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Old Story, New Money

A woman in Gilded Age finery descends the stairs of her ballroom

Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO

Carrie Coon as Bertha Russell in The Gilded Age, 2022

The Gilded Age, Julian Fellowes’s new series for HBO, never mentions the name of its muse-matriarch, Edith Wharton. But twenty minutes into the first episode, it makes its debt to her fiction clear: the young scion Larry Russell (Harry Richardson) tells his mother that he is bound for Newport, Rhode Island, in the company of people like “the Joneses, the Wilsons, Carrie Astor.” Before long, a cut brings us to an exterior view of a white, veranda-wrapped house set high on an ocean bluff. The house resembles one called Land’s End, the first property that Wharton purchased with her husband, Teddy, after she married him, assumed his name, and stopped being Edith Jones. The show, which follows on the success of Fellowes’s hit series Downton Abbey, can feel like a piece of Wharton-inspired fan fiction, and yet its fanaticism is neither for Wharton nor for her books but for the privileged world that inspired them. Fellowes revels in the textures and colors of the gilded class in the late nineteenth century—all the surfaces that Wharton sought to puncture.

The first episode opens with a flurry of excitement about the new mansion of the Russell family, in Manhattan at Fifth Avenue and Sixty-First Street. Fellowes’s Russells could be fictional cousins to Wharton’s fictional Beauforts, a nouveau-riche family that features in her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence. The opening chapters of the book revolve around the Beauforts’ annual ball, an inaugural event in the busy winter social season of New York’s upper class. Nobody really likes the Beauforts, but they tolerate them. This is because, as Wharton explains:

The Beauforts’ house was one of the few in New York that possessed a ball room…that was used for no other purpose, and left for three-hundred-and-sixty-four days of the year to shuttered darkness, with its gilt chairs stacked in a corner and its chandelier in a bag—this undoubted superiority was felt to compensate for whatever was regrettable in the Beaufort past.

The Russells, too, possess a ballroom, which at the start of the series has just been finished with gilt flourishes—but it does nothing to elevate them in the eyes of their entitled, old-money neighbors. It can’t, because it provides Fellowes with the most fragile of narrative scaffolds: it reveals the depths of society’s prejudice against the Russells, whose only desire is to throw a party and put their ballroom to use. By converting Wharton’s Beauforts into objects of pathos, Fellowes tries to coax us into caring about the Russells’ social standing as much as they do.

The ballroom drives the plot through the second episode. Marion Brook (Louisa Jacobson), the show’s ostensible moral center, participates in a charity bazaar organized by some of the more elite community matriarchs, including the redoubtable Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy). Marion is old-money adjacent, through her association with her wealthy aunts, but is herself poor and new to New York. This means she is hard-pressed to say no—to the Russells, who live across the street from her and court her aunts’ old-money connections, and to her own family members. Marion helps organize the bazaar, which is supposed to take place at a local armory, but a scheduling conflict foils those plans. Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), spying her opportunity, twice offers her ballroom as a venue. No one else connected to the event has a ballroom, it seems, and as with Wharton’s Beaufort family, this ought to motivate old New York to befriend the Russells. But the organizers of the bazaar—and Mrs. Astor, most pointedly—refuse. They opt for a hotel instead. Mrs. Astor opens the event with an overly decorous speech, and, within minutes, it’s all over. The Russells exact their revenge, storming the place, hijacking the bazaar by purchasing everything themselves and forcing the sale to end.

All of this plotting, however, has been undermined in the very first episode. In the white house in Newport, Larry Russell hobnobs with Mrs. Astor’s daughter Carrie (Amy Forsyth), who explains that, like everyone else, her parents have just built a summer home in the famed resort town. The construction, it seems, took longer than expected because, as Carrie puts it, “obviously my mother couldn’t live in a house without a ballroom.” This would seem to imply that the Astors, too, have a ballroom at each of their various houses, since living without one appears unthinkable to them. So why didn’t they use one of theirs to host the bazaar? The question dogs the series all the way to its first season finale, in which the Russells finally get to fill their ballroom with all the people who swore they would never enter it. Even if Carrie Astor was speaking figuratively—Imagine! No ballroom!—the viewer can’t help but feel that this is all just so much narrative contrivance, foregrounding conflicts about objects rather than subjects. Fellowes is more interested in showing us what this era looked like than in understanding how it functioned on a social and political level.

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Edith Wharton was a shrewd chronicler of her era who used characters like Julius Beaufort to analyze and deride the unspoken rules that govern social politics. As the historian Keith Taillon explains in a recent New Yorker article, the old-money world of Wharton’s New York “disdained ostentation.” The real-world counterparts to Wharton’s Beaufort family were the new-money Vanderbilts, powerful industrialists who flaunted the wealth they had gained through shipping and railroads. The Astors, meanwhile, had preferred to live as recluses in their outwardly demure and internally lavish brownstone.

Along with the unspoken rules dividing new from old wealth, Wharton was interested in the social and cultural mechanics that brought order to romance, especially through the institution of marriage. For instance, there was the question of a woman’s divorcing a man—technically legal in the state of New York for cases of adultery, but tacitly prohibited by the city’s elite for the duration of the nineteenth century. The protagonist in The Age of Innocence, Newland Archer, tells Ellen Olenska, who wants to divorce her husband: “Our legislation favors divorce—our social customs don’t.” What he means is that, though Ellen may succeed in divorcing her husband, New York society will never forgive her for it. She will be forced to live as a social outcast, though such a penalty, he notes, would not apply if she were a man. Newland is supposed to be looking out for Ellen, but later he endangers her by asking her to be his mistress. As a married woman who nonetheless lacks the real protections of marriage, Ellen finds herself assailed on all sides. She realizes the impossibility of her social situation in New York and ends up fleeing back to Europe.

Wharton kept returning to the scene of old New York and in some cases populated it with recurring characters. Sillerton Jackson, for example, is an especially doctrinaire member of New York’s old-money old guard. He appears in The Age of Innocence and then again in novellas like New Year’s Day and The Old Maid (both from 1924), lending continuity and shape to a fictional universe in which everyone who is worth knowing makes it their job to know everyone who is worth being known. Fellowes cribs a few ideas from The Old Maid, as well: Marion Brook’s cohabitation with her aunts—a widow and a spinster—replicates the dynamic in Wharton’s novella, in which two female cousins live together following the death of a husband and end up raising a child who is distantly related to one and scandalously related to the other.

dancers swirling around a Gilded Age ballroom

Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO

A scene from the season finale of The Gilded Age, 2022

Fellowes has plundered Wharton’s books for period-appropriate ideas about character, conflict, and setting. But in his hands those ideas get drained of their complexity and reduced to window dressing for lavish costuming and dubious dialogue. He sprinkles the show’s opening credits with overt references to Martin Scorsese’s 1993 film adaptation of The Age of Innocence: the tide of men in top hats filling Fifth Avenue, the spreading petals of a red flower that open into Bertha Russell’s velvet opera cloak. But whereas Scorsese used such scenic details to enhance the novel’s bitter ironies—Newland Archer believes that his love for Ellen sets him above other men, but then goes and melts into the sea of identical top hats, showing his ultimate desire to conform—The Gilded Age opts for unflinching sincerity.

Wharton invites readers to see the latent hypocrisy in Newland’s rejection of men like Julius Beaufort. Newland talks and thinks like a hero, but his actions reveal his less heroic side: he champions the institution of marriage and condemns Beaufort’s well-known extramarital affairs, but then propositions Ellen, his wife’s cousin, and pursues a Beaufort-like arrangement of his own. The opposite is true on The Gilded Age, which presents its leads, like the tycoon George Russell (Morgan Spector), with cloying earnestness, making them into the heroes they imagine themselves to be. Russell’s sense of his own valor leads him to rebuff an opportunity for a tryst with his wife’s maid. The suggestion is that new money, so long as it is virtuous, ought to be welcome at the table alongside old money, as though virtue was ever really part of the equation.

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Not all recent Wharton-inspired fiction draws so superficially on its source material. Ali Benjamin’s novel The Smash-Up (2021) takes place in Starkfield, Massachusetts, a town that Wharton dreamed up for Ethan Frome (1911). Benjamin’s characters act like Wharton’s in that novel and even go by the same names, but The Smash-Up takes place in 2018. Wharton’s Ethan is a commanding figure, the bearer of a “careless powerful look” that mingles with “something bleak and unapproachable in his face.” Benjamin’s Ethan is no less formidable, clad in Carhartt and Warby Parker with “canyons of worry…carved into his temples.”

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Even if they’ve never read Ethan Frome, a reader would be hard-pressed to come away from The Smash-Up without a sense of the original text’s political implications. Benjamin transposes the class antagonisms of nineteenth-century New England, with its growing divide between the industrialist rich and the rural poor, onto the twenty-first century. In that updated setting, “rural” refers to three deeply estranged populations. There are the wealthy urban transplants who view living in the country as an extended vacation; there are the poor locals who struggle with low wages and the high cost of living; and then there are those in between, like Ethan and his family. Wharton’s Ethan is privileged enough to own land but little else, and Benjamin’s Ethan is the same, living on credit while the specter of debt mounts all around him and the spirit of Trumpism spreads through his community. In both novels, economic circumstances become the fuel for complex political loyalties.

Unlike Benjamin, who remixes Wharton’s syntax without simply repeating the words, Fellowes seems so convinced of the authenticity of his production that he cuts ties with the sources of his inspiration rather than reinforcing them. He delights in adding backstory as a garnish to his reheated Wharton plots. Wharton is content to let readers wonder about Beaufort’s origins along with the rest of her characters in The Age of Innocence: “Who was Beaufort?… His antecedents were mysterious.” But by putting the Russells at the center of his show and detailing their family’s history, Fellowes tries to generate sympathy for his upstart industrialists. There are multiple references to Bertha Russell’s poor Irish immigrant grandparents, presumably meant to temper the viewer’s judgments of the family’s success: it’s okay to be callously rich so long as your fortune has been made instead of merely inherited.

The Marxist cultural theorist Stuart Hall, writing in the 1970s and 1980s, argued that television not only entertains but also disperses hegemonic ideals by “encoding” them on the level of style. Television shows us aesthetically pleasing representations of power to which viewers respond with either identification or alienation, leading, sometimes, to resistance. Fellowes’s series encodes feeling along no less rigid ideological lines. It builds a monument to money and power and to the beauty it considers the sacred offspring of their union, recruiting viewers into a position of uneasy sympathy, both for the sins of wealth and corruption and for an era that saw unparalleled levels of both—unparalleled, that is, until now. Appearing in 2022, amid the rampant inequality of a new gilded age, the show asks its viewers to pity those who least deserve it. The result resembles an adolescent fan’s Tumblr page: beautiful images, disembodied quotations, and dead hyperlinks leading nowhere.


The Gilded Age is now streaming on HBO Max

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