Reputation in Lady Windermere’s Fan and A Good Woman
My latest reality TV obsession is the adaptly named Love Island, a show that is built on the premise that you must couple up if you want to win the ‘Competition’. Contestants are chosen based on physical attributes, probably a skillfully questioned psych assessment to ensure that you have no or at least questionably morales, taken to exotic locations, thrown onto sets that are designed to lull the gullible to relax, be themselves and forget that they are being videoed 24 hours a day. This video is then cut and edited for my viewing pleasure. I might add I cannot get enough, I love it. The scandal, the who’s doing who and manipulation are for me, addictive. The contestants not phased by a damaged reputation, they thrive on it, willing to twist and contort themselves into whatever is required to be accepted or win. While the dress and context may have changed these themes were much apparent in the Victorian era. Oscar Wilde’s, 1890s play Lady Windermere’s Fan and Mike Barker’s adaptation A Good Woman illustrate in a satirical way, the overzealous preoccupation of Victorians to appear successful, well-mannered, whilst living hedonistic lives behind closed doors.
“If you pretend to be good, the world takes you very seriously. If you pretend to be bad, it doesn’t. Such is the astounding stupidity of optimism.” (Lady Windermere’s Fan)
Wilde Lady Windermere’s Fan and Barker’s adaption A Good Woman critiques the Victorian era’s obsession with reputation and appearance. Wilde’s satirically written play focuses on reputation, the need for the appearance of social perfection and at times suppressing undesirable aspects of human nature. Wilde’s play mocked the Upper class and the hypocrisy of their double standards a world, he himself struggled to belong and is reflective not only of his own personal struggles with the upper-class and his own identity conflicts. Born to well-off parents, the highly educated Wilde was forced to hide his homosexuality, whilst he did marry and have children, as he notoriety rose so did the gossip about his private life. Much of Wilde’s work centres around the exposure of a secret or indiscretion, as if life was imitating art. Lady Windermere’s Fan central characters Lady Windermere, Lord Windermere and Mrs Erlynne are all conflicted by their own desires and maintaining a standard their peers have set for them. Reputations though, can be easily shattered by any wrongdoing that might change the perception of the person; Mrs Erlynne was shunned from the ‘good’ society for abandoning her husband and daughter to elope with a man. Still, she wants to be back in that circle. She resorts to blackmail and threats to Lord Windermere, for own gain and desire to once again be part of high society. In A Good Woman, we see Mrs Erlynne flee New York to the Amalfi Coast to escape her reputation and try to rebuild herself into a ‘society’ she desperately wishes to belong.
Everyone is responsible for creating their individual reputation through personal traits and behaviors. Therefore, while some individuals may want to uphold the reputation of royalty about family responsibility, others may end up digressing and creating a different history that gives them an individualised reputation in the society. For instance, Lord Windermere in Lady Windermere’s Fan was rumoured to be having an extra marital affair with Mrs Erlynne despite the traditional reputation of royalty being chaste and faithful in marriages and relationships (Wilde, 1892 P. 5). Lord Windermere established his reputation as an unfaithful man and anyone mentioning him would associate him to unfaithfulness. Additionally, the reputation of an individual may further be enhanced and promoted by publicity. Most of the activities and beliefs of influential persons are under the public scrutiny, consequently contributing to their reputation. For example, Lady Windermere in Lady Windermere’s Fan received significant public exposure and her belief in forgiveness and the goodness gave her the reputation of a wise woman.
Secondly, the reputation of a person directly affects his or her life, especially regarding how they are perceived by other people and how they interact with the rest of the community. For instance, a person like Lady Windermere was well known for her unique view on morality and forgiveness as she insisted that bad people are not worthy of any form of forgiveness and should instead be punished for their atrocities (Wilde, 1892 P. 8). The society therefore viewed her as a moral person and people would be careful in the way they interacted with her. In the same way, Mrs. Erlynne had a known history of being scandalous and for gaining money by blackmail. Therefore, everyone in her social community feared interacting with her. For instance, Lady Windermere panicked when it was rumored that her husband was seeing Mrs. Erlynne, immediately thinking Lord Windermere must be the victim of Mrs. Erlynne’s tricks and cunning behavior from her already known reputation (Wilde, 1892 P. 17).
Reputation determines the relationships and associations with other people. While no one wants to associate with people with a bad reputation, preferring to associate ^^^^^ with people with a good reputation. Moreover, those that relate with negatively reputed persons attempt to defend their relationships, When Parker advises Lady Windermere to distract Lord Windermere and take him out of town so that he can revokes association with Mrs. Erlynne (Wilde, 1892 p. 4). Lord Windermere’s association with a woman of such bad reputation would ruin the entire Windermere’s family image in society as they would be perceived to be supporting her scandalous activities. Moreover, Lady Windermere further rejects any association with Mrs. Erlynne despite her husband’s persuasion mainly because of the bad reputation that Mrs. Erlynne held in the society. Lady Windermere also feels defeated for seemingly embracing Mrs. Erlynne at the party (Wilde, 1892. P. 23). Lord Windermere also had a difficult time trying to defend his relationship with Mrs. Erlynne as he tries to convince his wife that she was mistaking their relationship despite getting the cheque book with the secret payment information that Lord Windermere had made to Mrs. Erlynne (Wilde, 1892 P. 11). This scenario was evidence of how people try defending their relationships with those with bad reputations.
It is human nature to try to protect ones reputation, especially when it is good, regardless of the cost. A person that has a bad reputation shall try anything to ensure that they regain a good reputable record while a person that holds good reputation shall do anything to ensure that it is not tainted in any way. Besides, a person that associates with a person of a bad reputation tries to cover it. For example, Mrs. Erlynne is ready to get into contract with Lord Windermere by getting some money from him and an additional party that would welcome her back to the polite society in an attempt to denounce the bad impression that the society had about her as a scandalous con artist (Wilde, 1892 P. 12). She also makes Lord Windermere compromise his reputation in an attempt to cover the fact that she was the mother of Lady Windermere. On the other hand, Lady Windermere distances herself from any associations with eventualities that would ruin her reputation as she tries eloping with Lord Darlington and leave her husband, who was at the verge of destroying his reputation by associating with Mrs. Erlynne (Wilde, 1892. P. 28). Lord Windermere struggles to ensure that he does not fall prey of a bad reputation by denying and attempting to cover for the relationship with Mrs. Erlynne due to her bad reputation in the society.
Lastly, an individual’s reputation does not entirely define the character or beliefs of a person. A person with a bad reputation could uphold the moral standards of a society while the one with a good reputation could be compromising the society’s ethical conduct. For instance, Mrs. Erlynne was perceived as an immoral woman. However, despite her bad reputation, she was considerate enough to agree to keep the secret about her being the mother of Lady Windermere and even hid Lady Windermere from being seen by Lord Windermere and others at Lord Darlington’s rooms (Wilde, 1892 P. 34). If she was the person as bad as her reputation suggested, she would not have compromised on such things. Moreover, despite Lady Windermere having the good reputation, she was also flawed as she was ready to give in to Lord Darlington’s persuasion at the cost of leaving her husband. A woman with praises of wisdom would not be expected to act in the said manner.
In conclusion, reputation is an essential element in the life of any person since everyone minds about how society perceives them. Most people seek the approval of society by having a good reputation consequently having everyone pursuing a good reputation. A Good Woman and Lady Windermere’s Fan uses the character of Mrs. Erlynne as the representative for a bad reputation, who later tries to correct it by asking Lord Windermere to hold a party that would clear her reputation. Lady Windermere and Lord Windermere are the representatives of good reputation since they are among the admired personalities in society. The Windermere’s however struggle to maintain the good reputation since they are tempted to compromise their morality at the advantage of saving Lady Windermere from knowing that Mrs. Erlynne was her mother. To this end, reputation is controversial in the manner it is acquired, maintained, and interpreted.
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