6 historical fiction books for fans of “The Gilded Age”


After a successful first season of HBO Golden age, many are thirsty for other stories from this not too distant past. This is Downton Abbey off-season again – no surprise given the shows share a creator. While there are plenty of non-fiction titles to explore the lives of the names dropped in the series, the titles below examine the partially true or entirely fictional stories of women, money, and (mostly) power towards the end of the 19th century.

When building this list, I’ve started to stick to books that are set right in what’s considered the Golden Age, so a strict 1870 to 1900. However, there are some significant issues with that. . The Golden Age is superimposed on the Reconstruction, and these two moments are significantly linked. After all, where does much of the “old money” come from, directly or indirectly? (If you answered “slavery and genocide,” you’d be right.) The progressive era is often understood in tandem (1890s to 1917/WWI) for various reasons.

These complications in how stories begin and end (and how stories “matter”) limit the scope of narratives that could make this list based on theme, class, etc. With that, here are six novels set in and around the Golden Age from various settings and perspectives:

The most beautiful girl in Cuba by Chanel Cleeton

The most beautiful girl in Cuba by Chanel Cleeton.  Image: Berkley Books.
(Berkely Books)

As the press war rages between the giants of the press Randolph William Hearst (yes, THAT Hearst) and Joseph Pulitzer (yes, CE Pulitzer), Grace Harrington landed a writing job in 1896 and got a revolutionary scoop from Cuba involving 18-year-old Evangelina Cisneros. The story focuses on both Spain’s and the United States’ imperialist plans for Cuba (although this extends well into Asia) and highlights the beginning of “yellow journalism” and the lives of real women like Evangelina.

The girl downstairs by Stacey Lee

Stacey Lee's bottom girl.  Picture: Turtle.

Seventeen-year-old Chinese-American Jo Kuan has very little to celebrate in her life. Although she likes to create beautiful tracery at the hat store, she cannot become an American citizen or even afford to rent a real room in Atlanta. To save a diary related to her current living situation, she secretly starts an advice column called “Dear Miss Sweetie”. Overnight success means big business, until she pushes back against gender discrimination and promotes segregation. This escalates into a trip to find her parents and also puts her in the crosshairs of Atlanta’s biggest crime boss. This historical YA drama explores the societal tensions of the 1980s New South.

The farewell drink by Gina Marie Guadagnino

Gina Marie Guadagnino's farewell glass.  Image: Washington Square Press.
(Washington Square Press)

Similar to Downton Abbey, Guadagnino’s novel follows the very rich and the very poor, but this time those lives are in 1830s New York. Charlotte Walden, a belle of New York high society, and Mary Ballard, her maid, live a double life. Seeking refuge from the pressures of high society, Charlotte begins an affair with a stable groom (aka stable boy). On Mary’s nights off, she drinks from the arms of a sex worker and reckon with her precarious social stability as she hides her identity as an Irish exile. Those times when Charlotte and Mary take a break from waiting and polite society begin to overlap in unexpected and dangerous ways.

Although set three decades before The Gilded Age, this story provides a backdrop to upper-class women and struggling Irish immigrants. The women in this novel would mirror the backgrounds of certain elders in later decades.

Carolina built by Kianna Alexander

Caroline Built by Kianna Alexander.  Image: Gallery Books.
(Book Gallery)

As The most beautiful girl in Cuba, Alexandre’s novel features real people and real names. This fictional biography tells the story of Josephine Leary, from her emancipation in 1865 to her transformation into one of North Carolina’s most powerful estate holders. Alexander uses both languages ​​from that time and expressions from today. It may distract some, but it also brings Leary to life because it’s a story first. While taking place in the south, the majority of the story takes place during the Golden Age era and shows a rising class of black elites, much like the HBO show.

The Society of Fifth Avenue Artists by Joy Callaway

The Society of Fifth Avenue Artists by Joy Callaway.  Image: Harper Paperbacks.)
(Harper Paperbacks)

Growing up with a large family of sisters in poverty, Bronx-based Virginia Loftin knows she’s not supposed to dream big. Yet she dreams every day of becoming a famous novelist and that the boy next door wins. After he proposes to another, Virginia turns to write and rewrite her version of a HEA. On an 1891 trip to a salon in the more affluent part of town, in which other artists (and men) took an interest in her, Virginia saw an opportunity to make her way.

Opium and Absinthe by Lydia Kang

Opium and Absinthe by Lydia Kang.  Image: Lake Union Publishing.
(Lake Union Publishing)

Tillie Pembroke finds her sister dead with two puncture wounds to her neck and drained of blood. Two years have passed since the 1897 publication of Bram Stocker’s Dracula. Obsessed with uncovering the truth, trying to keep her imagination from running wild and nursing a recent neck injury, Tillie takes more and more laudanum. This results in Tillie becoming increasingly paranoid about those around her and her friends in New York.

(picture: HBO)

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