The HBO television series Golden age recently announced the launch of a second season, after the first nine episodes this January. Despite – or because of – rather mixed reviews, the series has influenced the fashion world enough to set the theme for this year’s Met Gala. As someone who discovered Fifth Avenue in the late 19th century from the pen of Edith Wharton, I would like to encourage a return to her novels before another season of Julian Fellowes’ reimagining of that time, even if reading might be the last thing one would do in the Golden Age.
The series traces the new life of young and recently bereaved Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) in New York, residing in the mansion of her wealthy aunt Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) on Fifth Avenue. While she belongs to “Old New York” by birthright and is supported financially and socially by her aunt, other characters must try harder to gain a foothold in this strictly coded and discriminatory society. Marian’s admirer and her late father’s attorney, Tom Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel), leaves the Pennsylvania countryside in her wake and successfully navigates his way into the circle of the wealthy. Her friend Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) begins her career as a secretary/journalist, overcoming various forms of racism aimed at her black ethnicity. Meanwhile, George and Bertha Russell (Morgan Spector and Carrie Coon) are an ambitious “new rich” couple eager to gain recognition from New York’s high society with their colossal fortunes from railroad industry prosperity. .
Golden age highlighted the complex issue of balancing historical accuracy and artistic creativity…
Golden age presented the complex issue of balancing historical accuracy with artistic creativity, a persistent challenge for any period drama. I hope to construct a less biased picture of this period and assess the merits and shortcomings of Golden age comparing some themes in the TV series and in Wharton’s writing. Nevertheless, Edith Wharton, a wealthy and privileged member of New York high society, does not always give an unbiased illustration of her time, as the first theme of racial discrimination and class division will show.
It’s a laudable attempt to portray New York’s wealthy black families through the character of Peggy Scott and her parents. When reading Edith Wharton, there is no need to be wary of disparaging remarks about the city’s black population, as she is almost never mentioned. The series not only finally gave a voice to the long-silenced black community that writers like Edith Wharton completely ignored, but also portrayed an actively engaged young woman seeking to find her own voice and speak to the world as a as a journalist. However, the challenges she faced would have been far more difficult than being turned down by a hansom or having to live with prejudiced servants – it is extremely unlikely that someone of Aunt Agnes van Rhijn’s social standing who abhors any transgression of his rigid code of conduct would hire Peggy as secretary in the first place.
However, we find the presence of anti-Semitism in the writings of Edith Wharton. In his novel The house of joya new Jewish millionaire on Wall Street is both insulted by other characters and portrayed by the narrator with disturbing language, but he also proves to be more human than many others in this exclusive tribe of the wealthy. Golden age still seems to explicitly address this hostile mechanism of combining anti-Semitism with social hierarchy or attempting to subvert prejudice in contemporary discourse.
The series accurately captured the tension between old money and new money.
The series accurately captured the tension between old money and new money – a reader of The age of innocence must have smiled tacitly at the project to build a new opera mentioned in passing, a real event with which Edith Wharton begins her novel. What better way to sum up this society than opera? An enclosed space with no extra boxes left for newcomers, where people gather to spy on each other and chat rather than watch the performance, and where the art serves only as society’s golden varnish to dress up the frivolity of its wealthy members. These are exactly the difficulties that stand in the way of the Russells: their money cannot quite buy the social prestige of the jealous and threatened Old New Yorkers. The most interesting aspect of George and Bertha Russell is their collaboration between the male sphere of work and the female sphere of the home. Unlike Wharton’s portrayal of George and Bertha Dorset’s cold split in The house of joy (the names certainly invite comparison), Bertha Russell invites George’s business contact to dinner, while George coerces people into attending his wife’s ball. Equally money-driven and ambitious, they turn out, ironically, to be a more suitable couple than many other high-society arranged marriages.
The Golden Age by its name suggests glamor on the outside only; the Age of Innocence according to Edith Wharton concerns the synthetic ignorance of young girls – they were taught to appear pure and innocent and to adhere to social codes (supposedly what men expected of a woman). The central figure of Marian Brook in the series definitely seems innocent, but not quite in Wharton’s way: unlike May Welland in The age of innocence, Marian is at first ignorant of social codes. She is more suited to appease the supposed taste of modern audiences: innocent but fair, pretty and blonde but also kind on the inside, wealthy (assuming she will inherit from her aunt) but charitable. As a newcomer who disregards societal conventions, Marian is too innocent even by Wharton standards. Again, the series erases the difficulty of social change among an extremely privileged group of social elites, whose names are recorded in Mrs. Astor’s Four Hundred.
In Edith Wharton’s writing, this New York high society is anything but simple. Incessant gossip and insinuations are a recurring theme; social ostracism is accomplished by a few harsh but nonetheless decent remarks; and newcomers are put off by their ignorance of various etiquettes and conventions. It is therefore disappointing that the characters of Golden age speak to each other in language that is too simple. They are all New Yorkers and in New York everything is possible. They are all extremely rich, but money is not everything. Even though refined literary taste was not the trend at the time, the characters could have spoken less in cliches. The show underestimates the difficulty of penetrating these unseen conventions and this complexity of language and mannerisms – like the Russells, the series still has a long way to go to climb the ladder to New York high society as it was. .
Or else we live in another golden age, where ostentation passes for distinction.
Golden age faces the danger of a willful modern interpretation. The public is invited to appreciate the richly decorated mansions and extravagant dresses. The guilt of frivolity is veiled by an interest in architecture or contemporary fashion, and the just progressiveness of so many characters. Yet such portrayals risk trivializing the real and corrosive problems of American society at the time. Of course, we wish that a young black woman could be welcomed by high society, or that many wealthy people were open to new ideas like Marian Brook. But the rigid rules were not so easy to break. It is precisely because we as modern audiences uphold liberal values that they should not be used as a pretext to aestheticize uncomfortable parts of the story or as an excuse to fantasize about luxury. Or else we live in another golden age, where ostentation passes for distinction. Edith Wharton wrote about her time; reading Edith Wharton provides insight into our own times. Through her luxurious language, she depicts the true degree of difficulty in breaking with social norms, in escaping the golden cage. In any case, the simple act of reading would have beaten most members of New York high society.
Featured Image Description: Close-up of a white lace dress
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