Importance of a woman in marriage
“It’s a curious thing, Duchess, about the game of marriage – a game, by the way, that is going out of fashion – the wives hold all the honours, and invariably lose the odd trick”.
The play ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ by Oscar Wilde presents a window into the minds and manners of the upper-class Victorian society of London. He satirizes the hypocrisy which underlies the day-to-day behaviour of the so-called aristocrats, and wittily mocks at their shallow morals and beliefs, especially those pertaining to marriage. In Victorian society, women were treated as the ‘weaker vessel’ that had to be cared and provided for by men, first her father and then her husband. However, Wilde shows us how different characters hold different views towards marriage. The men treat it like a game and talk about it in a trivial manner. For example, in the above dialogue by Lord Darlington in the first Act, Darlington calls marriage a game, and later on refers to the ‘modern husband’ as the ‘odd trick’ which the wives lose though they hold ‘all the honours’. His comment is mirrored by Cecil Graham’s dialogue in the next act: “By the way Tuppy, which is it? Have you been twice married and once divorced, or twice divorced and once married? I say you’ve been twice divorced and once married. It seems so much more probable”. The fact that neither Lord Augustus nor Tuppy can remember the facts shows how inconsequential he considers marriage and divorce to be.
Wilde provides us an insight into all aspects of marriage. The first step is the courting period or the period of young love. Lady Agatha Carlisle has reached marriageable age and her mother the Duchess of Berwick is highly intent on making a good match for her. She wishes to ensnare Mr. Hopper, the son of a rich Australian business entrepreneur, and someone whom she describes as a person whom “people are taking such notice of just at present”. This shows that for the Duchess of Berwick, Mr. Hopper’s social fame and status is just as important if not more as his financial position. She says, “I think he’s attracted by dear Agatha’s clever talk”. The readers, however, know that Agatha is a shy, docile, obedient and soft-spoken girl, and says little else apart from, “Yes, mamma”. In Act II, the duchess tries to pass off Agatha as a lucrative wife by exaggerating about her capabilities and trying to make her look clever, “Mind you take great care of my little chatterbox, Mr. Hopper” and “Agatha has found it on the map”. She manipulates circumstances in order to allow the young man to propose, “You have kept those five dances for him, Agatha?” and “The last two dances you might pass on the terrace with Mr. Hopper”.
By the end of the same act she accomplishes her mission, and now starts scheming in order to prevent the couple from moving to Australia, “I think on the whole that Grosvenor Square would be a healthier place to reside. There are lots of vulgar people live in Grosvenor Square, but at any rate there are no horrid kangaroos crawling about”, though previously she had pretended to be fascinated by the place: “It must be so pretty with all the dear little kangaroos flying about”. She mentions her success to Lady Windermere: “Love – well not love at first sight, but love at the end of the season, which is so much more satisfactory”.
The next stage in marriage is the marriage of early years, like that of Margaret Windermere and Arthur Windermere. They have been happily married for two years, have produced an heir and keep no secrets from each other. Their love is so strong and potent that Lady Windermere finds it hard to believe that her husband could ever be unfaithful to her, when the Duchess of Berwick informs her as ‘a well-wisher’ about her husband’s supposed affair with the notorious Mrs. Erlynne, “Duchess, Duchess it is impossible! We are only married two years. Our child is but six months old”. Their marriage is unusual in an era when most men and women married for better economic or social prospects than any real love. However, by the end of the play their marriage has changed. They are now keeping secrets from each other in order to stabilise their relationship.
An example of marriage in later years is that of the Duchess of Berwick. She has no illusions in life and knows perfectly well that her husband is a Don Juan: “Before the year was out, he running after all kinds of petticoats, every colour, every shape, every material”. She does not take his aberrations seriously because he believes this to be normal for men. She answers Lady Windermere’s query as to whether all men are bad: “Oh, all of them, my dear, all of them, without any exception”. Thus the readers learn that in Victorian society, a man had a legal wife who managed his household and produced legal heirs, and also a so-called woman friend. But this is not unexpected, and the husband always returns to his wife, “slightly damaged, of course”. Wives in turn nag and chivvy them from time to time, “just to remind them that we have a perfectly legal right to do so”.
The last type of marriage is that of a marriage of bondage, like that of Mrs. Erlynne. Mrs. Erlynne is an infamous woman with not one past, but “at least a dozen, and that they are all fit”. She is seductive and blatantly flirts with all men in order to show her superiority to them. Very little is told about Mrs. Erlynne’s past. The audience only knows that Mrs. Erlynne is a divorced woman who twenty years ago eloped with her lover, leaving her infant daughter and husband. We don’t know how she survived for all these years but it is probable that she used men like Lord Augustus to provide money for her. But Wilde bows to Victorian morality and prudery, and keeps this aspect of her life veiled. Lord Windermere calls Mrs. Erlynne “a divorced woman, going about under an assumed name, a bad woman preying upon life”. In reality, Mrs. Erlynne is an independent and wilful woman who, finding herself trapped in a loveless shell of a marriage, revolted as any man would do – she had an affair. The only difference was that she was not a man and her act only earns her ignominy and disrepute in the British society. Here Wilde criticises the rigid laws of Victorian morality which allows men to have affairs, but not women. A fact which is revealed by the duchess of Berwick in the first Act, “Oh, men don’t matter. With women it is different”. We can see that while Lady Windermere objects to Mrs. Erlynne’s presence in her ball and though she states, “I will have no one in my house about whom there is any scandal”, she willingly invites the proclaimed dandy Lord Darlington and the divorced man Lord Augustus. Thus, despite her many ideals Lady Windermere too does not hesitate in differentiating between men and women. At the end of the play, Mrs. Erlynne resolves to marry again in order to regain her position in society. However, she intends to marry Lord Augustus, a submissive man whom she can dominate and thus control her marriage, as she wants to. She says, “I’ll make him an admirable wife, as wives go”.
Lady Plymdale highlights the scepticism of society towards happy married couples when she says, “It’s most dangerous nowadays for a husband to pay any attention to his wife in public. It always makes people think that he beats her when they are alone. The world has grown so suspicious of anything that looks like a happy married life”. Marriages are not supposed to be happy and based on love, but hypocrisy. Her own husband has lately become attentive and this irks her. She asks Dumby to take her husband to Mrs. Erlynne’s place for lunch, as she wants him to be enraptured by her charms, dance attendance on her, and not bother his wife. She says, “I assure you, women of that kind are most useful. They form the basis of other people’s marriages”. So, in Lady Plymdale’s experience all marriages have a third party along with them.
Lord Darlington says in the third act, “Awfully commercial, women nowadays. Our grandmothers threw their caps over the mills, of course, but, by Jove, their granddaughters only throw their caps over mills that can raise the wind for them”. This shows that most women in Victorian society only married for money and better economic prospects. In Act II, the Duchess of Berwick tells Agatha, “No nice girl should ever waltz with such particularly younger sons! It looks so fast!” While it is true that waltz was considered ‘fast’ in Victorian society, the Duchess wouldn’t mind if her daughter waltzed with elder sons who stand to inherit their father’s fortune. Even men are not exempt from such behaviour. Lord Augustus is anxious to know that whether Mrs. Erlynne “will ever get back into this demmed thing called Society?” He is worried because he wants to marry her and she has no relations. He says, “Demmed nuisance, relations! But they make one so demmed respectable”. When he is told that she has received a card to the ball held in the respectable house of the Windermeres’, his heart is put to rest, and he immediately starts proposing to her. Mrs. Erlynne too wants Lord Windermere to give her some money which she would pretend was left to her by a third cousin or a second husband, in order to have an additional attraction.
Society’s restriction on the movement of women is shown in this theme, as when Lady Windermere is afraid to leave her failed marriage because of society’s censure and the world’s tongue. She says, “I am afraid of being myself” probably because before this she never had the opportunity of making her own decision. It was either her father or her aunt Lady Julia or her husband who has made all the decisions in her life, and she meekly obeyed them. The end reference to red and white roses symbolise the passion of Mrs. Erlynne and the childlike innocence of Lady Windermere – virtues of the good woman and ideal wife.
‘Lady Windemere’s Fan’ provides a window into Victorian society and Wilde skillfully satirizes its shallow hypocrisy and outdated views on marriage.
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