Downton Abbey has a whole new accent. In his new series The Gilded Age, Downton creator Julian Fellowes tackles 1880s New York, a period as aswirl with money (old and new), social-climbing and upstairs-downstairs drama as early 20th century England.
This was the era in which Caroline Astor invited the top 400 members of society to an annual ball, excluding the unfathomably wealthy Vanderbilts for the crime of being nouveau riche – delectable fodder for a class obsessive like Fellowes. But speaking about the show this weekend, Fellowes said he found it refreshing that Americans aren’t as concerned with class as the British. In the US, he explained, it’s all about success.
I’ve got news for Baron Fellowes of West Stafford: we may not have hereditary titles, but an obsession with high society in America is very much alive and kicking – you just need to know what you’re looking for.
“It’s a much more nuanced class system,” says British-American author Francesca Segal, whose debut novel, The Innocents, riffed on Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, transporting the New York class fable to north-west London. “And harder to discern those differences from the outside. But they are just as acutely felt from the inside.”
The key distinction is that, in the American upper classes, the money has been earned or generated rather than bequeathed by the Crown centuries ago. To Fellowes, even money passed down through 10 generations must seem “new”.
And then there’s the challenge of America’s size and lack of social cohesion. Are we talking about the cream of Boston society, scions of Californian agricultural dynasties, southern landowners, Texan oil zillionaires, Kentucky equestrian families or midwestern industrialists? The class markers differ – but they certainly exist.
Most literature on class in America focuses on the upper echelons of East Coast society. In the early 20th century, Wharton built her name as a chronicler of the Gilded Age. In The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, she applied her x-ray-like social analysis to the snobbery and savagery of the upper-class New York world in which she circulated.
That was more than a century ago. Anyone interested in an updated dissertation on American aristos can locate it in Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements. Over three days on the fictional New England island of Waskeke, the Van Meter family prepares for a wedding against a backdrop of high privilege (think lobster suppers and secretive member’s clubs). The Van Meters share a very British upper-class distaste for overtly new cars, clothes or home furnishings. They and their contemporaries could be parents of the rich kids in Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld’s debut novel, in which an outsider learns about class from within the exclusive Ault School.
Or you could just go on TikTok, where Christina Najjar, known as Tinx, rose to fame through her viral “Rich Mom Starter Packs”; deadpan videos in which the 31-year-old dissects the status symbols of elite women from Aspen (essentials: “a little $75 million house on Red Mountain”, dinner at Matsuhisa, a Brunello Cuccinelli coat) to Miami (sending your kids to Country Day, an account at The Webster, being on first-name-terms with the maitre’d at The Surf Club). Her videos are so popular that Gwyneth Paltrow guest-starred in one of them. Talk about upper-class icons.