The Gilded Age Isn’t a Downton Abbey Prequel (But May As Well Be)

Squint though at episode one, and you’ll soon start to see the old characters, disguised under new identities and accents. Agnes, with her pursed lips and impossible standards, is the Dowager Countess; her dippy, softer-hearted sister Ada (played by Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon) is progressive Isobel Crawley; below stairs, there’s a scheming lady’s maid with her sights set on Mr Russell as a combination of O’Brien and Edna; there’s a closeted Thomas Barrow, a rule-bending, firebrand Lady Sybil, and a beloved dog (though this one’s named Pumpkin and not Isis – a name wisely chosen for its unlikelihood of being made famous by an international terrorist group midway through the series airing).

The Gilded Age isn’t Cora and Robert: the Debutante Years, then, but it’s not different enough that if fans wish to pretend that George and Bertha’s teenage daughter Gladys (played by American Horror Story’s Taissa Farmiga) is a young Cora Levinson, there’s anything much to stop them. Both the Russells and the Levinsons are fictional families inspired by America’s real-life spenny arrivistes the Vanderbilts, Leiters, Rothchilds and so on. The palatial home they have built on the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 61st Street to much discussion in episode one is likely inspired by the Vanderbilts’ real-life mansion on West 57th Street, or perhaps the Andrew Carnegie Mansion on Fifth and East 91st Street. Fellowes’ worlds are fictionalised, but peppered by the odd real historical figure. (In the first Downton Abbey film, King George V and Queen Mary come to visit, while The Gilded Age features the Astors, a Roosevelt, architect Stanford White, and others…).

As the story goes, Downton Abbey’s Cora Levinson made her debut in London society in 1888 at the behest of her pushy mother Martha (played by Shirley MacLaine – one of the few actors able to go toe-to-toe with Dame Maggie Smith as Violet and come out with the advantage). Cora was married to Robert Crawley, the 7th Earl of Grantham, whose estate was greatly in need of a cash injection. A dry goods heiress (so named for her father’s line of work, not the fact that she failed to produce a male heir), Cora’s fortune was entailed to the Grantham estate, protecting the Earldom for generations to come. Gratitude though was hardly forthcoming, and in early twentieth century England, Cora’s family faced the same prejudices that the Russells tackled three decades earlier across the water.

(The new drama does touch upon prejudice it’s easier to give a fig about in the story of Peggy, a young Black woman who aspires to become a writer, but as ever, this show’s concern with lives outside the moneyed classes only runs flan-deep.)

It’s no official prequel then, but it absolutely exists in the same universe, with the same themes, the same class snobbery, the same character types, and even some of the same lines (prepare to hear variations on “the times are changing/but not fast enough for me/you/my new valet” before and after most ad breaks. The good news for Downton Abbey fans is that the times, and almost everything else, have very much not changed with this one. It’s exactly the confection of gowns, chandeliers, gossip, mild scandal and weird old class shit that we all lapped up the first time around. See you at the ball.

The Gilded Age airs on HBO from January 24th in the US and on Sky Atlantic from January 25th in the UK.


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