5 Edith Wharton Books to Read After Watching The Gilded Age

Fabulous displays of wealth, high society scandals and power struggles at all levels fuel the opulent drama of HBO’s The Gilded AgeThe premiere of the show was Monday. Julian Fellowes is the show’s creator. Gosford ParkAnd the highly acclaimed historic series Downton Abbey, is a lavish period drama set in the 1880s—an era of rapid growth and change known as the Gilded Age.

The series centers on the introduction of a group of newcomers to New York City’s rigid high society, ranging from wide-eyed country ingénue Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), who moves in with her aunts (Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon), who belong to one of New York’s oldest and most wealthy families, to the nouveau riche Russell family, headed up by George, a ruthless railroad tycoon patriarch (Morgan Spector) and his even more ambitious wife Bertha (Carrie Coon), who’s determined to climb to the top of the social ladder.
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Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO—A scene from s1 of ‘The Gilded Age’

Fellowes has made it a profession of analyzing the tensions between downstairs and upstairs life. He also focuses on the diseases and drama of the wealthy. This American novelist is well-known for creating high-octane stories in high society. (Fellowes himself has cited Wharton’s works, The House of Mirth The Country CustomHis work was greatly influenced by them.

Wharton was first woman to be awarded a Pulitzer in Literature. The Age of Innocence The firsthand experiences with the social customs and hyper-specific accounts that are associated with luxury and scandal were invaluable. Born Edith Jones to a wealthy, old money family (Wharton’s paternal family is related to the Astor family and are rumored to be the “Joneses” in the idiom, “Keeping up with the Joneses,”), Wharton, like many of her heroines, faced challenges in living life on her own terms as a woman in a society ruled by rigid rules and morals. These challenges provided Wharton with rich writing material, allowing her to write books full of emotions, longings, and drama.

Keep that in mind. Here are five Wharton novels you can read after viewing the HBO new series.

Alison Cohen Rosa / HBO—A scene from s1 of ‘The Gilded Age’

The Age of Innocence

You can find the Age of InnocenceTwo star-crossed lovers are separated by social rules and family responsibility over three decades (1920). Newland Archer, a wealthy lawyer and one of New York’s most eligible bachelors, is set to marry May Welland, an innocent girl from one of society’s top families. However, their soon-to-be marital bliss is disrupted by the arrival of May’s gorgeous and exotic cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, who has left her cruel husband, who is a Polish count. Newland eventually falls for Ellen and begins a long, lustful relationship.

The Custom of the Country

Neither low social standing or hapless partners can deter Undine Spragg, an ambitious young woman from the Midwest, from climbing New York City’s social ladder in Wharton’s The Country Custom (1913). In the novel, Spragg, navigates the rigid rules of high society, learning that her family’s newfound wealth doesn’t quite stack up to an old, blue blood social pedigree. While she cycles through husbands, affairs, Undine soon discovers that an old flame who’s just as ambitious and unconnected as her may be her best match in the end.

Alison Cohen Rosa / HBO—A scene from s1 of ‘The Gilded Age’

The House of Mirth

Wharton’s sharpest critique of how hostile high society could be to a woman, in spite of her social standing or wealth is her 1905 novel, The House of Mirth. Centering on the tragic tale of Lily Bart, a winsome and well-born, but financially struggling young woman who is wrecked by the stringent social mores and cruel slights of New York City’s high society. As Lily grows older and prospects of marriage to a wealthy and well-connected man begin to wane, she survives on wit and the hope of a life with more freedom—but in the end, the world as she knows it grows smaller and smaller, until she runs out of options for a viable future.

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The Reef

The Reef The story of Anna Leath (1912) centers around a romantic relationship between George Darrow, an American diplomat, and her ex-fiancée, Anna Leath. The affair is complicated when Darrow begins a secret liaison with a young woman named Sophy, who he later finds out is not only Anna’s daughter’s governess, but is also engaged to be married to Anna’s stepson, Owen.

Alison Cohen Rosa / HBO—A scene from s1 of ‘The Gilded Age’A scene from s1 of ‘The Gilded Age’


Summer(1917), Charity Royall (a young woman with low birth) is seduced by Lucius Harney who visits her New England small town this summer. Lucius moves into the home of Charity’s guardian, Lawyer Royall, a widower who lusts for Charity. After Lucius and Charity begin an affair, she hopes for a marriage to him that will bring her love and a ticket out of town, but Lucius’ fickle affection and a life-altering event will change the course of Charity’s future forever.


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