When Marion Mainwaring decided to complete Edith Wharton’s unfinished novel “The Buccaneers,” the critical response was harsh upon publication in 1993. Much venom was aimed at a decision to not tell readers where Wharton’s draft ended and Dr. Mainwaring’s work began.
In The New Yorker, John Updike complained that “we have a text that in no typographical way discriminates between her words and Wharton’s, and that asks us to accept this bastardization as a single smooth reading unit.” In The New Republic, Andrew Delbanco likened Dr. Mainwaring’s efforts to an act of “literary necrophilia.”
Speaking with the Globe a few months later in her North End apartment, Dr. Mainwaring shrugged off their barbs. “What they are really questioning is the effrontery of doing such a thing, aren’t they? That’s the basic question,” she said in 1994.
A little-known novelist and translator before “The Buccaneers,” she had only one significant publication after that literary dustup: “Mysteries of Paris,” a 2001 book about Wharton’s lover Morton Fullerton. Dr. Mainwaring died Dec. 12 in Framingham Union Hospital of complications from a stroke she suffered in her apartment. She was 93 and lived in Framingham.
To those critics who thought it was arrogant to meld her words with Wharton’s, Dr. Mainwaring offered an unsubtle putdown of the popular writer who had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for an earlier novel, “The Age of Innocence.”
“I didn’t have any reluctance to do it,” she said in 1994 of finishing the manuscript Wharton left unpublished when she died in 1937. “The argument that she was a great writer and how dare I? Well, I don’t think she was always a great writer, at least not as great as some. I wouldn’t have attempted this with a George Eliot or a Jane Austen novel. … Edith Wharton was not at her stylistic best here; that made it easier for me.”
On that point Dr. Mainwaring and some critics agreed. In a September 1993 Globe review, Katherine A. Powers wrote that certain sections of “The Buccaneers” showcased “Wharton at her finest: subtle figures and tropes, eagle-eyed irony and a pathologist’s acuity in matters of class and morality. But there are also sketchiness, lacunae, and a central implausibility, this perhaps the reason she never could complete the work.” Powers added that Dr. Mainwaring’s additions were “frankly no help. Under her pen, the narrative loses its ironic torque, the Prince of Wales strolls in, and the story, lobotomized and docile, becomes a blueblood infatuated gush.”
Elaine Kendall was kinder in the Los Angeles Times, writing that Dr. Mainwaring “finished the book in a style so close to Wharton’s in spirit, vocabulary, sentence structure, and rhythm that the transition should be imperceptible even to the original author’s most ardent admirers.”
As sometimes is the case, the highest praise was found in the book’s dust jacket blurb. Critic and biographer Leon Edel wrote that Dr. Mainwaring “added gloss to the story’s original elegance and wit, and the novel emerges like a master’s painting from the hands of a highly skilled restorer.”
For most of her life, Marion Jessie Mainwaring would have been no one’s pick to find herself at the center of a critical jousting match. Born in Boston, she grew up in Quincy, the oldest of four children.
Her father, Herbert J. Mainwaring Sr., had been an editor of a Cape Cod tourist magazine but was best known for his many letters to the editors of newspapers in Boston and Quincy, often about Episcopal Church matters. Her mother, the former Marion Imrie, was from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, and taught embroidery and dressmaking in Quincy evening schools.
After winning academic prizes at Simmons College, from which she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English, Dr. Mainwaring went on to graduate studies at Harvard University. She received a doctorate in English, writing a dissertation on poet and critic Matthew Arnold.
She was appointed an instructor at Mount Holyoke College in 1948 and also taught at Harvard, but disliked the work, according to novelist Joseph McElroy. “Marion is an elitist in the best sense of that word,” he told the Globe in 1994. “She is very quick to detect pomposity and loose thinking. She lives in a kind of cultural attic, or garret, all by herself.”
Teaching at Mount Holyoke provided material for her book “Murder at Midyears,” and Dr. Mainwaring’s talent for literary mimicry was on display in “Murder in Pastiche, Or Nine Detectives All at Sea,” which parodied the styles of mystery writers such as Agatha Christie, Mickey Spillane, and Dorothy Sayres. Published in the 1950s, both books drew positive reviews.
After “Pastiche” Dr. Mainwaring slipped into a bout of writer’s block, which McElroy attributed at least in part to her perfectionism. “She has very high standards for intellectual and imaginative work,” he said in 1994. “She has been almost painfully careful over the years never to publish anything that is not individual, distinctive.”
Moving to Europe, she was a researcher for years. Learning French, Greek, and Russian, she also translated novellas by Ivan Turgenev.
Dr. Mainwaring first read the unfinished “The Buccaneers” while working as a researcher for R.W.B. Lewis, who was awarded a Pulitzer in 1976 for his biography of Wharton. In an appendix to that book, he praised her contributions: “I was fortunate enough to engage the services of Miss Marion Mainwaring, a gifted scholar” who researched Wharton’s time in Paris and affair with Morton Fullerton.
Lewis and Dr. Mainwaring had a falling out after the biography was published, however. She wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that Lewis had “distorted or neglected much of the material I gave him.”
Dr. Mainwaring, who never married, returned to the United States at the end of the 1970s to care for her elderly parents. “For almost all her life she lived this kind of bohemian existence,” said her nephew Scott Mainwaring of Portland, Ore. He added that Dr. Mainwaring was “more interested in meeting people and having experiences and living more simply.”
A private service is planned for Dr. Mainwaring, who in addition to her nephew leaves a brother, David of Framingham.
After her parents died, Dr. Mainwaring lived in the North End, sometimes in cold water flats or sharing a bathroom with another apartment. Then the publication timing of “The Buccaneers” brought a financial windfall. It came out in late 1993, when Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of “The Age of Innocence” helped launch a Wharton revival. “The Buccaneers” fetched a six-figure advance for Dr. Mainwaring, who sold the film rights, too.
“I think it surprised her how popular the book became,” said her nephew. Of the critical response, he said: “I think if anything that probably amused Marion.”
Dr. Mainwaring remained active until the end, editing and writing with the painstaking precision that kept her published output small. When it came to the pace of her work, completing “The Buccaneers” was a solitary exception. “I usually write like a snail,” she said in 1994. “I did this in five months. For me that is phenomenal speed.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.