The Gilded Age preview: “Entry into a world that really hasn't been covered on television before”
New period drama The Gilded Age, from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, promises a sumptuous look at turn-of-the-century New York, playing on tensions between the established elite and ‘new money’. But beyond that, writes Amanda-Rae Prescott, the show melds familiar period drama with original characters that explore histories previously neglected on screen, including those of the Black elite in 1880s East Coast society…
The Gilded Age, the new miniseries from Sky and HBO, was originally pitched by Julian Fellowes as the prequel to Downton Abbey. After years of revisions, historical research and the COVID-19 pandemic, the show has transformed into an original story that uses established history to explore themes and figures that previous dramas on both sides of the Atlantic have ignored in the past.
Calling the series “American Downton Abbey” may be a handy reference for some common story tropes, but it also fails to recognise that there are characters and historical details that could never exist in a British period drama set in 1882 – because they are uniquely rooted in American history.
When was the ‘Gilded Age’?
The Gilded Age as a historical era refers to the 1870s through the 1890s in America, and lines up with the later years of the Victorian era in Britain. If you were to ask Americans what they associate with the 1880s, they would most likely mention the great businessmen and their families that have come to symbolise the era: the Vanderbilts; the Astors; the Rockefellers, to name a few.
Others associate the 1880s with the development of the American West. Americans of colour will likely respond with Jim Crow/post Reconstruction restrictions on Black Americans, Indian Removal and the development of reservations, and the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was passed in 1882. Some may even associate the 1880s with the rise of the labour movement, social reforms, and the American women’s suffrage movement. But often, this era gets less attention in American history compared to other decades in the 19th century. While period drama viewers will have seen the era depicted work such as the 1970s adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie, or numerous Western films focused on railroad expansion leading to the new towns and cities, cowboys, and conflicts with tribes who had lost their land to the federal government, New York and the East Coast has been absent.
Historical inspiration for The Gilded Age
Perhaps the closest screen link thematically to The Gilded Age is the 1993 film adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence. Wharton grew up in an elite New York family, and her debutante years in the 1880s were the basis for later writings. So it’s perhaps inevitable that Wharton and analysis of her works would have been included in background research for Fellowes’ latest drama.
The Gilded Age at first appears to be following Wharton’s thematic path quite closely, by centring the richest residents of New York and their country estates in Newport, Rhode Island. However, the appearance of the original character Peggy Scott (played by Denée Benton) sets the story on a path towards something entirely new in the American period drama space. Peggy Scott is a young African-American woman who is travelling to New York to seek new employment and create distance from past conflicts with her family.
Dr Erica Armstrong Dunbar is the main historical consultant for The Gilded Age and a co-executive producer. She has spent the last 20 years researching the lives of African-American women in the 19th century. Dunbar was recruited by the production team in 2019. “It was very clear that we were going to have characters that allowed us entry into a world that really hasn't been covered on television before,” she said. “That's the world of the Black elite in the 1880s.
“My work as a historian and the books that I've written, that was the reason that they called, but also to help them once again stay as true as possible to a world that, although is based on fiction, was still authentic and felt as though audiences can be transported back to 1880 in a very kind of real way.”
In terms of chronology, the majority of recent African-American period dramas move from Underground, Roots, and Mercy Street – which take place right before or during the Civil War – to Self-Made and Passing which are set during the Harlem Renaissance without much pause for the 1880s. The recent 2021 Black cowboy film The Harder They Fall has some chronological overlap with Peggy Scott’s story but very little thematic overlap, as it is set in the American West.
Social history book Black Gotham (2012) by Carla L Peterson was key for Dunbar in cementing Peggy’s plotline in the history of the era. Peterson’s book is a combination of genealogy and social history as she traces her great-great-grandfather Peter Guignon through the archives of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Guignon lived in Fort Greene, Brooklyn during the mid-19th century and was part of a thriving community of African-American professionals, business owners, and their families. Harlem’s development as an epicentre for Black culture occurred in the decades after 1882, and the stories of Guignon and other family members offer a picture of the lives of African-American elites in New York City.
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The Gilded Age plot
In The Gilded Age, Peggy’s story isn’t written in isolation to the rest of the white characters, though. She has employment and friendship ties with other characters. Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) is a white woman, but Peggy ends up becoming friends with her. Audiences may at first glance believe this is purely fictional.
“When we think about the worlds that were pretty segregated in the 1880s,” says Dunbar, “for Peggy and Marian to come upon one another and to find a way to create and maintain a relationship that was honest and not based on some odd power dynamic, that was important in part because, yes, while somewhat rare, it still existed.
“It also gave us the opportunity to look at two young women who, at this moment in time, were trying to figure out their paths in life, one white, one Black, and to look at the challenges, the hurdles, but also the opportunities presented, and expectations presented to both.”
The theme of women’s roles inside and outside the home in a world dominated by men are at the centre of many of the plotlines for The Gilded Age; it has a large ensemble cast and there are two households at the centre of the story. The tension between the old elite of New York and the nouveau riche leading to social changes is represented through women’s social and familial relationships. In the drama, fictional character Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) and her railroad tycoon husband George (Morgan Spector) build a new mansion across the street from where some of New York’s oldest families live. Bertha wants their children, Larry (Harry Richardson) and Gladys (Taissa Farmiga), to make friends with the elite children of the same age in order to keep climbing the social ladder.
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The Russells’ new neighbours Agnes Van Rhijin (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon) are middle-aged sisters who despise Bertha for her social climbing attempts. Agnes is a widow with a son Oscar (Blake Ritson) while Ada never married; however, their family tree goes back to the 17th century, when New York was owned by the Dutch. Not only do Agnes and Ada (often referred to as “the Aunts”) have to contend with the Russells’ interloping, their niece Marian is moving in after the death of her father (and their brother) Henry. Marian grew up middle class and estranged from her aunts. Marian also introduces Peggy to Agnes which adds another layer of tension. The men legally control the purse strings, but true to the era, the women are the ones who determine who’s in – or out – of fashionable society.As the series progresses, the younger characters may end up taking a different view than their older relatives on the social wars based on friendships and romantic relationships.
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Real figures from history in The Gilded Age
Agnes and Ada, as well as the Russells, are composites of more identifiable biographical figures of the era, but the choice to focus on these original characters removes some of the preconceived notions viewers may have when seeing anyone named Vanderbilt or Rockefeller, for example, as a main character. The Astors, however, are represented by Mrs Caroline Astor (Donna Murphy) and her daughter, also Caroline “Carrie” (Amy Forsyth), who have extremely busy social calendars.
The Astors were very much a real family whose fortune was rooted in the fur trade, and in late 19th-century New York Mrs Astor (as she was known) and her daughter were prominent socialites who famously led the ‘Four Hundred’ – a controversial list of ‘acceptable’ New York society published in 1892 in The New York Times.
Clara Barton (Linda Emond), the founder of the American Red Cross, also makes an appearance. Her appearance represents not only the role of elite women in charities of the era, but is an opportunity to further cement commentary on women’s roles outside the household.
Fellowes’ stylistic trademarks appear most prominently in The Gilded Age when the audience sees the servants that make the decadent lifestyles of the Russells and their neighbours possible.
Electricity was not widely used in this era, and the appliances that would simplify household chores did not exist. Domestic staff doing the manual labour of cleaning, cooking, and household organisation was essential not just to the elites, but also to middle-class households as well. The servants are not just the source of household gossip; they are a window into the lives of New Yorkers whose existences revolve around the elite world. However, the opportunities for social advancement, whether by marriage or the economy creating new jobs outside of domestic service between the US and UK, will likely influence later plot lines.
Addressing approaches to so-called ‘historical accuracy’, and underpinning both Peggy’s world and the world of the elite classes, is extreme attention to detail in terms of set design and costuming. “I wasn’t the only historical consultant on the show,” Dunbar explains. “There were others who focused on things like flatware on a banquet table, stemware, the placement of crockery, of livery outfits and what have you. There was a great deal of attention paid to the details of the world in a material sense, because that’s important when you bring your viewers in.”
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Experts who specialise in the history of the era may well find things to highlight about the set design or the costumes of The Gilded Age, but the real danger in traditional methods of analysing historical accuracy are false assumptions based on whitewashed history that Black figures didn’t exist and live in this society portrayed on screen. Viewers and critics alike may fall into the trap of believing all Black people who lived in 1882 were of lower economic status. Others may recognize prominent Black historical figures such as WEB DuBois and Booker T Washington were active in society and politics during the 1880s but their work is often separated from the elite Black community they belonged to. The real-life figures Peggy Scott, her family, and their associates are based on have a clear historical paper trail. And even if the series decided to cast an actor of colour to play a character originally written as white, modern-day racism should not be a factor in determining how extant objects were recreated in set design and costuming.
The Gilded Age melds familiar period drama tropes with history previously untold on screen to create a sweeping miniseries. The audience may not be able to predict the trajectories of each character, but the drama may set a trend other American period dramas will follow. Peggy Scott’s story is only the beginning of filling the void of Black history on screen between the end of the Civil War and the 1920s.
Where to watch The Gilded AgeThe Gilded Age will premiere in the US on HBO on Monday 24 January 2022 at 9pm.
It will launch in the UK on Sky Atlantic on Tuesday 25 January 2022 at 9pm, and it will be available to stream on NOW.
The Gilded Age trailer
The Gilded Age will premiere in the US on HBO on Monday 24 January 2022 at 9pm. In the UK it launches on Sky Atlantic on Tuesday 25 January 2022 at 9pm, and it will be available to stream on NOW. Check out our lists of the best historical movies on Netflix, the best history documentaries on Netflix and the best historical drama series on Netflix, or discover the latest historical TV and radio airing in the UK this month
Note: This article contains references to characters and events from the first two episodes. Information from future episodes is solely based on material from press releases/other articles. Future episode plots and historical details may vary from this article.