Since its publication in 1938, readers have been at odds in their assessment of The Buccaneers, Edith Wharton's only novel set in England. While her literary executor, Gaillard Lapsley, and many early reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic saw great promise in the unfinished novel, a few critics like Edmund Wilson wrote the work off as 'an old-fashioned story for girls' and judged Wharton's skill 'dulled' in this her last book. In the 1980's, however, feminist critics found much to value in the novel: from protagonist Annabel St. George's self-actualization to the comradeship of the American girls and the close relationship between Annabel and her European governess. Since Marion Mainwaring's 1993 completion of The Buccaneers and the 1995 BBC production of the screenplay by Maggie Wadey, the novel has once again incurred harsh criticism, perhaps in part because of these completions. In a very critical New Yorker article on these 'reworkings,' John Updike pronounced the novel itself a 'pretty mess,' full of 'internal contradictions and proliferating loose ends.' In a recent scholarly examination of the intellectual history of Wharton's work, Claire Preston dismissed The Buccaneers as 'too nostalgic,' the plot as 'too sentimental and romantic to stand up as satire,' and the characters as 'cartoon-like and corny.' While I am not going to be an apologist for this unfinished novel, I would like to suggest that many of the loose ends can be tied up, some of the contradictions and sentimentality explained if readers see the novel through Wharton's interest in place. Through this lens The Buccaneers becomes both a rather imaginative rewriting of the romance novel and a different sort of Bildungsroman, and not just for girls. Theories about place and perception articulated by Wharton's friend and mentor Vernon Lee drive the plot as surely as the transatlantic matings of financially strapped British aristocrats and nouveau riche American heiresses.

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Copyright © 2004 The College of St. Mark & St. John. This article first appeared in Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary Relations 8:1 (2004), 7-30.

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