role. John Updike is correct when he says that The Buccaneers as it was left is "a pretty mess-an ambitious canvas spottily covered with pastel sketches. . . . [a] mare's nest" (199, 204).4

Whether Marion Mainwaring has succeeded in her "completing" of the novel by adding a few paragraphs and one chapter to Wharton's text and by writing the last one-fourth of The Buccaneers will be up to the individual reader to determine. One thing, however, is strikingly apparent: she expands Wharton's careful symbols and hints about things Pre-Raphaelite into alarming proportion. To make the style of the latter part of the novel appear seamless Mainwaring has chosen to demonstrate that she too is au courant with Rossetti scholarship and rumor in the 1870s.

For example, Wharton has Sir Helmsley tell his son that Miss Testvalley is "'one of the few relations the poet [Rossetti] is always willing to see. She persuaded him to sell me a first study of Bocca Baciata'" (225). Thus Wharton novelizes the similarity between Laura and Rossetti's aunt, governess to the Marchioness of Bath, who bought his first picture The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. Such implications are not good enough for Mainwaring. She takes the reader to Cheyne Walk, where we are told it is a Tudor house, where "Henry the Eighth's sixth wife, Catherine Parr, lived . . . after his death" (M307). We hear about the fabulous zoo that Rossetti once kept with peacocks, gazelles, armadillos, and a raccoon which "'ate one of his manuscripts.'" We also learn that "he wanted [an] elephant to clean the windows" (M305). Miss Testvalley decides not to tell Nan that Cousin Dante Gabriel "was addicted to chloral mixed with whiskey." But she does tell Nan, "'Yes . . . he had his poems buried with poor Lizzy Siddal'" (M310). And Nan herself observes "the black circles around his deep-set, dark, liquid eyes" (M306-07). She smells "some sort of exotic incense" and examines drawings "of the austere profiles of his sister and their mother and other works by him and his brethren" (M308). Sir Helmsley, who is accompanying the ladies on this visit, notices "'ten Madonnas, all identical!'" and Miss Testvalley wonders whether her cousin "'was running a Factory'" (M308-09). This episode ends later when Sir Helmsley receives "a request from D. G. Rossetti for a loan of thirty guineas" (M404).

All of this is mostly biographically possible, but it does nothing for the novel except to indicate that Mainwaring has studied Wharton's tasteful allusions to the PRB and has expanded them into triteness. Because Wharton established Laura Testvalley's cousinship to the Rossettis, Mainwaring proceeds to underline that relationship too heavily and without doing anything for the development of Laura's character. We are told, for example, Laura is "high church," thus drawing a parallel to Christina Rossetti, who "refused two suitors because they were too Low" (M294). When the Duke of Tintagel's sister Almina desires to enter a convent, Miss Testvalley explains to Sir Helmsley and his son Guy that "'my cousin Maria Rossetti had found great joy as a nun'" (M294). Mainwaring even has Laura tell the Thwartes that "'Cousin Eliza Polidori had worked with Miss Nightingale'" (M296) and another "'cousin of mine . . . was Lord Byron's doctor'" (M393). One feels that Mainwaring has recently read Rosalie Glynn Gryll's Portrait of Rossetti.

With Wharton things were different. When she wishes to show Sir Helmsley's amateurish worship of things Pre-Raphaelite, she allows him to stand before the portrait of his late wife and remark, "She was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. . . . But utterly unpaintable; even Millais found her so" (W98). In this fleeting moment, Sir Helmsley's adoration of painting and his attraction to the most skillful Pre-Raphaelite artist is deftly fixed in a few words.

Occasionally Wharton refers to other Victorian poets, but always briefly and for a reason. For example, when Guy Thwarte returns from Brazil, he says to his father, "Yes, I'm between two worlds yet 'powerless to be born'" (W220)-a young man as thoughtful as Arnold. Mainwaring, however, in efforts to meld her style with what she conceives to be Wharton's ability with apt quotes, inserts some seventeen lines from Browning's "My Last Duchess" to attempt a parallel with the unhappy Duchess of Tintagel. But her husband Ushant is no egoistic monster; he is merely a parsimonious stuffed shirt.

Despite Mainwaring's inept choice to outdo Wharton's plotting and style, one must admit that she has undertaken an almost impossible task. Mainwaring sets about knitting up the loose ends of the novel-even those ends that do not particularly need knitting, but she makes no attempt to solve the problem of the main character focus of the novel. For example, Lady Churt, Lord Seadown's mistress before he was captured by Nan's sister Virginia (and a minor character), is neatly fitted into the Prince of Wales's social set, and she is looking for a house in Eaton Place, we are told.5 To keep Laura Testvalley from becoming one of Wharton's lonely ladies of abnegation, Mainwaring creates a melodramatic scene in St. Paul's, where Conchita promises Nan to see that Laura has attractive opportunities in aristocratic homes so that she will not have to live in the shabby little house at Denmark Hill. When Nan is hidden there briefly during the dissolution of her marriage, we are needlessly taken to meet Laura's mother and father, who in addition to his novels is working on Petrarch. He is, therefore, an exact counterpart to old Gabriele Rossetti who struggled with the enigmas of Dante. In case we miss the significance of Denmark Hill, we are told that Gennaro Testavaglia was happily located there in early days "thanks to a political sympathizer, black sheep of a wine merchant whose son Mr. John Ruskin, also of Denmark Hill, has become the apostle of Dante Gabriel and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood" (M374).

Mabel Elmsworth (who wisely seems to fade out of Wharton's plans) has now become the widow of a wealthy Mr. Whittaker, and she and her sister Lizzy Robinson are planning carefully for her to be the second Duchess for clock-loving, parsimonious Ushant, Duke of Tintagel. And finally Annabel falls into the arms of Guy Thwarte, who plans to take her to New Zealand or Australia (instead of South Africa as Wharton originally envisioned for this engineer bridegroom), but first they flee to the isles Greece in a true Byronic romance!

I doubt the wisdom of attempting to "complete" The Buccaneers. It is better left as Gaillard Lapsley published it as an exhibition of Wharton's last version of the American-English social link during the latter part of the nineteenth-century that so fascinated both Henry James and Edith Wharton. What is especially striking in both versions of The Buccaneers is the generous use of things Pre-Raphaelite in the 1930s by Wharton and in the 1990s by Mainwaring. It would be difficult to find another novel not explicitly about the Pre-Raphaelites that makes more use of references and symbols of Pre-Raphaelitism to develop character and enhance scenery.

Perhaps we should be grateful to Mainwaring for not making needless modernizations in Wharton's text as the recent BBC film version does by changing the ancient memorable name of Ushant to Julius for the Duke of Tintagel, and by helping to explain further the divorce of Annabel and the Duke by portraying him as a homosexual. At any rate, The Buccaneers, now awash in Pre-Raphaelitism, has taken on a life of its own.

WORKS CITED

Going, William T. "'Goblin Market' and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood." The Pre-Raphaelite Review 3 (1979): 1-11.

Updike, John. "Reworking Wharton." The New Yorker 4 October 1993: 198-212.

Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. New York: Appleton, 1920.

--. A Backward Glance. New York: Appleton-Century, 1934.

--. The Buccaneers. New York: Appleton-Century, 1938 (with notes by Gaillard Lapsley, including Wharton's synopsis).

--. The Buccaneers: Completed by Marion Mainwaring. London: Fourth Estate Limited, 1993. (Rpt. by Viking, n.d. [1993]).

1. For convenience all quotations from The Buccaneers are parenthetically paged within the text, based on this Viking edition with a W to indicate Wharton's and an M for Mainwaring's authorship.

2. See my "Goblin Market and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood" in The Pre-Raphaelite Review.

3. On the last page of A Backward Glance Wharton, marveling at life's magical moments and discoveries, quotes Rossetti's "the woodspurge has a cup of three" (379).

4. John Updike performs such an excellent job of recounting the structure of Wharton's version of the novel that there is little need for examining and restating that aspect.

5. Does Mainwaring mean to intimate that Lady Churt will soon be an acquaintance of the Upstairs-Downstairs family in their Eaton Place home?