Alfred Stevens, A Portrait Group of Parisian Celebrities, 1889. Ringling Museum of Art.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been watching The Gilded Age TV show on HBO with a lot of curiosity – it feels a little like we’ve been waiting a very long time for this programme, with whispers of it as linked to Downton Abbey swirling for almost ten years.
Created by Julian Fellowes (creator of Downton) and beginning in 1882 in New York, it explores the clashes between old wealth and the new, the booming of business during this period and the extensive and opulent building projects of the wealthiest families in America, besides many other storylines which I don’t want to spoil here if you haven’t watched it yet…
Gilded Age definition
Before I share the books I have my eye on to immerse myself more in this period of history, I thought I’d explore what the “gilded age” actually means.
The period roughly follows the end of the Civil War in America in 1865 to the turn of the twentieth century, and was a period of huge economic growth, especially in the north and west of the US. Wages grew and industrialisation happened very fast. The immense wealth accrued by certain families through their investment in things such as the railroad (in particular!) can be seen now in the houses that were built during this period.
It was a time of expansion, but also of great inequality, and the implementation of Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation in the South and affecting many other areas of the United States.
Larry Holzwarth’s article for History Collection about life in the Gilded Age is really interesting, and can be found here.
Why the “Gilded Age”?
It became labelled the “Gilded Age” due to a book written by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, published in 1873. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today was a satire of the greed, materialism and corruption in America after the Civil War.
The authors took the title from the play The Life and Death of King John by William Shakespeare, published in 1623 but probably written in the 1590s. It was from these lines, spoken by Salisbury, in Act 4, Scene 2:
Therefore, to be posess’d with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excessSalisbury, Act 4, Scene 2
This seemed to serve a parallel to the two authors to the age they lived in, even though it was written early in the period that we now call the Gilded Age. Although it was the lines in bold that seemed to speak to them, when I went and looked up the original quotation, the whole passage was to me getting at the satire Twain and Warner were writing about.
On my Gilded Age reading list…
The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910 by Esther Crain
Crain is the writer behind the blog Ephemeral New York, which is so fascinating and you can easily get lost for a while reading about the history of the city. Her book here covers a transformative period in New York history, exploring the experiences of different people (not just the rich building the humungous mansions on Fifth Avenue) and all illustrated by photos and periodicals of the time.
Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe
Journalist Anderson Cooper is the great-great-great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who built the family fortunes in shipping and railroads. In this book, he and historian Katherine Howe write the story of his ancestors, who were some of the richest in American history. Beginning before the Gilded Age and ending long afterwards, it contextualises the period in the show, and shows its lasting legacies.
American Duchess: A Novel of Consuelo Vanderbilt by Karen Harper
I’ve spoken before about Consuelo Vanderbilt here: she was bullied into a marriage with the British Duke of Marlborough of Blenheim Palace by her ruthless mother Alva, despite wanting to marry somebody else she was truly in love with. Harper’s novel explores Consuelo’s drive to find independence.
I’d love to read this alongside Consuelo’s own memoir, The Glitter and the Gold.
When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age by Justin Kaplan
The Astors were another key family dynasty in Gilded Age America – you’ll have seen, if you’ve been watching The Gilded Age, Donna Murphy as Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, who was known simply as “Mrs Astor” and was recognised as the leader of New York society.
Kaplan’s book follows her son, John Jacob Astor IV, and his cousin William Waldorf Astor, and their attempts to use their huge fortunes to gain top position in New York society, by building the grandest hotels ever seen.
The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton
I’ve been meaning to read some Edith Wharton for a long time and I think I may begin with this, even though Wharton left it unfinished – but the novel was eventually finished by Marion Mainwaring according to Wharton’s detailed outline.
In 1870s New York, five rich American young women are held in disdain by society for their wealth being too new (sounds just like the Russell family in The Gilded Age!) – so their governess suggests they go to London and marry into the aristocracy.
A prime example of the marriage of American money and British titles during this period, this novel was also adapted into a TV series in 1995 (though independently of Mainwaring’s completed version of the novel).
The Husband Hunters: Social Climbing in London and New York by Anne de Courcy
Anne de Courcy tells the story of the real women who were part of the phenomenon I just described above, beginning in 1874 with Jennie Jerome’s marriage to Randolph Churchill. de Courcy utilises many primary sources to understand how the heiresses in question perceived England, and how England perceived them.
Of course, in Downton Abbey, Cora Levinson did just this when she married Robert Crawley, 7th Earl of Grantham.
As with any period drama series I get into watching, I always want to read so much more about the history involved, so can’t wait to get going on these titles…