High hats and tails. Long, flowing gowns. Horse-drawn carriages rolling through immaculate cobblestone streets. Butlers waiting to open front doors. Maids picking up the detritus from a day’s outing. Oh, this beautiful, gilded life. Who wouldn’t want to be among the one percent?

This is the viewpoint the HBO show “The Gilded Age” takes, according to Ashley Reed, an associate professor in the Virginia Tech Department of English who studies U.S. literature and religion of the 19th century. But there is more to be gleaned and contemplated from the series than just the drama of the rich and powerful in New York City during the late 1880s. The show tackles social class and race relations along with the powerful partnerships between men and women.

Reed’s favorite character is Peggy Scott, a young Black woman with aspirations to become a writer. At the start of the show, Scott returns to her parents’ home in Brooklyn after being educated at the Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth. This was a real institution and is now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, a fact, Reed says, that adds validity to the writing.

Reed appreciates how “The Gilded Age” confronts the theme of diversity through Scott’s character and illustrates the mistakes of making stereotypical assumptions. This is especially prevalent with the relationship between Scott and Marian Brook, the niece of a wealthy New York family who moves to the city to live with her aunts. 

“The relationship is very interesting because Marian seems to think that they’re buddies and drags Peggy into all sorts of inappropriate situations,” Reed said. “At one point Marian takes Peggy into a store and all the employees stare rudely at Peggy. Marian is completely oblivious to this because she doesn’t understand race relations in New York. She keeps putting Peggy in these awkward and possibly dangerous scenarios.”

Then Reed describes how Brook’s naivete escalates during an unannounced visit to Scott’s home. 

“When Marian arrives without an invitation, which is very rude, she assumes that because she’s white and Peggy’s Black, she’ll be welcome there,” Reed said. “And Marian brings a pair of old shoes in a carpet bag as a gift, assuming that because Peggy’s family is Black, they are objects of charity, and that they will welcome these castoff shoes. And although a little too late, she discovers that Peggy’s family is middle class. They do not need Marian’s help to thrive.”

Scott’s well-off family lives in a brownstone, comparable to today’s middle-class. Scott’s father is a pharmacist, and her mother is a pianist. 

Reed, who has a PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, conducts research on women writers of the 19th century. Perhaps this is why Scott’s character resonates for her. With Scott’s goal to become a writer, Reed sees characteristics of two historical figures within her — Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, a journalist and early leader in the civil rights movement, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a poet, essayist, abolitionist, and suffragist. Wells-Barnett earned her reputation by writing about lynchings and other crimes against Black people; Harper’s success as a writer and lecturer enabled her to help underwrite the Underground Railroad.

Reed believes the inspiration for “The Gilded Age” stems from works by Henry James and Edith Wharton. Although the series is not specifically based on any one novel, Reed thinks it most resembles Wharton’s 1905 “House of Mirth.” 

“The thing about Edith Wharton’s novels is that she was born into wealthy New York society and could see what was behind it,” Reed said. “She could see through the wealth, glamour, and glitz to the real economic and social insecurity. She was able to simultaneously dazzle you with detailed descriptions of society, dresses, furniture, and architecture, while at the same time encompassing the backbiting, the competition, and the way that all rested upon stock market speculation and wealth extraction, including wage and labor exploitation. 

“The great fortunes of the late 19th century were based on exploiting and underpaying millions of people in the United States. And the ability to capture all this is what’s so brilliant about Edith Wharton’s novels. I wish ‘The Gilded Age’ would show more of this history.”

This broad view is more in line with how Reed teaches topics set in the period. “The Gilded Age” term was first used as a title for a novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, published in 1873. A scathing satire on the issues of day, the title was a joke.

“It wasn’t a golden age,” Reed said. “It was a gilded age. This is what I teach my students. It looked pretty on the surface, but if you scratched it, you saw poverty, corruption, discrimination, violence, and imperialism under a thin veneer of wealth and distinction. And the show seems much more concerned with the wealth and distinction part than it is with the issues that concerned Twain and Warner.”

But with the show’s main interest in the lives of wealthy old families and the nouveau riche, Reed finds another underlying theme of importance.

“There’s no clear distinction between social, political, and economic life or decision-making,” she said. “And that means women are very much in the thick of political and economic matters, not only because their lives are affected by them, but because the social spheres in which politics and economics happen are controlled largely by women. 

“That’s one of the things the show does really well and has correctly intuited — the idea that you cannot put women and men in separate categories. You can’t say women do society and men do politics and economics. Those things can’t predictably be extracted from one another. And women have crucial roles to play in political and social decisions.”

And although these are the quiet underpinnings of “The Gilded Age,” Reed said there are many themes and conversations this show can bring to light. 

Written by Leslie King