«Verfasserin Julia Lackermayer angestrebter akademischer Grad Magistra der Anglistik und Amerikanistik (Mag.phil) Wien, im Oktober 2008 ...»
In their eyes, rationality and reason is still on the side of men. Moreover, these female characters also seem to agree with the portrayal of women as capricious and unreasonable beings.176 Elopement is treated far more light-heartedly than in any of the other plays. It is mentioned repeatedly as a passing remark, a topic to be ridiculed and not be judged from a moral point of view at all.177 Furthermore, irony is often employed to turn common beliefs and ideas about morality upside-down. Mrs Arbuthnot, for instance, of whom we know that she could actually be considered a Fallen Woman, is portrayed as the very prime example of the Victorian ideal of womanhood. She is in many ways akin to the Angel in the House, which can for instance be recognized by the way she keeps her household, or the fact that she is dedicated to charitable work.178 This concept is carried to extremes when the other characters claim that Rachel, an example of virtue, stands above the wickedness of society, and that she adds respectability to any party.179 Mrs Arbuthnot’s withdrawal appears to be self-imposed, which is also pointed out by Sos Eltis. She argues that none of Rachel’s acquaintances is conscious of her actual status.
Furthermore, Eltis points out that the inhabitants of Hunstanton do not rigidly adhere to concepts of female purity.180 Even though the play ends with a triumph of those characters that are on the side of morality, many reviewers noted that the better lines and tunes belonged to the more wicked characters.181 Moreover, Eltis maintains that while Wilde was well aware of the fact that the audience would enjoy a plot that ‘offered the theatrical cliché of the vulnerable woman who becomes a victim of male depravity’ (Eltis, Wilde, 96), and that the playwright used these conventional elements in order to raise questions about the underlying social and sexual mores.
‘LORD ILLINGWORTH. […] to the philosopher […] women represent the triumph of matter over mind – just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals. […] Women are a fascinating wilful sex. Every woman is a rebel, and usually in wild revolt against herself’ (Woman of No Importance, III, 51).
Cf. ‘it was from Melthorpe, which is only two miles away from here, that Lady Belton eloped with Lord Fethersdale, I remember the occurrence perfectly. Poor Lord Beldon died three days afterwards of joy, or gout, I forget which‘ (Woman of No Importance, I, 8).
Cf. ‘But here we have the room of a sweet saint. Fresh natural flowers, books that don’t shock one, pictures that one can look at without blushing’ (Woman of No Importance, IV, 67), and Woman of No Importance, IV, 74.
Cf. Woman of No Importance, IV, 68.
Cf. Eltis, Wilde, 109.
‘The puritans triumph, but the audience, as contemporary reviews demonstrated, found the ‘bad’ characters’ amoral wit more attractive than the ‘good’ characters’ histrionic moralizing’ (Eltis, Wilde, 118).
- 81 With respect to the reception of the play, the opinions are quite contradictory.
Robert Tanitch and Eltis argue that the reviews were by and large favourable.182 Especially, Wilde’s witty dialogues are said to have been praised, and Tanitch cites William Archer, who wrote that ‘in intellectual caliber, artistic competence – ay, and in dramatic instinct to boot Mr Wilde has no rival among his fellowworkers on stage’ (Tanitch, 198). Eltis maintains that A Woman of No Importance was a considerable success as it ran for 113 performances.
Kerry Powell, on the other hand, points out that a run of 113 performances is not impressive compared to Jones’s The Dancing Girl, which was performed 223 times.183 Moreover, he argues that A Woman of No Importance was also the least successful of Wilde’s plays with regard to criticism.184 His argument can be supported by a couple of reviews that are far from complimentary.185 In a scathing review of the play, the critic for the Observer, for example, stated that [i]f a Woman of No Importance, with its inconsistent characterization and its inconclusive motives, with its inverted conundrums doing duty for epigrams and strung together on a thin thread of perfunctory plot, with its choice of a painfully hackneyed theme and its abortive straining after originality of treatment – if this be indeed a satisfactory work of dramatic art, then must we revise the standards by which we have been wont to test such achievements. (quoted in Tydeman, 52) In any case, the premiere audience seemed to have enjoyed the play as it ‘won their vociferous applause’ (Tydeman, 52). Through other dramatic works, such as Jones’s The Dancing Girl, the plot was already familiar to the audience and, interestingly, the character of Lord Illingworth was first played by the actormanager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who had previously successfully impersonated the Duke of Guisebury, Drusilla Ives’ seducer.186
4.3.6. The Eldest Son – Freda Studdenham The opening night of John Galsworthy’s play The Eldest Son, written in 1909, took place in 1912. As in Grundy’s The New Woman, the heroine, Freda Studdenham, is a lady’s maid. This time, the complex of problems is treated in a more serious and comprehensive way. Issues of class differences and double standards stand at its centre. The plot focuses on the Cheshires, a family belonging to the landed gentry, and the social changes of that time also seem to find their way into the play.187 In the context of the central female character’s situation, it is worth mentioning that Galsworthy seemed to have been interested in the status of women and was also ready to read specialised works on the subject.188 From the beginning of the first act, hints are dropped that Freda and Bill Cheshire, Sir William’s eldest son, have a secret liaison. Towards the end of the act, the audience or reader knows for certain that Freda is expecting a child – the result of a short love affair a couple of weeks before – and that Bill apparently has proposed marriage to her. Their belonging to different classes separates them, of which Freda is highly aware. In contrast to Mrs Arbuthnot, she even suggests to the young Cheshire they break their engagement and promises that she will keep any blame away from him by saying that ‘[he] needn’t be afraid [she]’ll say anything when – it comes’ (The Eldest Son, I, 28). Bill, though, is determined to stand by Freda’s side although his parents have other plans in mind for his future. They would appreciate if he married Mabel Lanfarne, an Irish girl with a respectable family background, some money and, to top that, good riding skills.189 Mabel’s status as an outsider to English conventions due to her Irish background allows her – similarly to Hester Wolsey in A Woman of No Importance – to form judgments about English society and the position of women in it. Addressing the Cheshires, she is able to state utterances such as, ‘I don’t understand you English – lords of the soil. The way you have of disposing of your females’ (The Eldest Son, II, 37).
Mabel, however, is far less puritan in her views than the American girl in Wilde’s play.
It has to be conceded that Sir William would be contented if his son married another girl, but marry he must in order to make an end to his gallivanting days.
The father also exerts pressure on Bill by reminding him of his considerable debts that he would be willing to settle.190 The young Mr Cheshire, though, turns out to have high moral standards. Even though his feelings for Freda have worn off since their romance, he is determined to stand by her side because he ‘mean[s] to see that nobody runs her down’ (The Eldest Son, II, 43). As Iris and Trenwith in Pinero’s play, they have planned to start afresh in Canada. By the third act, it becomes nonetheless evident that Bill starts to regret the misalliance. He is torn between feelings of shame and morality, which is made clear when he tells his brother that
Still, he would stick to his resolution, if Freda did not have similarly distinctive concepts of morality. Knowing that Sir William would cease to give his son any money if he married her, she refuses his proposal. In contrast to the heroines of other plays, her fate as a Fallen Woman is far less tragic. Even her father is quick to take her side and offers his support.191 Moreover, it is the first instance a female character is able to decide over her fate. In the course of the play, she seems to become more and more self-confident. Has she made a passive and obedient impression at the beginning, she starts to assert herself and to talk back to her employers, for example by telling Lady Cheshire that if she – Freda – ‘[was] a lady [she – Lady Cheshire – ] wouldn’t talk like that’ (The Eldest Son, II, 46).192 Cf. The Eldest Son, I, 24f.
‘She’ll not force herself where she’s not welcome. She may ha’ slipped her good name, but she’ll keep her proper pride. I’ll have no charity marriage in my family. […] If the young gentleman has tired of her in three months, as a blind man can see by the looks of him – she is not for him! […] She is not the first this has happened to since the world began, an’ she won’t be the last’ (The Eldest Son, III, 73-74).
Cf. Weiss, 200.
- 84 Until the end of the play, Bill would have been willing to marry her and Freda could have followed the way of putative societal decency. She decides on the grounds of her inner moral values and considers Bill’s and her own happiness above anything else. She does not want to impede Bill’s future career and position, and refuses to end up tied to a husband whose feelings for her have already cooled down. Consequentially, as Sheo Bhushan Shukla argues, ‘[t]he Studdenhams score a moral victory; The Cheshires “remain discomfited”, though they breathe in relief’ (Shukla, 115). Similarly, Chothia argues that ‘[t]he ‘proper pride’ of the working man’s rejection of ‘a charity marriage’ for his daughter shows where real honour lies’ (Chothia, New Drama, 65). A societal scandal brought about by a misalliance can be averted, but the price the Cheshires have to pay is the recognition of their own cowardice and double moral standards.193 Right at the beginning, the people associated with the Cheshire household discuss whether one of the employees, the under-keeper Dunning, has to marry a young girl he has made pregnant. The opinions are divergent and in a discussion between Ronald Keith, married to one of the Cheshire daughters, and the clergyman John Latter, the former takes the side of prevalent moral perceptions whereas the latter
holds the view of personal self-fulfillment:
Their argument, to some degree, reminds one of the last dialogue between Mrs Arbuthnot and Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance, and as in Wilde’s play, the traditional views on morality seem to become more and more out-dated.
Keith’s addressing Latter as ‘Good old John’ could, in this way, even be interpreted as a somewhat patronising remark. Good appearances, however, have Cf. Weiss, 148.
- 85 to be kept up. For Sir William it is unthinkable to have someone working for him who does not give an impression of respectability.194 Propriety is important and personal happiness only plays a subordinate role. The seduced country girl is aware of the fact that Dunning is not in love with her, and she herself is not very fond of him either, but she has set her mind on accomplishing a wedding because it is the only thing that is considered proper in her circumstances.195 The Cheshires’ attitude changes completely when they happen to learn that their eldest son is entangled in exactly the same situation and convinced to do what his sense of morality commands him to do. To Lady Cheshire, it is not comprehensible at first that her son could really have fallen in love with a lady’s maid. For her, deep sentiments between members of different classes are inconceibable. She would understand if it had only been a short and meaningless affair, but not that the result of it should be marriage.196 Even though Freda has been part of the Cheshire household since her birth, the differences in upbringing that would divide Bill and her are insurmountable in the eyes of Lady Cheshire.
She warns her eldest son by pointing out, ‘[i]t’s no use being sentimental – for people brought up as we are to have different manners is worse than to have different souls. […] Your father will never forgive you’ (The Eldest Son, II, 44).
The other family members, with perhaps the exception of the youngest daughter Dot, are shocked as well, when they first hear about the engagement.197 They repress the notion that they are in fact upholding double standards by their reaction, even though they seem to be quite aware of them. When Keith alludes to the whole hypocrisy that would be involved if Sir William forbade the marriage, he is immediately vehemently interrupted.198 Shukla argues that Bill’s father is not ashamed when it comes to abandoning his so-called morality in order to uphold the caste system in which he stubbornly and unshakably believes.199 Issues of female emancipation are closely interrelated with questions of class, and in a general discussion of Galsworthy, Fan points out that he Cf. The Eldest Son, I, 16.
Cf. The Eldest Son, II, 32f.
‘LADY CHESHIRE. [Baffled, but unconvinced] Do you mean that your love for her has just been what it might have been for a lady?’ (The Eldest Son, II, 43).
Cf. The Eldest Son,II, 51f.
‘KEITH. H‘m! Hard case! Man who reads family prayers and lessons on Sunday forbids son to – CHRISTINE. Ronny!’ (The Eldest Son, III, 58).
Cf. Shukla, 19.