Completed by Marion Mainwaring
The vultures circled for half a century after Edith Wharton’s death, but they are now making up in ferocity for what they have lost in time. Seventy-three years after its 1920 publication, Wharton’s The Age of Innocence has achieved the top of both the Washington Post and New York Times paperback best-seller lists, and continues to find new readers. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and its recent film adaptation by Martin Scorsese have ushered in the Wharton renaissance, making her the most popular of authors who are posthumously providing fodder for those who would profit. Aside from the book-list standings and the movie versions of Innocence and Ethan Frome, the exhumation of her incomplete last novel, The Buccaneers, and her never-before-published first novel, Fast and Loose, proves beyond a doubt that the vultures have commenced to feast.
Wharton wrote Fast and Loose when she was 14; she began The Buccaneers at 71. Wharton scholar Candace Waid, citing similarities of plot and character names, has observed that the latter may in fact be a rewriting of Fast and Loose, not least because the author dubbed her fledgling effort “a fiasco” and may have seen fit to reconstruct it at her career’s end. Perhaps editor Viola Hopkins Winner is justified in presenting the finished Fast and Loose as a means of acquainting readers with Wharton’s earliest work. But the second-party completion of The Buccaneers raises serious ethical questions about the literary world’s ability to accept unscrupulous practices for the sake of profit.
Wharton died in 1937, while she was still at work on The Buccaneers. In 1938, the manuscript was published, appended with her synopsis of the book and an afterword by her close friend Gaillard Lapsley, who believed “the incomplete text contained some work too good to be kept back.” The Buccaneers follows the lives of three American families who fail to break into New York high society and thus transplant themselves to England, where their four daughters begin hunting for husbands with British blue blood. One of these young women, Annabel St. George, slowly emerges as the protagonist. She marries a duke, regrets it, and falls in love with a future baronet, Guy Thwarte.
Wharton never implemented her synopsis’s ending, which would have had Annabel leaving her husband and uniting with Guy. This is the job that Radcliffe Ph.D. Marion Mainwaring took upon herself when she wrote The Buccaneers‘ Chapter 9 and Chapters 30 through 41 (with the exception of a few of Wharton’s own pages in Chapter 32). Having helped R.W.B. Lewis research his 1975 Pulitzer Prize- winning Edith Wharton: A Biography, Mainwaring must have mistaken biographical knowledge for artistic skill when she decided to alloy Wharton’s work with her own.
For Edith Jones Wharton, born in 1862 to an upper-class New York family, the muse’s call was strong. “I was enthralled by words,” she wrote. “They were visible, almost tangible presences….[T]hey sang to me so bewitchingly.” This passion propelled Wharton’s oeuvre; it can hardly be duplicated by Mainwaring, or any other scribe, for that matter.
The Buccaneers should not be judged in the same manner as Wharton’s other works, nor should a critique of this novel be a chastisement of her artistic skill. Beyond the fact that one-fourth of it was written by someone else, no fair review could fault Wharton for a work she had not yet finished. Lapsley wisely appreciated that “the very disparity of the several parts of the text affords an insight into the way in which she worked.”
Evaluating this working draft as a polished product ignores the methods of Wharton’s craft, for her work changed innumerable times before going to print. Even a cursory glance through the 100-plus Wharton manuscripts archived at Yale University confirms the extent of writing and rewriting that formed her creative process. Papers were cut and pasted, rewritten, and cut and pasted again.
The Buccaneers, both as a manuscript and as a completed book, does contain too many characters—the St. Georges and Elmsworths and Clossons and Tintagels and Thwartes and more; also, between Books 2 and 3, a gap in time and story-line miserably fails to explain why Annabel, the bright, romantic spirit who loves Rossetti’s poetry and Correggio’s paintings, marries the Duke of Tintagel, an unimaginative dud who (less than 50 pages before) she had aptly called “one of the stupidest young men” she knew. Although we shall never know how the author would have finished this book, we can hope and believe that subsequent drafts would have ameliorated the manuscript’s deficiencies and that Wharton’s belief in the importance of a “gradual unfolding of [a character’s] inner life” would have clarified the discrepancies in Annabel’s actions, imbuing her fall from society with the beautiful fluency of Lily Bart’s descent in 1905’s The House of Mirth.
Yet, despite the manuscript’s weaknesses, despite the very fact that it is only a manuscript-in-progress, Wharton successfully unveils the comically pathetic worlds of the New York marriage market and the English aristocracy, confirming once again her eminent place as observer and critic of customs and countries. As for Mainwaring’s attempt to play surrogate author, she fails to render even a shadow of Wharton’s forte: individuals who agonize between self and society, love and honor, desire and duty.
Mainwaring’s flaws glare most unpleasantly in the rewritten love scenes. When Annabel and Guy realize they are in love, unconvincing soliloquies about compromising others replace the racking dilemmas suffered by Newland and Ellen in Innocence, Lily in Mirth, and Charity and Lucius in Summer. The superficial facade of deliberation quickly disappears when the lovers see each other and Guy, with the pickup line of all time, says, “ “No one would believe….that we have never even kissed,’ and took her in his arms.” Love scenes more apt for bodice-ripping romance novels replace Wharton’s minimalist approach and forfeit her tension-filled atmospheres of longing and restraint. The lovers utter such banalities as “I love you more than anything in the world” and “I couldn’t go on seeing you and him together,” while the heroine Annabel “was dazed, yet aware of her every pulse-beat, and of every breath of the body so close to hers. She ran her hands over the strong shoulders beneath the smooth broadcloth.” Wanton, maybe, but Wharton it is not.
The fate of a deceased author’s work never has been secure. Unfinished writings by Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway were all edited and published after their deaths. Such books, which should have been the nadir of literary indecency, were only the first steps down a slippery slope—and, regrettably, this descent had no beauty like that of Dante’s Inferno.
For example, after renowned author Alex Haley’s sudden death in February 1992, his novel Queen was completed as per his 700-page outline and then published by William Morrow and Co. Although the publisher officially names the author as David Stevens, whom Haley had selected to write the book’s screenplay, we could hardly know this by looking at the book jacket. “Alex Haley’s Queen” spreads across the cover in huge font; Stevens’ name is included, but in much smaller letters. A photograph of Haley also fills the back of the dust jacket, and Stevens’ image is nowhere in sight.
Great works enchant readers. We rush to finish them, and, when the last page has been turned, we crave more. Sequels and ghostwritten completions exploit these desires, capitalizing on our imaginations and wronging the artists who have brought us, through their creativity and generosity, to places we would not have known and people we would not have loved.
The interpretation of literature always will be the reader’s, but the product in its literal form belongs to the author. Each writer possesses a unique vision with which to tell her story, and no amount of study or outlines or synopses can enable a different person to tell the story for her. No amount of money from book sales, movie rights, or foreign rights, which all have figured in the Queen and Buccaneers deals, can justify a violation of artistic ownership.
Yet we continue to divest authors of control over their characters’ destinies—witness recent sequels to Pride and Prejudice and Rebecca, written by imposters. A precedent was set by three lawyers, trustees of Margaret Mitchell’s estate, who broke out of litigation with MGM and into the world of letters, concerning themselves more with the writing on the check than with that in Mitchell’s classic Gone With the Wind. When Alexandra Ripley and Warner Books presented Scarlett to the world in September 1991, the wishes of Mitchell, who strongly rejected the idea of a sequel and who had 13 years to write one herself, did not matter. Not when Warner paid $4.9 million for the American rights. Not when the foreign rights sold for $5 million more. Not with film rights and TV movie-of-the-week rights and Tara-on-your-coffee-mug rights to be considered. Scarlett and Rhett were no longer allowed to live on in our minds and imaginations, on the hinge of tomorrow’s possibilities. Tomorrow had come, with a greed for profit that even the protagonists at their worst could not have imagined, and the world that Mitchell had left for us was truly gone with the wind.
All of us are at fault: authors, who lack the imagination to write books of their own and therefore plunder the past; publishers, too ready to cash in on the remains of the day; and readers, who indiscrim inately feed their souls the likes of Scarlett, catapulting it to best-selling fame. We have lost sight of art’s sanctity, particularly the miracle of a book, and we are dragging the best of literature into the dirtiest of arenas—one paved with money and well known by the film industry—where the Rockys, Supermans and countless nightmares on Elm Street have played out. It is no place for the likes of Wharton, and certainly no path for classic letters to follow.