from Dramaturg Kelli Marino
Power. Life Style. Wealth. Living Conditions. Religion. Education. Culture.
In a period distinguished by etiquette and social customs, Oscar Wilde wrote his masterful The Importance of Being Earnest. Playing upon the rigid strictures of Victorian classes, Wilde’s Earnest exposes the superficiality of Victorian society, making fun of its people and their customs. He reveals the hypocrisy of the leisured classes, especially scrutinizing those who shunned him.
The Victorian Era (1837-1901) saw the mercantile blossoming of the British Empire. England’s consequent wealth and population boom (a near doubling) precipitated changes within its class system. Class was the chief societal divisor. In a literal sense, London’s wealthy lived on the West End or perhaps in the suburbs, and its working classes lived on the proletarian East End. It is estimated that the aristocracy and the upper classes accounted for two percent of the population, while the working classes accounted for 79%. The remaining 19% was a rather amorphous “middle class” (a term that appeared with increasing frequency), newly invigorated by enterprises associated with the empire’s growth and occupying a less defined space within the English social body. The activities of that middle class, therefore, revolved around self-definition in an attempt to clarify where exactly one fit into the society, domestically and professionally. Because self-definition often involved establishing who one is not, this middle-class surge resulted in manufactured social clashes and the urge to stubbornly display the life that was available to us and not to them.
Love it or hate it, this middle class has been cast as the heart of Victorian society. In the middle class, one can find the full spectrum of dominant social movements. It pushed for reforming the class system (out of disdain either for the depraved aristocracy or the depraved proletariat) as well as enshrining the prestige of their own class. In its ambition to thrive, it created more opportunities for itself in work, ornamented its surroundings with parks, facilities for mental enhancement, and clubs for leisure activities.
The middle class contained a gradation of prosperity within itself. The upper-middle class (the group of Lady Bracknell, Algernon, and Jack) consisted of industrialists, lawyers, doctors, clergy, headmasters, and some theater managers/owners (Arthur Sullivan and William Schwenk Gilbert made fortunes from their shows and received knighthoods). Many members of this class bought their way into their positions through memberships to clubs, land ownership and political affiliations.
As a member of the upper-middle class, much of one’s activity followed from the desire to elevate oneself as high as possible and to establish a social network that disallowed the entry of the lesser middle-class peoples. Social lists like Who’s Who (first published in 1849) and Burkes Landed Gentry (first published in 1836) informed the social elite of whom it was important to identify and associate.
This elitism and emphasis on social strictures has become especially associated with England’s upper-middle class women (perhaps in no small part because of Earnest’s and more particularly Bracknell’s popularity). Strict guidelines from women of manners like Mrs. Humphry and Lady Collin Campbell dictated the moral etiquette of the Victorian Age. Women took very seriously, the art of being a proper lady, playing the part of the Victorian woman and helping those around her adhere to the guidelines that she, and the etiquette journals, deemed appropriate.
Maintaining the supposedly “determined order”—which was actually being fashioned and re-fashioned as time went on—fueled England’s upper-middle class to perform at its highest caliber. This group, whose lifestyle and reputations were constantly on display, was forced to conceal their private lives (if they had one) in hopes that there might be no consequences. For Wilde, whose private life, once made public, caused him great grief, Earnest was a way to express his frustration with the people of his class, safely and publicly. Earnest, then, attacks—both lovingly and viciously—the obsession with the public presentation of the self that formed the core of middle-class Victorian England.