Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Wharton's the Buccaneers and Pre-Raphaelitism

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

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. …

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