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NA211112 - WILDE, O.: Lady Windermere' s Fan (Unabridged)
English 

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

LADY WINDERMERE’S FAN

 

Oscar Fingall O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin on October 16, 1854. His father was a distinguished surgeon and his mother a poet. After attending Trinity College in Dublin, Wilde won a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford in 1874, where he took first class honours and was awarded the Newdigate Prize for poetry.

 

At Oxford Wilde, under the influence of the critics Walter Pater and John Ruskin and the painter James McNeill Whistler, espoused the ideals of the “aesthetic’ movement, which asserted the importance of art in society and its power to influence the progress of civilization. Wilde’s wit, his extravagant modes of dress, his attitude of contempt for traditional sports and energetic pursuits, caused hum to be seen as an effeminate poseur by his more reactionary fellow students, and resulted in his receiving a ducking in the Cherwell and his rooms being wrecked.

 

Having moved to London, Wilde’s handsome looks and brilliant conversation soon established his position in society. His long hair, velvet coat and flowing tie became the recognized image of the poetic aesthete, and were parodied in Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera Patience (1881). The following year Wilde took advantage of the opera’s success by embarking on a lecture tour of the United States, during which time he wrote a play, Vera, later produced in New York.

 

The same year Wilde published a selection of poems, and these were followed by The Happy Prince and Other Stories (1888), Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories (1891), The House of Pomegranates (1892), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), and a play, The Duchess of Padua which was produced in New York in 1891. His Salome (1893) was refused a license for the London stage, and was produced in Paris by Sarah Bernhardt.

 

In 1884 Wilde married Constance Lloyd, by whim he had two sons, Cyril in 1885 and Vyvian in 1886. In addition to his literary output, Wilde supplemented his living by journalism, contributing to various popular periodicals.

 

In 1891 Wilde embarked on a succession of plays which were to earn him popular acclaim and an assured place in this history of English dramatic writing; Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895) and The Importance of Being Ernest (1895).

 

During this period a homosexual relationship which was to have disastrous consequences developed between Wilde and the young Lord Alfred Douglas. Douglas’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, learning the nature of his son’s friendship with Wilde, publicly insulted him, and Wilde, mistakenly as it turned out, decided to sue Queensberry for libel. During the course of one trial at which the jury failed to agree and a consequent re-trial, Wilde’s homosexual activities were revealed and he was condemned to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour. While in prison Wilde wrote a long accusatory letter to Douglas, later published as De Profundis, and a powerful narrative poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. After his release Wilde moved to Paris where he lived under a pseudonym and died in poverty on 30 November, 1990.

 

In order to appreciate the attitudes which underlie the narrative of Lady Windermere’s Fan, it may be helpful to consider the prevailing public morality of the era in which it was written, and the author’s own ambivalent position.

 

The rigid social and religious rules of the time obliged all sexual activity outside marriage to be carried on in secret, an attitude which resulted in the well-known hypocrisy of the Victorian age. Sexual activity between members of the same sex was never openly admitted; homosexuality was a criminal offence and Wilde, in company with other practicing homosexuals, was obliged to hide that aspect of his life.

 

In the case of men, extra-marital affairs might be overlooked providing there were conducted discreetly and did not interfere with the semblance of an orderly social existence. But equality between the sexes, though widely discussed, was far from being established. The rules of sexual conduct for women were considerably stricter than those for men, and women who broke them suffered severe consequences in terms of society’s retribution. In an age when women of the upper classes were not expected to earn their living, and where society did not provide any means for them to do so, there were few avenues open for a woman without a husband or a fortune. In cases where a beautiful woman’s determination to live well outweighed her fear of society’s opprobrium, she was free to choose a more comfortable way of life in which her looks and ability to please were financially rewarded by wealth admirers. But such women were obliged to live a demimondaine existence outside the magic circle of ‘decent’ society; they might be popular in the company of men, but they would never be received by their wives. It is into this category that Mrs. Erlynne falls.

 

The theme of Lady Windermere’s Fan is ‘goodness’; the difference between society’s perception of what it means to be ‘good’, and true ethical goodness; between the public stance of morality, and the private kindness of a generous nature. Mrs. Erlynne, having left her husband and child for  a lover who deserted her, is seen by society as a ‘bad’ woman and has been punished for contravening its laws. She is no longer accepted in respectable houses, and is obliged to travel abroad, kept by a succession of wealthy lovers. Her heart has hardened to the extent that she is prepared to blackmail Lord Windermere into paying her an allowance, and forcing him to become the means of her reinstatement in fashionable society.

 

Lady Windermere is a ‘good’ woman, in the sense of being a faithful wife, a loving mother, and a respectable member of society, but as the result of her youth, her rigid upbringing and her limited experience of life, she lacks the true qualities of good ness – understanding, sympathy and compassion.

 

Through re-discovering her maternal feelings, Mrs. Erlynne shows herself capable of the selfless sacrifice of true love. Lady Windermere understands that she has misjudged Mrs. Erlynne, and discovers within herself the frailty she has condemned in others. She learns that there are no ‘bad’ or ‘good’ people, but that the complexity of human nature embraces all such qualities. Thus Wilde sends a message to his audiences that those who are forced to live outside the boundaries of ‘respectable’ society are not necessarily evil, and that those who consider themselves without stain would do well to look deeper, and accept the failings of others in a spirit of understanding and generosity.

 

In the light of what we know of the double life Wilde was leading at the time he was writing Lady Windermere’s Fan, it is easy to see why such sentiments lie at the play’s heart. But sadly, once Wilde’s secret became public knowledge, it became clear that his message had fallen on deaf ears. The cruel impulses of human nature, those which envy beauty and talent and gate the outsider, the same that had motivated the behaviour of his Oxford contemporaries in the past, now caused a self-righteous establishment to heap on him a public degradation greater than any which Mrs. Erlynne or her kind might have suffered. Overnight Wilde, the epitome of elegant living, artistic sensitivity and witty insouciance, the darling of theatrical audiences and fashionable drawing rooms, became outcast, a criminal whose appearance on a Clapham Junction station platform in prison clothes elicited jeers and catcalls from a contemptuous crowd. Wilde had climbed high, and he had a long way to fall. There is in his fate a sense of the hubris of Greek tragedy; as if the seeds of his undoing were there from the beginning, and his downfall as the result of his ambition and pride.

 

However, when on the 20th February 1892, Lady Windermere’s Fan opened at the St. James’s Theatre to rapturous applause, these tragic events were still in the future. The play was an instant success and ran for over 150 performances. Now, a century later, it continues to be revived frequently. The reasons for its popularity are not difficult to identify. The play’s witty dialogue contains many of Wilde’s most quoted aphorisms, its stylish setting provides opportunities for elegant presentation, and it achieves moments of high emotion which are deeply moving.

 

It also includes a cast of memorable characters; Lord Darlington, whose witty and urbane exterior hides a recklessly passionate nature and may well be the author’s self-portrait; the redoubtable Duchess of Berwick, a rewarding figure in her own right, despite being due to reappear in the future as the even more formidable Lady Bracknell; and Mrs. Erlynne, who brings a deeper resonance to what might otherwise have been a superficially entertaining piece, and gives the play another, more serious dimension.

 

In this Naxos AudioBook version we are fortunate to have been able to assemble a cast worthy of Wilde’s creative genius. I hope the listener will forgive my pre-empting his appreciative response if I quote the author’s speech to the audience on the first night of the play, “I think that you have enjoyed the performance as much as I have, and I am pleased to believe that you like the piece almost as much as I do myself.”

 

Notes by Neville Jason


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