‘Fast and Loose’ and ‘The Buccaneers’
The Age of Innocence
The Age of Innocence: A Portrait of the Film Based on the Novel by Edith Wharton
The Age of Innocence
“A Whartonfest is upon us,” Kate Muir predicted in the London Observer in August. She meant on the screen: Scorsese’s monumental, heartbreaking The Age of Innocence was about to open, and other Wharton films were projected or already available on video. She put down Wharton’s revived popularity to the fact that all but one of E.M. Forster’s novels are now completed, so the studios need a new source for upmarket costume drama. There could be other reasons: Wharton’s feminism, for one. In The Age of Innocence Scorsese pans in as the hero declares that women should have the same rights as men.
But anyway, Wharton’s novels and stories are ready-made for the screen: each episode, interior monologues included, is a drama with a climax followed by a cut, and comes complete with details for the set. The set can be essential and magical: in Summer, for instance, the unhappy heroine feels better for lying on the ground in a close-up of grasses and flowers like a Dürer meadow. But sometimes there is too much decor: The Reef is a book with page after page from The World of Interiors and reminds one that Wharton published several books about houses and gardens.
Among the works set to be filmed is The Buccaneers, unpublished since it first appeared in 1938. Wharton had not finished it when she died in 1937, and her friend and executor Guy Lapsley brought it out with her own outline for the later chapters, and an apologetic afterword by himself. It “comprised some work as good as any she had ever done,” he said, “and some that she would never have allowed to appear as it stood.” The new scholarly edition is by Viola Hopkins Winner, and comes with Fast and Loose, an early work, also unfinished. Winner adds a sympathetic and informative foreword, which makes the novel look rather better than it does in the other new edition.
But that is the version chosen to be filmed. It is by Marion Mainwaring, whose name would be “just the thing,” as a Wharton character might say, for a Wharton character. She has completed the novel more or less in accordance with Wharton’s outline, and inserted a few passages into the text to prepare for later developments. Wharton’s own chapters read like a parody of Wharton, and Mainwaring’s like a parody of that—except for mistakes that Wharton would never have made. On one page Mainwaring gets a title wrong: Virginia, Lady Seadown, when it should be Lady Seadown; and on the next Lady Churt says, “How shamingly idiotic of me,” which sounds more Noel Coward than 1870. Wharton’s running attack on Society and its false and cruel values was underpinned by a dowager-like determination never to slip up on any detail of behavior or deportment. She applauds when her courageous heroines deliberately break taboos, but is inclined to sneer at characters who make mistakes through ignorance and lack …