Apple TV+’s The Buccaneers Is Fictional But Based On Real History

By Louie Fecou
Published: November 8, 2023
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Is The Buccaneers based on a true story?
The Buccaneers Season 1 | Image via Apple TV+

The Apple TV+ period drama The Buccaneers is following in the footsteps of Bridgerton with its lavish sets. costumes and characters, and a premise that has historical significance at its core. Based on the real history of well-to-do American women traveling to be married into the English aristocracy, the story might not strictly be true, but it’s certainly close enough to raise some eyebrows.

The show’s production company The Forge Entertainment sums the concept up, explaining:

“Girls with money, men with power. New money, old secrets. A group of fun-loving young American girls explode into the tightly corseted London season of the 1870s, kicking off an Anglo-American culture clash as the land of the stiff upper lip is infiltrated by a refreshing disregard for centuries of tradition. Sent to secure husbands and titles, the buccaneers’ hearts are set on much more than that, and saying “I do” is just the beginning.”

The series is based on a highly regarded book by Edith Wharton, and although the novel was never finished — Wharton died in 1937 — the book was published anyway.

Is The Buccaneers based on a true story?

As we said above, the series is based on an unfinished novel from the 1930s, but the inspiration behind the book was real events that occurred, with American women heading to the UK to find husbands and more importantly, titles. So, The Buccaneers is not based on a true story but is based on real history.

Although the novel was unfinished, Wharton would leave behind notes that explained how the book would progress, and it is worth noting that Wharton would have been a young girl at the time the book was set, and well aware of the circumstances surrounding her novel, so despite the book being fictitious, the premise was real.

Was the book The Buccaneers ever finished?

Author Edith Wharton never finished The Buccaneers novel, and attempts to finish the book from her notes weren’t especially well received.

In 1993, the outline for the final chapters were used to complete the novel. Wharton had written 29 chapters of the book, leaving a further six to conclude the story, and her notes were used by Marion Mainwaring to complete the novel. Her efforts were carefully scrutinized, and the finished work was often heavily criticized by critics, with The New Republic’s Andrew Delbanco stating that the finished work was “literary necrophilia”.

Despite the reaction to the revised edition of the book, the story is very much the basis of the series, and although some debate the chapters added by Mainwaring, there will probably be many more who also have an opinion on the TV series, with reactions already being posted on social media.

What history is The Buccaneers based on?

The book was always a work of fiction, however, the premise did have its roots in real-life circumstances. It was commonplace for American women to travel overseas to the UK in the hope of marrying into the aristocracy, and this is the basic conceit that the show uses.

The women who traveled to the UK became known as “dollar princesses”, bringing money to the struggling English economy, in exchange for titles and what we now refer to as “clout”.

A famous example of this practice is the mother of Winston Churchill, who was considered a “dollar princess”, only being accepted as a wife in England due to the large financial contribution that she would bring with her.

How does the TV series differ from the book?

As is always the case, a modern production of a historical novel will almost always deviate from the source material, to make the viewing experience more accessible for modern audiences. Although there are still faithful adaptations of classic works made, for a series to succeed these days, it has to embrace modern values and contemporary tropes, and The Buccaneers decides to lay its cards on the table, embracing the era and the style, but leaning into modern aesthetics.

In an interview with The Radio Times, the show’s creator Katherine Jakeways would say,

“We wanted it to feel modern, we wanted to use the opportunity to tell some modern stories through these girls. Inevitably, some of the storylines we have made up, and we have used the book as a jumping off point and taken them into storylines that we wanted to explore that felt modern and universal to women, no matter when they were born.”

Purists will no doubt be triggered by the series wandering off track, but the watch time and completion rate for the show will be the only judge in the long run.

This is not the first adaptation of the book

As a footnote, you may be interested to know that a previous version of The Buccaneers was made by the BBC in 1995, and shown in the U.S. under the banner of Masterpiece Theatre.

The series pretty much used the premise of the book, but once again an ending was written to conclude the story and was heavily criticized and derided by both the audience and reviewers, claiming the ending used was “sensationalistic” and not a true reflection of Wharton’s style.

How the current series will be perceived remains to be seen.

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