After months of speculation, theories and confabulations, we concluded the first season of The Gilded Age with few certainties. The worst or least surprising of them is the profile of Tom Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel) who emerged as a young and passionate lawyer who ended up being seduced by money and power, abandoning his love object, Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) with a heartbreak.
The version presented by the series wants to somehow convince us that Tom’s feelings were genuine, that he doesn’t hide any secrets from Marian, and that he was just susceptible to the charms and dangers of an effervescent New York. “I believe in you,” Marian says and still stands as the only one. Only showrunner Julian Fellowes share sympathy.
“At the beginning, she was a breath of fresh air. She was going to New York, where he’d always wanted to live and work. Suddenly, she’s stimulated that ambition that made him do it after delaying it for years. He’s in love with her from an early stage, and he has every intention of becoming a New York lawyer and marrying this lovely girl and having a nice life. Then the girl Sissy comes along, and he suddenly realizes that actually, he has a choice. If he wants this way of life, he can have it. That is very hard for him. I’m not entirely without sympathy. In the end he’s morally weak, and he’s not prepared to ride it out. But it’s tough, the decision he has to make, and I can think of plenty of people who would be similarly weak in the face of it”, he said to Entertainment Weekly.
So in nine episodes, Tom Raikes leaves Doylestown and becomes a highly sought-after bachelor in New York, with a possible engagement to be announced to Ms. Bingham. After chasing Marian like a hawk, threatening her reputation in all the most disrespectful ways, and convincing her against her aunts, Tom dumped Marian at the house of the most talked-about woman in town on the day they agreed to get married. Marian was “saved” because there is sisterhood and women ignored social rules to protect her, but this only increases our resentment towards him. When – and we can bet we’ll see it happen – Marian finds herself rich, Tom will look for her again, but at this point, I hope if there’s any drama it’s for the love of Larry Russell (Harry Richardson).
Of well-known villains in literature, Tom Raikes then confirmed himself as the updated version of Morris Townsend, the irresponsible young man who accelerated the unhappiness of the young lady from The Washington Square (or The Heiress), Catherine Sloper. Honestly, I’m relieved because if he were Osmond from The Portrait of a Lady it would be worse.
In the book, play, and film, Morris Townsend is introduced to Catherine at a party, where he becomes the only one to talk and dance with her. He overcomes the girl’s distrust with the support of her aunt Lavinia and seems outward to like Catherine. No one doubts the part of the fortune she will inherit as one of the great elements that help to bring interest, but he seems affectionate and interested, so women “accept” him as something genuine.
Catherine’s father, on the other hand, takes offense. For him, in addition to obvious interest, all attention and consideration will go out the window once Morris gains control of the fortune, something his husband did in those days. For this reason, it creates insurmountable obstacles for the couple, testing their love. Catherine, in love, faces him believing that they will have the power together to reverse the situation, but her father knew better the male spirit.
There is a division among readers who, while aware of Morris’ weakness, discuss his feelings. By giving up Catherine, he says he loves her so much that he can’t see her in need for him. However, shortly before, we had contact with his sister who testified against his character, revealing that Morris never wanted to work or settle for what he had, dreaming big and luxury above all. We see him leaving saying that he will return to conquer Catherine equally. Of course, he doesn’t. When he returns, she is already alone and rich, but by then she no longer believes in the vows of love that once eluded her. She prefers to end her days alone.
In the movies, Montogomery Clift and later Ben Chaplin gave strong interpretations of Morris Townsend (most recently Dan Stevens played him on stage alongside Jessica Chastain). Both highlighted the “flaws” of Henry James‘ character, who introduces us to the young man in his 30s, cousin of Marian Almond’s fiancé, who is, in turn, Catherine’s cousin. Described as a man of undeniable beauty, the young and inexperienced heiress soon falls in love. What little we know of him is that while the Townsend family is respected, he is from the poor wing and Morris has spent his inheritance in a few years, traveling the world and enjoying luxuries. He admits he enjoys the material life he will have with Catherine, but it’s the extent to which their love is genuine or not that is in doubt.
“He’s not what I call a gentleman. He doesn’t have the soul of one. He is extremely ingratiating, but it is a vulgar nature. I saw through him in a minute. He’s very familiar – I hate familiarity,” describes Catherine’s father. Perfect for our Tom Raikes too.
Including this dialogue from the book, which is very reminiscent of what he said to Marian when he first declared himself:
“And so you mean I’m a mercenary – I just want your daughter’s money.”
“I don’t say that. I am not obliged to say so; and to say so, save under the stress of compulsion, would be in very bad taste. I simply say that you belong to the wrong category.”
“But your daughter doesn’t marry a class,” urged Townsend, with his beautiful smile. “She marries an individual – an individual that she is so good as to say she loves.”
“An individual who offers so little in return!”
“Is it possible to offer more than the tenderest affection and a lifelong devotion?” the young man demanded.
“It depends on how we look at it. It is possible to offer some other things in addition to that, and not only is it possible, but it is also usual. A lifelong devotion is measured after the fact; and in the meantime it is customary in these cases to give some material guarantees. Which one are yours? A very pretty face and figure, and a very good manner. They’re great as far as they go, but they don’t go far enough.”
So Tom Raikes revealed his true face, just in time for Marian to avoid destroyind her life. However, she now relies on Ms. Chamberlain’s sworn secrecy. And we have our dear Larry offering a friendly shoulder. Can we hope better for Marian in season two?