What to Know About the Novel That Inspired “The Buccaneers” TV Show


Apple TV+ is getting back in the period-drama game with “The Buccaneers,” a new series that is – somewhat loosely – based on the Edith Wharton novel of the same name. Set in the 1870s Gilded Age, Wharton’s final book traces the stories of young, wealthy American girls who cross the pond to find husbands for themselves among the titled but money-strapped British aristocracy. And yes, if that story sounds familiar, it’s because the tales of the real-life “buccaneers” (who included Winston Churchill’s mother, among others) inspired the story of Cora Crawley, the Countess of Grantham, on “Downton Abbey”!

Wharton died in 1937, before she could finish the book, but she left behind a rough outline for how the remainder of the story would have gone. In 1993, author Marion Mainwaring “finished” the novel, based on that outline, to mixed reviews. Because the demands of a TV show are so different, the Apple adaptation varies quite a bit from the novel, but there are still plenty of commonalities.

Who Are the Buccaneers?

“The Buccaneers” quickly introduces us to a group of five young American women who are all good friends. There’s Conchita Closson, a free-spirited Brazilian whose family is relatively new to the New York social scene. Her friends include the St. George sisters (elegant Jinny and naive, free-thinking Nan) and the Elmsworth sisters (beautiful Lizzy and younger, overshadowed Mabel). Among the group, Conchita is the first to make an aristocratic marriage when she weds Dick Marable, a charming younger son of an English lord.

The girls journey to England after Conchita’s marriage, where they quickly find themselves the subject of both fascination and disdain from the stuffy British aristocracy. They’re also accompanied by Miss Laura Testvalley, the former governess to the St. George sisters, who has her own complicated connections to the aristocratic families. Their money is envied by the lords and ladies whose estates are crumbling, but their brash manners make it hard for them to blend in.

Who Marries Whom in “The Buccaneers”?

Although “The Buccaneers” might have the trappings of a gorgeous Gilded Age romance, it’s not quite that simple. Conchita, for instance, quickly discovers that her fairy-tale prince is more of a frog: Dick is lazy, spendthrift, and often absent, and Conchita responds by taking up with other men in his absence. Jinny winds up marrying Dick’s responsible older brother, Lord Seadown, who is heir to the family title and estate. The Elmsworth sisters both marry, with at least some level of success: Mabel’s marriage gets the least attention, and she winds up marrying a rich American instead of a British aristocrat. Her older sister, Lizzy, fails to marry Lord Seadown and instead marries Hector Robinson, an up-and-coming politician with whom she shares a relatively happy marriage.

It’s Nan, however, who has the most convoluted story. She catches the attention of Ushant, the Duke of Tintagel, who knows he needs to marry and have an heir but doesn’t appreciate being targeted by social climbers. He and Nan become fond of each other and decide to marry, though without thinking things through as they should. The result is an unhappy marriage, as the duke is less interested in Nan as a person and more interested in doing his duty. Instead, Nan falls in love with Guy Thwarte, a young man who has to leave England to try to make his fortune and save his family’s crumbling old home.

How Does “The Buccaneers” Book End?

At the end of the 29 chapters that Wharton finished before her death, the big “cliffhanger” is that Lizzy has just invited Nan, now Duchess of Tintagel, to a house party, where Guy also will be. Wharton’s outline, which Mainwaring used to finish the novel, lays out a surprisingly happy ending for at least two characters. Nan’s marriage to the duke continues to disintegrate, and it becomes clearer that her heart truly lies with Guy, who loves her deeply in return. The “updated” chapters send the duke down more of a villainous path, as it is revealed that he is actually gay and is willing to push Nan’s boundaries in order to get the heir he needs.

Moved by the impossible love between Nan and Guy, and appalled by the duke’s behavior, Miss Testvalley makes the ultimate sacrifice. She helps Nan and Guy run away together, abandoning their families and causing a scandal but allowing them to live happily together. Unfortunately, this means Miss Testvalley’s own possible happily-ever-after with Guy’s widowed father is brought to a screeching halt.

Many of these storylines will likely be altered significantly for the TV version, but we can already tell there will be plenty of juicy drama in store!

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