Writing the 21st Century Period Drama
On Julian Fellowes' upcoming HBO period drama, The Gilded Age
If you’ve followed Edwardian Promenade for a while, you know that the blog has always drawn readers into the similar social changes and society on the US side of the Atlantic. Back when I was much, much more active as a history blogger, I was mostly interested in contextualizing my favorite Edith Wharton novels and the world in which American Dollar Heiresses sprang from. Alongside this, I was also blogging about African Americans in the Gilded Age, but—wrongly—seeing it as a slightly separate history.
One of the many things that I appreciate about pursuing my doctorate degree is how it has pushed my thinking about history, sources, and context. And also the way that contemporary moments can and have shaped how writers have interpreted the past. In the time between The Gilded Age’s conception in 2012 and debut ten years later in 2022, I can’t help but wonder if Julian Fellowes also found himself pushed—or being pushed—beyond his initial thinking about the time period.
Towards the end of Downton Abbey, he attempted to be inclusive and acknowledge that not only did Downton Abbey have a significant American fanbase, but it had a robust African American fanbase (I remember his niece Jessica Fellowes commenting on how diverse audiences were when she toured the US for one of her companion books).
The character of Jack Ross (Gary Carr), an American jazz musician, was introduced in season 4, and the writing was slightly clumsy in not disrupting the fantasy aspects of the show while also not ignoring that 1920s English society was prejudiced and bigoted. (As an aside, something must have been in the water, because that same year the BBC aired Dancing On The Edge, about a Black jazz band getting swept into British high society. The final season of Mr. Selfridge introduced a significant Black character in Tilly Brockless, a seamstress and aspiring designer at Selfridges, who befriends the daughter of the store manager).
The iteration we see of The Gilded Age now seems noticeably different from Fellowes’ chatting about his ideas in 2012 and a couple of years later in 2016 and 2018. The cast doesn’t merely include a lead Black character (Denée Benton as Peggy Scott), but the trailer points at a robust interior life of Black New Yorkers, especially with the inclusion of T. Thomas Fortune.
Fortune was the editor of The New York Age, a civil rights activist, and was one of the pivotal influences on what later became the NAACP. The choice to use Fortune and not create a fictional Black newspaper editor is a choice: Fortune was very radical and didn’t mince words with Republican or Democratic politicians when it came to voting, Black rights, and anti-lynching. His editorials gained him the reputation as a brutally honest intellectual who was unafraid to say the things that others wouldn’t. The New York Age is where Ida B. Wells further honed her pen after angry white mobs ran her out of Memphis, Tennessee and destroyed her newspaper for daring to challenge the false reasons for lynching Black men.
More contemporary forays into period dramas set during the Gilded Age followed the general idea that the past was white—Scorsese’s adaptation of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1993); 1997’s Washington Square (adaptation of a Henry James novel); The House of Mirth (2001), another adaptation of Wharton; Portrait of a Lady (1996) yet another James adaptation, and another James and Wharton—The Bostonians (1984) and The Buccaneers (1995), etc etc. 1981’s Ragtime—starring Downton’s own Elizabeth McGovern as Evelyn Nesbit—included a substantial plot related to Black life at the turn of the century, but this is just one movie. For all that diversity and multi-ethnic stories are championed in today’s entertainment, the period drama (and historical fiction/romance/mystery, and historical costuming and interpretation, and the vintage fashion community) is the last bastion for inclusivity. Miss Lambe in Jane Austen’s Sanditon is canon, but I do recall seeing some grumbling over her expanded role in the PBS adaptation of the unfinished novel. And I already touched upon the initial resistance to the race-bending of main characters in Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series.
In my position as a curator and as a writer of historical fiction, I grapple almost daily with questions around interpretation, audience(s), entertainment, and education. When Downton Abbey premiered in fall 2010, a lot of us—myself included—weren’t quite there yet. Twelve years later, will Julian Fellowes prove himself to have done so—and more importantly, are audiences better able to imagine and envision a larger, more inclusive picture of time periods they thought they knew?
Read more about Gilded Age America on Edwardian Promenade:
The Party, The Pie, and the Girl Who Brought Down a Gilded Age Tycoon
The Gilded Age premieres on HBO on January 24, 2022. Watch the trailer now: