The Gilded Age

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Downton Abbey, the astonishingly successful BBC television production which follows the changing lives of British Aristocracy and all of the staff of fictional Downton Abbey is in its fifth season.  Speculation has run amok about the future of season six, because Julian Fellowes has another series in the works, The Gilded Age.  For those of us who have grown to look forward to our weekly fix of a glimpse into the lives of the people at the turn of the last century this news causes high anxiety.  Before you look through your shelves for a nerve pill just take a deep breath and say OOoooohhhmmm.  The scripts for season six are ready to go into production.  Fellowes, though, has said he can’t run to series at the same time.  So, go ahead and send your mourning clothes to the cleaners; season six will be the last.

Truthfully, I didn’t know how they could make a season five.  It seemed as if at the end of season four everything had been said, but then new conversations started during season five as the Irish son-in-law headed off for America, Mary continued to be Mary, and the homely middle sister struggled to find a way to be part of her child’s life. 

What is the secret of the attraction of this show for Americans?  It certainly has surprised all of us.  It’s not just Anglophilia.  There has always been a substantial fragment of the American public which dotes on the Queen, follows the minute details of the lives of the Royals, and lives out some fantasy life vicariously.  The following of Downton Abbey is much larger than that segment. What seems more probable is that everyone wants some constancy in their lives.  The residents of Downton Abbey know the rules.  There were rules for the downstairs staff and rules for the residents upstairs.  Every time of day and every occasion required a certain dress.  Dressing required a valet or a maid who knew the exact items needed, had them immaculately cleaned and ironed and saw to it that everyone was properly attired.  Butlers, footmen, maids, valets, cooks, assistant cooks all had a place and that place had a hierarchy.  Dining required the right china, the right silver, the proper glasses; everything had order.

One’s first reaction might be one of disgust.  What a lot of fal-de-ral. The aristocrats were lazy fops.  The staff members were stupid to work for room and board and pittance.  What possible difference could it make whether you were called a valet or a footman?  Why would anyone do these things when they could go work in the city?  The simple fact was that there weren’t jobs for everyone, and jobs in a factory were much less desirable than those in the mansion

The aristocrats knew this.  They operated under a code that the French termed noblesse oblige; the obligation of nobility to provide work, and care for those who were needy. The obligation tended to end at the gate, but the sense of duty was there. There were strict rules governing everyone’s life.  Americans would chafe under all of those rules, but they like the order.  In reality the staff chafed at times.  Thomas Barrow, the secretly gay, scheming, backbiting under butler, is an example.  Placed in an untenable position by a society that not only would not accept him, but could execute him for his sexual proclivity, Tom endeavors to control the lives of others by threatening to use theri own dirty secrets against them.

Daisy, the assistant cook, wants to be her own person.  Stress on the fabric of their order is present everywhere. 

The stress that will eventually rend the fabric is embodied by Mister Bates.  John Bates occupies a strange place in the order. He walks with the use of a cane and is seen by the rest of the staff as unqualified for his job as personal attendant to Lord Grantham, but he fought in the Boer War alongside Lord Grantham.  Lord Grantham knows that it could just have easily been he who was wounded and walked with a limp.  He knows that in war he and Bates were reduced to equals, and they will both always know that.  The Great War brings this equality to an even greater view and following World War I things could never be the same again.

If we look at other series that have explored the society of late 19th and early 20th century Britain we can look at the series that ran for years, Upstairs, Downstairs.  This was also a very popular series that exploited this same yearning for order.

On the other extreme is Monarch of the Glen. If you have never seen an episode of this series you can find it on Netflix.  This is a comedy series set in a sort of post-apocalyptic castle in Scotland.  The Laird is an elderly man who likes a wee dram and lives in a dream world of what was.  His wife who seems doe eyed and clueless is actually quite aware of the castle’s predicament as it turns out.  The staff members speak with nearly unintelligible brogues at times, and work to keep their own little fiefdoms intact.  The tension revolves around the son, Archie McDonald, who has gone to London to make his way as a restauranteur, but is called back to straighten some mess out and never gets away. His love interest in London wants him back, Lexie, the cook has an attraction to him and Archie sort of blunders along irritated by the fact that he has some sense of responsibility and desire to pull the castle out of the hole, and, at the same time, would like to be unencumbered.

Julian Fellowes, plays the part of Kilwillie, the successful Laird across the loch.  The tension is related to the enduring obtuseness of Archie to the love interests of the women around him, and the world of the past that the Laird lives in and the present day situation of trying to keep bankers at bay.  All of the ventures – like turning the castle into a high class B&B – run into major snags. 

We laugh alongside the characters in Monarch of the Glen, but we don’t get as captivated because the orderliness of Downton Abbey it not there.  “Monarch” looks a little too much like modern day reality.

So, what will NBC’s The Gilded Age be like?  Personally, I find the robber barons of the gilded age reprehensible just as I do the present day robber barons on Wall Street.  There is no concept of noblesse oblige in America.  We don’t have an aristocracy.  We just have a small group of very wealthy and powerful families who have, for the most part, no sense of obligation to anyone.  So, how will Julian Fellowes make these characters likable?  That is the essence of any tale; there has to be something likable in even the worst characters.  If you saw the movie, No Country for Old Men, the character Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem, is a chillingly terrifying stone cold killer.  In one scene he is talking to the man he has come to kill and he admits that he has grown to like him, but… he said that he would kill him and he has no choice.  This dedication to his word is seen as the thing that you can like about his character.  I don’t know if that is enough.  Tony Soprano was given enough admirable traits to make people like him despite the character that he played.

I am waiting to see how the characters of the Gilded Age can be made likable.  I’m optimistic.  With Julian Fellowes as sole writer and executive producer there is a chance that we may be highly entertained.

Views: 165

Comment by koshersalaami on May 17, 2015 at 9:40am
You're right about the lack of noblesse oblige at this point.
Comment by JMac1949 Memories on May 17, 2015 at 11:15am

R&L :-(

Comment by Mary Lois Adshead on May 17, 2015 at 12:57pm

I find Downton Abbey extremely overrated and usually rather dull. I think the fascination was more for the actors (Maggie Smith in particular), the costumes, and the settings. Otherwise, just a soap opera about people I wouldn't want to spend time with. However, I've watched just about every episod, so that says something. I'm not sure what. (Maybe, I'm a hypocrite?) I do enjoy Mr. Selfridge, although I don't like those people either. I think it's an escape to a simpler, more elegant day and time. I'll give The Gilded Age a look, but like you, I do not admire the very rich of that era, and the very poor I find heartbreaking.

Comment by Anna Herrington on May 17, 2015 at 3:42pm

I really enjoy Downton Abbey - for me it's nothing to do with the wealth or the house, but the human dramas that play out, whether rich or poor, fancy costumes or no. The wealth is just a pretty backdrop, as far my own interest in the show.

As a former Costume design student, I do love the clothes, too - some of them - but that is beside the point in my watching - compared to the pure escapism I watch anything for.

Scandal, mayhem, frailties of character, coming of age, witty banter, nuances of expression, dialogue.....that's why I keep watching.

I found Monarch of the Glen not to my liking, but again, not because I found it too like today, but because I didn't relate to, or get into, any of the drama or dialogue,  or the characters themselves - they were missing the chemistry among the actors/characters that I find with Downton...

As for noblesse oblige, I'd agree if only looking at the state of our country and the big picture. or the news.

..and I don't know a ton of wealthy people.......and am not one myself....


The individuals/families I do know that have personal monetary wealth?

ALL of them live the dictum, 'To whom much is given, much is expected.'  All of them give generously, all of them are involved in their communities, all of them do care about other humans and the state of our country.

I also personally think it's just as narrow-minded and dangerous to say 'the rich' as it is to say 'the blacks' or 'the christians' or the 'the jews.'

.....not that I think your post says this, but I just hear it all the time so I feel a tiny vent coming on.... "Oh, it's the rich. Their fault. They all suck."  

Just like every other group, personally, they are individuals, and not ever going to be *accurately* judged solely by their umbrella label of 'rich.'

I enjoyed this post, Rodney - kind of curious about The Gilded Age, kind of not. I tend to only watch one or two show series at a time, can't seem to add in another until one of the originals stops. Maybe you'll let us know how you like it  : )

Comment by Anna Herrington on May 17, 2015 at 4:17pm

I've also noticed since I've begun writing novels (attempts, so far...), that as an introvert, I am most interested now in how other people relate, body language, dialogue, scheming in the background, desires.... and that form of writing began for me right when Downton began. Maybe partly why I like the large cast and varying human ways...

Comment by Rodney Roe on May 17, 2015 at 5:18pm

Anna, your comments about the wealthy are well taken.  There are no absolutes.  Warren Buffet has given most of his wealth away, apparently because he has been exceptional at making money but not much tempted by the money itself.  Many of the very wealthy have set up foundations.  John D. Rockefeller apparently created a foundation because his advisers told him that his reputation was so bad that he needed to do something to improve his public image.  I've noticed that many create foundations that serve something that they are interested in, 

I don't know any of the fabulously wealthy.  The daughter of a friend of mine married into one of them.  Jack's comment was, "You and I are comfortable, but we have no concept of having so much money that price is of no consideration."

Most of the wealthy seem to be conservatives, but not all. What I have noticed about my conservative friends it that they can be very concerned about the fortunes of friends, worrying that one of their neighbors was in such financial straits that they had to sell his multimillion dollar home at the lake.  They often care about animals more than people who need help because they judge the people as being able to avoid their situation, but animals don't have that ability.  But as I said, there are no absolutes.  The fact that people continually act in ways that i didn't expect makes people watching the pleasure that it is.

Comment by koshersalaami on May 17, 2015 at 7:15pm

The problem is not that the wealthy in general are bad people. The problem is that enough of them have lobbied powerfully enough to keep taxes on themselves very low, and they have so much wealth compared to the rest of the population, that the tax base cannot be made up by increasing taxes on the rest of the population because they literally don't have enough money collectively. The overwhelming majority of the country's money is at the top and if we don't tax where the money is, local governments can only stay afloat by preying on the poor, which is what happened in Ferguson that the Justice Department objected to. 

Comment by Rodney Roe on May 17, 2015 at 11:17pm

And the problem is that there is no longer a voice for those who are not part of the wealthy elite.  The wealthy have subverted the system of checks and balances in government that gave the general population a voice within the system.  Congress acts on behalf of the wealthy, and always has.  The executive branch has limited powers to act outside of the legislature, and the Justice system has been stacked to favor the wealthy as well.  The media which once shone light in the dark places that the wealthy didn't want to see exposed is now owned by a handful of the wealthy who want to create controversy and avoid resolution.  Fear and anxiety create readers/viewers/listeners. 

I understand the argument that people are not evil, their actions are.  Actions though occur as a result of moral values.  Greed is not good.

Comment by Mary Lois Adshead on May 18, 2015 at 3:26am

Rodney and Kosh, you both expressed the problem so well--better (or more clearly anyway) than I have seen it before. I keep telling my daughter (who is 52) that the pendulum is going to swing in the other direction one day, but year after year she sees it not happening and asks how it will ever happen. I am beginning to wonder myself.

Comment by Rodney Roe on May 18, 2015 at 5:01am

Mary Lois, that is the problem.  In the past there were pendulum swings from right to left.  At times the make-up of Congress was predominately liberal, at times we had liberal Supreme Courts.  Gerrymandering legislative districts has made it increasingly unlikely that we will have a predominately liberal Congress, and changing the make-up of the Supreme Court requires a liberal administration in place in the event of death or retirement of a justice. 

Students of history will know that the solutions to this wealth inequity and loss of a voice have been unpleasant, chaotic and have left the powerful struggling to regain power or destroyed.  The Civil Rights movement and the protests against the Vietnam war are examples of change that came at the cost of the death of innocent people.  The French revolution destroyed the monarchy, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, and cost the lives of thousands of those suspected of sympathizing with either government or the church.

I think that the elite become so apart from the rest of society that they live in their own little bubble of reality and are blindsided when these things happen.  Witness: "Let them eat cake."


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