«Verfasserin Julia Lackermayer angestrebter akademischer Grad Magistra der Anglistik und Amerikanistik (Mag.phil) Wien, im Oktober 2008 ...»
Despite Wilde’s assertion that he ‘[was] anxious to make it the recognized organ through which women of culture and position [would] express their views’ (Wilde, quoted in Ledger, The New Woman, 106), Ledger emphasises that Wilde’s editorship of the magazine can not easily be regarded as a contribution to the feminist movement.158 As the analysis of A Woman of No Importance will reveal, his standpoint on female morality is at times quite ambiguous.
Interestingly, Rachel Arbuthnot herself seems to uphold the traditional categorisation of right and wrong, of virtuous women on the one hand, and Fallen Women on the other.159 She is a ‘woman with a past’ rather than a ‘fallen woman’, a differentiation that has, for example, also been made by Alfons Klein. In his For a further discussion of Oscar Wilde and the New Woman, see: Ledger, The New Woman, 106ff.
‘What have women who have not sinned to do with me, or I with them? We do not understand each other’ (Woman of No Importance, IV, 72).
- 74 essay on the character of the woman with a past in late-Victorian drama, he argues that due to social changes, the term ‘fallen woman’, which was prevalent in the middle of the 19th century, was gradually replaced by the term ‘woman with a past’, which had a less negative connotation.160 Moreover, he points out that the way this character is presented in Wilde’s play is closely connected to the changes in the social code of morality in the 1890s.161 When Rachel Arbuthnot is first encountered in the second act, the reader or audience does not know that certain incidents, which happened twenty years before, have turned her into a Fallen Woman. When she is introduced for the first time, one only learns that she leads a life secluded from society.162 By and by, the circumstances surrounding her are disclosed. Her liaison with Lord Illingworth twenty years prior led to the birth of an illegitimate son, Gerald. The whole situation comes to light, when Lord Illingworth meets Mrs Arbuthnot again after he has offered Gerald a position as his private secretary without knowing that he is in fact his child. Twenty years before, Illingworth did not want to marry Rachel despite her beseeching entreaties.163 His family offered her money instead, which she refused to take. Gerald does not learn about this secret until the end of the third act. Before she fully reveals it, she relates to her son how Illingworth once debauched a young girl and how he mistreated her thereafter; how she begged the tempter to marry her after she had found out about her pregnancy and how he refused to turn her into an honourable woman again by following her wish.
Interestingly, Mrs Arbuthnot narrates these events from a third person perspective as if it was about the fate of another woman or an exemplary case of the misfortune many a woman had to experience. In an almost melodramatic monologue, she explains the fatal consequences a false step in youth – resulting from the innocence of the seduced and the cunning of the seducer – could have on
a woman’s life, while she is all the while in fact talking about herself:
waters cannot quench her anguish. Nothing can heal her! No anodyne can give her sleep! No poppies of forgetfulness! She is lost! She is a lost soul!
(Woman of No Importance, III, 64) That, on first examination, A Woman of No Importance exhibits elements of conventional melodrama with its emphasis on seduction and judgment, is also pointed out by Sos Eltis.164 Similarly, Norbert Kohl points out that especially the ending of the third act, the revelation of Mrs Arbuthnot’s secret to her son, follows a classic melodramatic pattern.165 According to Kerry Powell, these melodramatic elements do not cast a favourable light on the play; the partial influence of melodrama has to be regarded as an ‘unpromising […] inspiration for a playwright who advertises himself as a serious and original artist’ (Powell, Oscar Wilde, 60).
Powell further argues that Jones’s The Dancing Girl must have had some effect on Wilde’s play, but at the same time draws attention to the fact that Wilde was eager to distance himself from Jones. Describing the three rules for writing plays, Wilde once stated that ‘[t]he first rule is not to write like Henry Arthur Jones, the second and third are the same’ (Wilde, quoted in Hesketh, 221). Moreover, Powell also concedes that A Woman of No Importance in many ways diverges from the emotional overindulgence and the conventional sentiments that are usually encountered in Victorian melodrama. In a traditional melodrama, he claims, Mrs Arbuthnot would have to suffer agonizingly and would have to repent.166 Furthermore, it is also interesting to note that the notion of women wearing masks – as it has already been the case in Maugham’s Penelope – is addressed again in the above quotation from the play.
After the whole truth has been disclosed to Gerald, he wants to force Lord Illingworth to marry his mother as a means of atoning for the wrong he has done to her.167 Her vehement refusal to cave in to her son’s wishes suggests that she has an independent mind. Unlike the heroines of the other plays, she is not eager to either attract a man’s attention or to win back a husband’s love. She is the first character that managed to live and raise a child on her own. In contrast to Iris, she has been able to make ends meet without a man’s financial support.
Cf. Eltis, Wilde, 95.
Cf. Kohl, 404.
Cf. Powell, Oscar Wilde, 67.
Cf. Woman of No Importance, IV, 70f.
- 76 Her behaviour of twenty years prior has had serious consequences on Rachel’s life to come. From the moment of this lapse in her adolescence, Mrs Arbuthnot has had to bear her cross. Over all the years, she has not overcome the shame that a pregnancy out of wedlock has brought about and, consequently, she has nothing but bitter feelings about her former seducer, ‘the man who spoiled [her] youth, who ruined [her] life, who has tainted every moment of [her] days’ (Woman of No Importance, II, 44).
Lord Illingworth rode the affair out more easily. He did not have to deal with any serious social ramifications and can, at first, easily claim that Mrs Arbuthnot is ‘[a] woman of no importance’ (Woman of No Importance, I, 24) to him.
Lord Illingworth’s reputation as a rogue has never really had any consequences on his life style. He is not avoided by anyone in society and can continue to go on as he pleases without any hindrance. Therefore, when he is asked by Mrs Allonby if he has ever tried achieving a good reputation, he can jauntily answer that ‘[i]t is one of the many annoyances to which [he has] never been subjected’ (Woman of No Importance, I, 23). Due to his lightheartedness, he comes across as a sympathetic character, even though his remarks are quite chauvinistic at times. For example, he puts forward that men should be worshipped like deities in a temple because ‘[w]omen kneel so gracefully; men don’t’ (Woman of No Importance, I, 19). Furthermore, he is convinced that there is no woman in the world who would not be flattered if one flirted with her.168 His attitude does not change in the course of the play. Admittedly, he would be prepared to marry Rachel, not because he has a bad conscience and feels the need to atone for his wrongdoings, but because he would like to have a son and heir. When Mrs Arbuthnot remains unyielding, he resorts to affronting her, but this time his former mistress has the upper hand and, thus, Lord Illingworth becomes ‘[a] man of no importance’ (Woman of No Importance, IV, 83) to her in the end.
A fresh perspective on practices of English society comes into play through the character of Hester Worsley. Being American, she is less familiar with what is considered to be proper conduct. Moreover, the double standards seem to be less prevalent in her country. At the beginning of the first act, she declares her
Hester is quite taken aback by this remark as she does not understand that a friendship between a young man and a young woman seems to be out of question in the host country. In this respect, America is even said to be ‘the Paradise of Women’ (Woman of No Importance, I, 11). Interestingly, though, she holds up firm beliefs concerning morality. She has quite puritan ideas and speaks in favour of severe punishment for extramarital affairs.169 Quite revolutionary is her thoughtprovoking impulse that this penalisation should not only apply to women, but to men as well. Miss Worsley lays bare the intrinsic inequality between the sexes that was prevalent in English society at the fin de siècle. Moreover, she denounces the injustice that the different treatment of any misconduct concerning this matter entails. She postulates that
It should be born in mind that these ideas come from a woman who is herself the very picture of morality. Moreover, as an American, she does not have the same background as the other female characters. It is easy for her to condemn the situation as she did not grow up in an environment where there existed a set of distinct set of Victorian virtues. Ironically, she immediately feels sympathy for Mrs Arbuthnot, whose secret has not yet been generally revealed, because she senses that they are kindred spirits among all those other fairly hedonistic people.
Hester praises her sense for detecting what is pure and good in life.170 After she Cf. Woman of No Importance, II, 34.
Cf. Woman of No Importance, III, 59.
- 78 has found out about Rachel’s past, she is shocked at first, but overhearing the latter’s side of the story and realising how much she has secretly suffered, the young American woman is soon able to overcome her old prejudices.171 Wilde, however, does not straightforwardly portray Miss Worsley as an exemplary picture of virtue. Her moralising speeches are often undercut by other characters and she herself seems to be full of ambiguities. She looks down upon English society and its people, but chooses to live among them, she criticises the English for valuing money too highly, but is herself a wealthy heiress, and she condemns the lax morals in England, but is quick to accept Gerald as her husband.172 All these factors lend further support to the assertion that Wilde does not simply take sides, but rather criticises hypocrisy and misunderstood morality.
Double standards are exposed openly and their portrayal serves comical purposes.
When Lady Stutfield states that ’[t]he world was made for men and not for women,’ for example, Mrs Allonby counters, ‘Oh don’t say that, Lady Stutfield.
We have a much better time than they have. There are far more things forbidden to us than are forbidden to them’ (Woman of No Importance, I, 9).
On the other hand, the female characters in the play perceive themselves as more independent as those in any of the plays previously encountered. Often they turn the tables on male behaviour and traditional notions, for instance when Mrs Allonby states that [she doesn’t] think that [women] should ever be spoken of as other people’s property. All men are married women’s property. That is the only true definition of what married women’s property is. But [women] don’t belong to any one. (Woman of No Importance, II, 26).
Remarks like these indicate that the ideas of the New Woman movement have to some extent found their way into Wilde’s play. As in The Case of Rebellious Susan, they predominantly serve comical purposes. Moreover, women are again compared to pictures,173 as in Arthur Wing Pinero’s Iris. Not only is the notion mentioned that a woman should not be a man’s property, but also that female education serves as a means to further independence. This new found autonomy, Cf. Woman of No Importance, IV, 72ff.
Cf. Eltis, Wilde, 119.
Cf. Woman of No Importance, III, 50.
- 79 however, is said to have negative results on marriage and family life,174 which was also a common point of criticism about the movement in the social and political debates at that time. Political matters are even directly addressed, for example when Mr Kelvil states that ‘[t]he growing influence of women is the one reassuring thing in our political life […]. Women are always on the side of morality, public and private’ (Woman of No Importance, I, 10). This conception of morality, though, still largely reminds one of the ideal of the Angel in the House.
Moreover, there are a number of instances where traditional gender roles are still upheld. The female characters of the play appear to be uncertain about their changing status in society. At times, they seem to have difficulties to adapt to the prevalent new ideas and to be unsure whether the recent demands of some women are in fact justified, as the following speech of Mrs Allonby to some of the other
female guests at the Hunstanton estate reveals:
How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly rational being?
[…] Man, poor, awkward, reliable, necessary man belongs to a sex that has been rational for millions of years. He can’t help himself. It is in his race.
The History of Woman is very different. We have always been picturesque protests against the mere existence of common sense.
(Woman of No Importance, II, 29-41) Not only Mrs Allonby seems to uphold traditional beliefs about femininity, but other characters in the play do so as well. Lady Hunstanton, for example, claims at one point that she does not approve of women thinking too much and that thinking – just like anything else they do – should be done in moderation.175 The question about the ideal man, then, comes up in their conversation together with other concepts that have also previously been encountered – the comparison
of women to children, their capriciousness and lack of rationality: