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The Buccaneers is the last novel written by Edith Wharton. It was unfinished at the time of her death in 1937, and published in that form in 1938. Wharton's manuscript ends with Lizzy's inviting Nan to a house party to which Guy Thwarte has also been invited.
The story revolves around five wealthy and ambitious American girls, their guardians and the titled, landed but impoverished Englishmen who marry them as the girls participate in the London Season in search of a titled English gentleman for matrimonial purposes. As the novel progresses, the plot follows Nan and her marriage to the Duke of Tintagel.
It is a story of the morals held by fashionable society at the time, when it was considered more important to marry for social position than for romantic love. The novel is also a poignant example of art imitating life as the stories of the young women at the heart of the plot very strongly resemble many of the Gilded Age marriages between wealthy American heiresses and opportunistic English noblemen from the mid 1800s through to the early part of the twentieth century. Of particularly strong resemblance are the ill-fated marriages of American heiress Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough to the Duke of Marlborough and American heiress Lady Randolph Churchill to Lord Randolph Churchill of the family of the Dukes of Marlborough, and the especially advantageous marriages of other vastly wealthy American socialites such as Consuelo Montagu, Duchess of Manchester, whose generation of nobility marrying American heiresses was originally labeled "Buccaneers" in both American and English society.
After careful study of the synopsis and notes, Wharton scholar Marion Mainwaring finished the novel with an ending very uncharacteristic of that found in any of Wharton's novels. Mainwaring's version was published by Penguin Books(ISBN 978-0140232028) in 1993.
Independently, in the same year, the BBC hired screenwriter Maggie Wadey to adapt and finish the novel for a television serial adaptation, which was produced by the BBC and American PBS broadcaster WGBH, and screened on BBC One in the UK and in the Masterpiece Theatre series in the United States, airing in 1995.
This broadcast of Wadey's "Americanized" version of the ending of The Buccaneers, with its inclusion of homosexuality as well as its climatic romantically dramatic showiness and seemingly "happy ending", received widespread criticism from both the BBC viewing public and Wharton fans and scholars alike. The general protest was that Wadey's development was far too unrealistic and stereotypically "Hollywood" in its closing development and end as Guy Thwaithe and the Duchess, Annabel "Nan", literally go riding off into the sunset to live happily ever after. This is starkly different from the ending of every one of Wharton's previous novels which all have markedly realistic and distinctly solemn endings for all of their characters and plot lines. Many viewers felt that in using this ending, the BBC was "selling out" to American Hollywood.
While Wadey's BBC ending was at the heart of the controversy, both Mainwaring's and Wadey's endings were heavily criticized for their "sensationalism" and perceived lack of "trueness" to Wharton's style of work, and both writers independently made the claims that they sought to romanticize and "Americanize" the story.
A companion book to the BBC series was published by Viking in 1995 (ISBN 0-670-86645-8). For this book, Angela Mackworth-Young finished the novel based on the screenplay of Maggie Wadey. As a result the novel has three endings: Wharton's unfinished novel published in 1938, the Mainwaring finished novel published in 1993, and the Mackworth-Young finished novel published in 1995.
A previous children's television series produced by ITC Entertainment in 1956 has no relation to the Edith Wharton novel.
NOTE: Maggie Wadey's BBC screenplay changed the names and eliminated some characters. The Wadey changes are in parentheses. The characters eliminated in the Wadey screen play are Mabel Elmsworth, Lizzy' sister, and Teddy de Dios-Santos, Conchita's half-brother.
In the second paragraph of the Mackworth-Young's first chapter, Mabel Elmsworth is written out of the story as having turned down the marriage offer of the Duke of Falmenneth and married a "dashing, intelligent, young captain of the Guards". Teddy is written out completely.
In the Mainwaring version, Mabel Elmsworth marries an older American steel tycoon and later returns to England as an extremely wealthy widow. Mabel, Lizzy Elmsworth and Hector Robinson have more significant roles in the Mainwaring finished novel.