Television

The 100-Year-Old Novel That Holds the Key to Fixing HBO’s Latest Hit

In a world where robber barons ruled and social outcasts starved, The Gilded Age seems fixated on the frivolous.

Cynthia Nixon and Louise Jacobson in The Gilded Age.
Cynthia Nixon and Louisa Jacobson in The Gilded Age. Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO

As many have pointed out, the stakes in The Gilded Age—Julian Fellowes’ HBO drama about Old New York in the age of the robber barons—feel low, possibly even invisible. Two episodes in, the main source of tension is some tart words flung between two sets of wealthy white people—those who can trace their families back to the Mayflower and those who can’t. But there’s a way out of the hole the series has dug for itself, and it involves Edith Wharton.

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Wharton, whose 1920 novel The Age of Innocence is also set during the Gilded Age, spent much of her adult life in Europe, but she grew up in the old New York society the show seeks to bring to life, and she understood it—its unspoken codes, its hothouse feel, and the sense of ritual, but also dread, that comes from a society where everyone understands the rules. She also knew the risks of breaking those rules, especially for women. It’s hard to think of any Wharton novel that ends happily, and that may be her way of saying that to be interesting, to cut against the grain in a society as rulebound and stifling as old New York’s, was to be unhappy, or worse.

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So far, Fellowes’ take on the Gilded Age is interested in tamer stuff—the tensions between the cloistered world of upper-crust society and the wealthy newcomers who want to break into into it, represented in the show by the robber baron-y George Russell and his family, who feel like a stand-in for the Vanderbilts (yes, old New York saw the Vanderbilts as arrivistes back in the day).

Wharton wasn’t particularly interested in new money versus old money, though she understood how those dynamics could set a story in motion. Instead, she was interested in how a society of such rigid strictures could immolate from within, and how it treated those who tried to escape or challenge its rules. Especially women.

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The Gilded Age does have its own upstart protagonist—the young and lovely Marian Brook, who travels to New York City to live with her aunts, after her father leaves her penniless. Gamboling about the city, she makes wide-eyed proclamations like “how strange all these rules are,” and commits such revolutionary acts as attending an “at home” soiree at the Russells’ Stanford White mansion against her aunt’s strict orders. As for the aunts, their roles are clear. Aunt Agnes, a pillar of Old New York society, is trying to hold back the “hordes of vulgarians,” while her sister, the softie Aunt Ada, wants to take a more inclusive approach. Marian becomes the physical embodiment of their disagreement

I have no objection to Marian. It’s just hard to take her seriously, particularly compared to the women who would have been roughly her contemporaries, the heroines of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. They are the subtle rule-breakers in their stories, but they have what Marian does not—lived experience in a world of quiet and lethal judgments, and an understanding of the price women are asked to pay for flouting those norms.

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In Age of Innocence, Ellen Olenska is the change agent, the woman whose arrival to New York shakes things up because her decision to flee a disastrous marriage in Europe may cause reputational problems for her family back home. As a woman who has lived abroad, and had the courage to leave an abusive relationship, her worldliness and intellect only succeed in revealing the small thinking of New York’s high society, especially as it becomes clear that her family would prefer for her to return to an abusive marriage rather than cause a scandal. As for Lily Bart in House of Mirth, she understands the society she operates in, knows she has to marry for money after her father loses their fortune and her mother dies, and yet keeps sabotaging herself, not quite able to bring herself to make the mercenary exchange. You admire her for that even as it destroys her. Marian feels like a puff of dandelion fuzz compared with these women. What’s missing from The Gilded Age, to put it bluntly, is a sense of danger. It doesn’t feel particularly dangerous to be disinvited to a tea party or not have people show up at your big soiree. It does feel dangerous to live in a society so stifling it would prefer you to return to an abusive man rather than risk scandal, or one that condemns a woman to poverty and oblivion based only on a false rumor. The ethos of old New York was inherited from the Puritans, the inventors of a culture that literally cast people out into the wilderness. How do you navigate that? What does it mean to break the rules when those are the consequences, instead of some salty words from Aunt Agnes? That’s a show I’d be interested to watch.

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Of course, it bears repeating that The Gilded Age is only two episodes into its first season, and there’s a lot of runway. Marian’s naivete may be tempered into something more sobering and compelling, and the show may yet find its footing. And unlike Wharton and most of her contemporaries, The Gilded Age is examining issues of race and sexuality and appears at least nominally interested in the working class. While its treatment of these topics may feel clumsy, the show gets credit for not ignoring them.

But what remains perplexing is that even when it comes to the kind of details that Fellowes and HBO are known for nailing, the show fumbles. It may feel like fiddling around on the margins to point out that in terms of documenting these fabulously rich people and their boring conflict, The Gilded Age’s aesthetic and tone is off, but it is. One of the great pleasures of Downton was getting to immerse yourself in the customs and trappings of an unfamiliar world, the ecosystem of a grand English house and estate. But the CGI New York of The Gilded Age just feels off; like Neo in the Matrix, your brain senses something is amiss. The city looks both immaculate and boring. One of the most glorious things about Wharton’s novels is their richness of description—Wharton was an accomplished landscape artist and interior designer—and many of the houses and buildings that filled her pages still exist in New York. But the majority of filming for The Gilded Age took place on Long Island, in elaborately built sets. How did a show about old New York forget to add the city as one of its characters, the way shows like Sex and the City or The Knick or The Undoing did so well? I’d love to hear Aunt Agnes’s opinion on that.

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As for The Gilded Age’s other opinions, they are repeated so often that instead of a rigid enforcement of a silent code—the kind of unspoken understandings that devastate lives—we get scene after scene where the characters won’t shut up about the thesis of the show. Old versus new! Rules, rules, rules! I find myself longing for Wharton’s terrifying silences, where life-altering decisions are made without a word.

Perhaps the point is, instead of bemoaning the series, it’s worth noting the enduring power of Wharton’s novels. A hundred years after The Age of Innocence was published, The Gilded Age should be able to take more risks, to be more pointed in its critiques of an era when titans of industry were literally called robber barons, than Wharton was. But that simply isn’t the case. Compared to the sharpness of her novels, The Gilded Age is very weak tea indeed.

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