The Buccaneers

“The greatest mistake,” she mused, her chin resting on her clasped hands, her eyes fixed unseeingly on the dim reaches of the park, “the greatest mistake is to think that we ever know why we do things… I suppose the nearest we can ever come to it is by getting what old people call ‘experience.’ But by the time we’ve got that we’re no longer the persons who did the things we no longer understand. The trouble is, I suppose, that we change every moment; and the things we did stay.”

— from The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton, 1938 (completed by Marion Mainwaring, 1993)

This book is not about pirates. It’s about a set of American girls moving up in New York society, then going to England where they enchant the English gentlemen with their ignorance of nobility and the rules that accompany it. Of these girls and their mothers and their governesses, Annabel St. George is the youngest and the most sensitive to true beauty and fine things. She makes a mistake, which she later realizes in the quote above. This mistake, having to do with marriage and the nature of a man and the nature of an old house, is heart-wrenching, and feels very true to life. I can see how any marriage might feel like this at some point, and I can see how any wife might reflect the same things as in the quote above. While Annabel takes an escape route I cannot recommend, the story struggles with issues that apply even now in rural Wisconsin, in 2015, in an old brick farmhouse. One doesn’t have to be a member of English nobility to understand Annabel’s dilemma.


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