Julian Fellowes has decided to dedicate himself to the rich universe known as “the Gilded Age” to use it as the basis for his HBO Max series, but he is neither the first nor the only one to address this stifling, hypocritical and unfair period of society, especially for women. Friends and award-winning writers Edith Wharton and Henry James wrote classics of literature about this period and obviously, their books inspired The Gilded Age, the series.
As many characters are based on real-life people, others, like Marian Brook, aren’t, however she is very much alike to the heroines of the “period drama books”, that many people love so much. I know I do. So it’s easy to spot the red flags all over.
She wants to rebel, but doesn’t have the means to do it
Marian Brook is one of the protagonists of The Gilded Age. The story begins with her when she is told of her poverty and the need to submit and live with her aunts in New York. That’s when she first meets Tom Raikes, her father’s lawyer, and he clearly has an interest in her, but nothing that she reciprocates at her time of pain. They go their separate ways.
A few months later, Tom visits her in New York, announces that he is moving to the city, and openly begins to court her. Her aunt, Agnes, warns Marian that the lawyer is an adventurer not worth considering, but the girl, who seems determined to oppose anything her conventional guardian says, takes an interest in him now.
Tom is almost a stalker, he’s always around, and even without Marian, he’s already starting to circulate among people of influence. EVERYONE is surprised at how quickly it’s going up, except Marian, who is in awe. We know this girl all too well, she is like Daisy Miller, Lily Bart, or Isabel Archer. What do they have in common? TRAGEDY!
I have suspected that Marian would be like the heiress in The Washington Square, one of the most beautiful novels by Henry James, who also wrote The Portrait of a Lady. He was inspired by true stories to write both books. Now I suspect that another famous work, by Edith Wharton, may also be the narrative for Marian Brook in The Gilded Age. Neither have a happy ending.
Lily, Catherine, Isabel… all rebels that paid the price
The House of Mirth deceives those who believe in the title. Written by Edith Wharton in 1905, the book tells the tragic story of Lily Bart, a woman with a surname but no fortune, who has to marry a wealthy man to maintain her status in society.
The issue remains that she loves her freedom and later secretly loves a lawyer, Lawrence Selden, but as he is poor, he is considered unsuitable for marriage.
We read as he ascends at the same rate as Lily declines, to the point where she ends her days as a beggar, friendless and on the fringes of society. The book is beautiful and sad, and it worries me a lot when I see the parallels between Lily/Marian and Tom/Selden.
Lily, like Marian, makes minor errors in judgment and “exposes herself” to the moralistic precepts of the time. For example, Marian, found herself in a hotel alone with Tom, who clearly expected to spend the night with her and even steals a kiss, only to be interrupted by Peggy. He knew the risk was solely on Marian, not him. And yet, she seems oblivious of that.
In The House of Mirth, Lily is approached by married, despicable, or dull men, but does not consider marrying Lawrence because she enjoys the luxurious life he cannot (yet) provide. To her shock, she accidentally discovers that the lawyer is the lover of her friend Bertha Dorset, but to protect him, she refuses to reveal the affair. Bertha, who doesn’t have the same integrity and resents her lover leaving her, takes revenge by turning the tables on Lily by ending her friend’s reputation. The story has more twists than that, but the result is that Lily loses her friends, her aunt’s protection, goes into debt, and ends up dying intact, but alone. Moreover, she chooses to protect Selden’s secret without regard to her own reputation. The book was adapted for film 22 years ago, with Gillian Anderson in the role of Lily Bart.
While Marian seems a lot like Lily, Tom seems more a mixture of Selden and Morris Townsend, from The Washington Square. Henry James created the sad story of Catherine Sloper in 1880, from the true account of the brother of a friend, actress Fanny Kemble. Fanny was concerned about a young and dull rich girl who fell for her ambitious brother and advised her against her own kin along with the girl’s father. Something that Fanny said in regards to her brother not being shaped to support his wife without her money stuck with the writer, and that’s what Agnes has already mentioned to Marian.
The plain fictitious Catherine is heir to a great fortune but is controlled by her father, a psychologically abusive, who highlights his daughter’s “flaws” and scares suitors. All – in his view – only with an eye on the fortune that one day will be his daughter’s. Catherine meets young Morris Townsend, with whom she falls in love and dreams of marrying. The couple faces the father’s opposition, and, in a malicious move, Catherine will be disowned if she gets married. To her surprise, by hearing this Morris “sacrifices” their engagement “because he truly loves her” and leaves Catherine to be humiliated by her father. Years later, when she finally owns all her fortune, Morris reappears, but by then Catherine already recognizes that he only wanted her money and doesn’t accept her former boyfriend’s apology, preferring to spend her life alone. The film version of 1949 gave Olivia de Havilland an Oscar.
Like Catherine, Marian has been warned multiple times to pay attention to the true interests of suitors, but, unlike Catherine, Marian is not to be wealthy. Still, as long as she is with her aunts, she is not to do badly either. So far she’s been unlucky in regards to candidates: the one her aunt picked is secretly her cousin’s lover. Her cousin is off-limits for being blood-related, and aunt Agnes will not hear about the Russells as a possibility. So there’s Tom, who is not rich.
Tom, like Morris, presents himself as a working man, with big dreams, and says to be in love with Marian, even moving to New York to be near her. However, Tom, unlike Morris (but similar to Selden), so far at least disguises his appreciation for the life of luxury. Marian has already warned him that wealth, for both, can be fleeting, but he seems to be enjoying himself too much to listen. Will he stick around with Marian if a better prospect comes along?
What do you think?