In 2012, riding high on the success of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes told a crowd at Bafta that he was considering writing a prequel. The spin-off would be about ladder-climbing yanks trying to pay their way into the sniffy social elite, and feature a young Lord and Lady Grantham. He, a fresh-faced toff weighted by ancestral burden, she a US debutante with a daddy as riche as Croesus but in the undesirable nouveau way. The prequel would dramatise “the courtship of Robert and Cora, when all those American heiresses were arriving in London – the Buccaneers, as they were called.”
There were doubtless ruder nicknames, but ‘Buccaneers’, as Edith Wharton styled them in her 1870s-set novel of the same name, and ‘Dollar Princesses’ were the popular terms for the moneyed Americans who were married off into British nobility. Both parties got something from the deal. Old titles met new money in a contract that meant English castles could finally afford to repair their leaking roofs while heiresses could call themselves Lady Somesuch and invite the British ruling classes over to murder pheasants. Win-win, except for the pheasants.
Fellowes’ prequel never arrived, but almost a decade later, he’s back with a different story of ladder-climbing yanks trying to pay their way into the sniffy social elite. The Gilded Age follows railway millionaires the Russells, and their attempts to be received by the crepey white hands of 1880s New York City society. Carrie Coon (The Leftovers, Fargo) plays aspirant socialite Bertha Russell, a woman who plans to throw as many lobsters and diamonds as her husband can afford (so, all of them) at the social edifice until it cracks. Christine Baranski plays the enjoyably snooty Agnes van Rhijn, a defender of the old ways who’ll be damned before she’ll allow her tacky nobody neighbours across the threshold.
The Gilded Age is a new story unrelated to Downton Abbey. (A Russell Family did own Haxby Park in the earlier show, but as the Crawleys’ neighbours for centuries, they were ensconced in the English upper classes so have nothing to do with this American lot.) It’s set on a different continent, 30-odd years before the age of Mrs Patmore’s puddings, during what would have been Lady Cora’s adolescence. There’s no Cora, no Robert, no Violet, no Isobel, no Anna and no Bates… officially at least.
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.