In 1882 New York City, Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), an unabashed social climber, tells her railroad-magnate husband: “I don’t want my old friends, I want new friends”. Across from the Russells’ marble mansion, the haughty Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) sits in her brownstone, upholding the standards of her class against the nouveau riche and their ilk. “We only receive the old people in this house, not the new,” she instructs Marian (Louisa Jacobson), the penniless niece she has taken in. Bertha and Agnes embody the delicious class conflict in The Gilded Age, the new series created and written by Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey. It’s best to get Downton out of your mind, though, and replace it with Edith Wharton, whose socially astute novels, including The Age of Innocence, defined the era of US history in which the series is set.
While The Gilded Age and Downton have a similar appeal – both are character-rich, colourfully-costumed dramas of money and manners – they exist in worlds apart, highlighting the difference between the British and US class systems. There was a whirlwind of upward mobility in the US during the late 19th Century involving new money and ruthless industrialists. In England, Downton’s Lord Grantham, an aristocrat in need of money, solved his family’s problem by marrying a wealthy American, a pattern so common that the American heiresses had a name: dollar princesses. Set a generation earlier, The Gilded Age – with less warmth and melodrama than Downton, but more piercing social observations – is the story of the era that produced so many of those dollar princesses.
Amidst a kaleidoscope of characters and plots, Baranski centres the series with her vibrant, knowing performance. With her exquisitely precise delivery, she brings wit, depth and unexpected emotion to the proper Mrs Van Rhijn, who proudly proclaims that her family has been at the head of the social order for more than two centuries – a minute by British standards, but making them old wealth in the US. The widowed Agnes lives with and financially supports her spinster sister, the sweet-tempered and kind but meek Ada (Cynthia Nixon).
Coon brings just the right amount of brittleness to Bertha, who is decorous and strong-willed. She is no vulgarian, even if her mansion, with enormous chandeliers and golden trim on the white wall panels, reeks of new money. The social distance between the Russell and Van Rhijn households is far wider than the dirt street that separates them.
Bertha’s loving husband, George (Morgan Spector), is a tycoon whom we see buying off politicians and undercutting his rivals. He is an echo of the real railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, but there is another sly reference: George and Bertha are the names of a married couple in Wharton’s House of Mirth. It’s no surprise that Fellowes knows his Wharton and her world. But he goes beyond historical accuracy to give Bertha and Agnes a complexity that makes the series fascinating. We may want to root for Bertha, who is perfectly respectable but dismissed by the social elite because her recent ancestors were potato farmers. No amount of feathered hats and silk dresses can make up for that. But she is so vengeful, vowing after an especially hurtful snub, “I’ll make them sorry one day!”
And we may want to dislike Agnes on principle. But she is essentially good-hearted, no matter how narrow-minded she might be. She endured a bad marriage, preventing herself and her sister from becoming penniless. And when she protectively warns Marian about a suitor, saying “He’s an adventurer!”, it turns out she has been right about that kind of thing before.
Marian is placed at the centre of the plot. As the series starts, her father has died, leaving her with a mere $30, so she moves to New York to live with her aunts. But her down-to-earth, sensible character is so pallid next to the vividly-drawn women around her that this ostensible heroine hardly registers.
Fortunately, she is befriended by a galvanizing figure, Peggy Scott, a poised young black woman who helps Marian when her purse is stolen. Denée Benton plays her beautifully, with subtly displayed passion. An aspiring writer, Peggy becomes Mrs Van Rhijn’s secretary and moves into the household. She also allows Fellowes to address the issue of race, so often ignored in historical fiction. Peggy belongs to the middle class, but even Marian makes glib assumptions, thinking she must be in need of charity. Audra McDonald, as Peggy’s concerned mother, wants her to return to their comfortable home, but Peggy has ideas of her own, as well as a secret in her past that is still hidden from us at the end of the five episodes made available for review.
The Gilded Age doesn’t deny the obstacles Peggy faces: while she is a talented writer, a publisher asks her not to disclose her race so as not to offend white readers. But the show sometimes minimises her problems. It seems so unlikely that Agnes, or anyone of her class at the time, would hire a black secretary that a clumsy bit of dialogue forces in an explanation: she admires people like Peggy who help themselves. Her butler, Bannister (Simon Jones), is totally egalitarian and welcoming. One of his kitchen maids, however, worries about using the same bathroom as Peggy, a racist attitude that seems more realistic for the period.
Apart from Peggy, the downstairs characters are less defined than those upstairs. But even when the characters are wobbly, the show is a delight to watch, always engaging. There is a lawyer who falls in love with Marian, as well as a gay character scheming to marry his own dollar princess, and the Russells’ teenage daughter, Gladys (Taissa Farmiga), bristling at her mother’s strictness. Historical figures float in and out, including Clara Barton (Linda Emond), who is starting the American Red Cross and needs wealthy donors like Bertha. And no one writes sharp-tongued dialogue like Fellowes. When Marian tells her aunt that she plans to visit a friend in Brooklyn who needs cheering up, Agnes says, “So should I if I lived in Brooklyn”. That line is especially droll, given how trendy Brooklyn has become today.
The Gilded Age captures all the glamour, extravagance and snobbery of a period now safely at a distance. The nouveaux riches are still with us, of course, but today they are likely to be tech billionaires, judged on whether they create philanthropic foundations, as Bill Gates did, or use ther fortunes to propel themselves into space like Jeff Bezos. Then and now, their stories are a reminder that when Mark Twain created the phrase The Gilded Age, he was mordantly pointing out the period’s surface glitter, not its gold.