The Buccaneers

21 March 2011


I’ve had a lovely time this week revisiting the 1995 BBC adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers, which has just come out on BBC DVD in the last few weeks. I remember watching it when it was first shown and thinking it was utterly gorgeous and am pleased that it is just as lovely so many years later.

It’s a lavish production that follows the fates of a group of young American heiresses, the ‘Buccaneers’ who, after being snubbed by New York high society because of their new moneyed lack of breeding, decide to travel to London in search of social success and, as an added bonus, titled husbands.

Edith Wharton’s original book is a sharply acerbic study of social mores, denied love and the clash between the culture and aspirations of the old world and the new. She based her characters on a real life band of beautiful American buccaneers – Consuelo Vanderbilt (who married the Duke of Marlborough), Jennie Jerome (who married the Duke’s uncle Lord Randolph Churchill and became mother to Winston Churchill) and Maria Consuelo Clement (who married the Duke of Manchester) who travelled to London in the nineteenth century and took high society by storm with their winning combination of wealth, good looks and high spirits.

In the television version (which differs in many key respects from the book about such things as the Duke’s homosexuality, Conchita’s pregnancy, Idina’s fate and so on), the cutting social comedy is given a more melodramatic edge, which I think works very well although Wharton purists may disagree. I love the playing off between the English aristocratic characters and these giddy, fashionable girls who plant themselves in their midsts and I am also gripped when it all, inevitably starts to go a bit wrong for the characters – trapped as they are in these awful English marriages, as one of the characters, the divinely lovely and spirited Conchita Closson would put it.

It’s hard not to warm to the characters – my favourite is Conchita, the first girl to marry an English aristocrat, albeit the black sheep of a noble family. She’s a Brazilian beauty who isn’t quite as wealthy as her prospective husband thinks that she is and it is through her that they all end up in England in the first place. To me, Conchita represents the brittle but gorgeous glamour of titled ladies in the latter half of the nineteenth century – in fact I think she is a timeless figure, the apparently admired, wealthy fashionable lady who hides debt and personal unhappiness behind her languid smile.

I also really like Lizzie Elmsworth, whose stylishness, bright intelligence and slender waist are seen as major points in her favour when it comes to snapping up a young English aristocrat for herself. She and the beautiful Virginia St. George are rivals throughout the book, but it is Lizzie that I am cheerleading for as she throws in her towel at an opportune moment and instead marries a promising young politician and, arguably, becomes the richest and most fortunate of them all. She’s a real modern girl – bright, determined and clear sighted.

Nan St. George, the youngest of the girls is the putative heroine of the piece but I actually find her quite an unsympathetic character. We are often told that she is naive, innocent and a total ingenue but as the story progresses and Nan becomes a wife, there doesn’t seem to be much development of her character and I actually found her difficult to like at times, even though ultimately her search for happiness forms the basic crux of the book and series.

The real heroine is in fact her governess, Laura Testvalley who binds the characters together, acts as a mentor and guide to the young Nan and at the very end instigates her escape from the ties that she hates so much, while at the same time destroying her own chance at both happiness and any future respectability. I think that is why I dislike Nan so much actually – I hate it that her own happy ending comes at such a great expense to Miss Testvalley and that she, wealthy and pampered as she is, fails completely to discern this.

It’s a great series though and I’d recommend it to any costume drama fans out there – you’ll love the dresses and also the fantastic settings, which includes scenes filmed at Castle Howard in Yorkshire.

Interestingly, my current work in progress is based on The Buccaneers but set in the eighteenth century and watching the television series has made me realise just how far my own book has moved away from the original. I could see shadows of my characters in the ones on screen but they are so different now that I am proud to say that it is a totally different book. I may even change the ending too!

The Buccaneers is set in America and England in the 1870s, so here’s a few dresses from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute (can you tell that I adore their website?) that the characters might concievably have worn:

Afternoon dress, Worth, 1875.

Ball gown, 1875.

Dinner gown, Monsieur Vignon, 1875.

Evening dress, Liberty of London, 1880.

Tea gown, American, 1875.

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