The dandy has been one of the most fascinating and impressive phenomena of the 19th century. Even today, he seems to be an influence to some modern men. But what was the dandy, and how is he presented in literature, the place of his creation? Lord Arthur Goring, the dandy in Oscar Wilde´s An Ideal Husband, is a narcissistic layabout with a colourful and complex personality, full of contradictions: He is at the same time cynical and mild, cold and compassionate, modern and aristocratic.
Oscar Wilde was born on October 16th, 1854 in Dublin into a Protestant family, as the son of a well-known doctor. First he attended the Trinity College in Dublin, before he went on to the Magdalen College in Oxford. In the early 1880s he earned himself a reputation in London's high society because of his wit and his extravagant life style. In 1881, Oscar Wilde published Poems. The year after he agreed to lecture in the United States and Canada. Although ridiculed in the press because of his eccentric and dandy-like appearance, he attracted huge audiences abroad that fell in love with his invincible charm. In 1884, Wilde married Constance Lloyd, daughter of a prominent Irish family; and she later gave birth to two children. In his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), he praised aestheticism and a hedonist world view, questioning the moral values of Victorianism harshly and earning himself a reputation as an "enfant terrible". His greatest success were his society comedies. With his paradoxical wit and his wisdom, he created a form of comedy that was new to the 19th –century English theatre. Lady Windermere´s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and his last two plays An Ideal Husband and
The Importance of Being Earnest all were very successful and highly entertaining. In his comedies of manners, Oscar Wilde shamelessly reveals the hypocrisies of Victorian society. Because of his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, he was accused of sodomy by the Marquess of Queensberry,
Douglas´ father. To save his reputation and social status, Wilde sued the Marquess for criminal libel. But he could not prove his innocence and was finally accused and found guilty of the crime of sodomy in 1895. He served two years in prison at hard labour, mainly at Reading Gaol. His final years he spent in Paris as a bankrupt of devastating physical and mental condition, paying tribute to his reckless and hedonistic life style.
In my paper I will be mainly discussing the dandy of Oscar Wilde as he is presented in the play An Ideal Husband, in the shape of the character Viscount Goring. The play was written in 1894 and had its premiere on January 3rd, 1895 in the Haymarket Theatre in London. An Ideal Husband is a comedy of manners, which is a subgenre of drama. Comedy of manners is defined as a
witty, cerebral form of drama that satirizes the manners and fashions of a particular social class or set. A comedy of manners is concerned with social usage and the ability (or inability) of certain characters to meet social standards. Often the governing social standard is morally trivial but exciting. The plot of such a comedy, usually concerning an illicit love affair or similarly scandalous matter, is subordinate to the play´s brittle atmosphere, witty dialogue, and pungent commentary on human foibles. Usually written by sophisticated authors for members of their own coterie or social class, the comedy of manners has historically thrived in periods and societies that combined material prosperity and moral latitude. Such was the case in ancient Greece when Menander (c. 342- c. 292 BC) inaugurated New Comedy, the forerunner of comedy of manners.
Other important playwrights of comedies of manners were Moliere (Le Misanthrope, 1667), "who satirized the hypocrisy and pretension of 17th-century French society", and the English William Wycherly (The Country-Wife, 1675) and Oliver Goldsmith (She Stoops to Conquer, 1773). Oscar Wilde questions in An Ideal Husband and his other comedies of manners the rigid moral values of Victorian society and exposes its hypocrisies, under which he himself suffered so much, especially at the time he wrote these plays. By then he had already become the scandalous "enfant terrible" of London`s high society. He was sent to prison in 1895, the same year in which An Ideal Husband was performed for the first time. But his comedies were full of witty dialogues, shocking moments and dramatic turns, and they were mainly intended for entertainment. His criticism of society did not go very deep and had no political motivation, he just wanted the audience to enjoy his plays and to receive their applause and love at the end of the show.
In An Ideal Husband, the main character of the plot, Sir Robert Chiltern, is a very successful politician in his forties with a great future ahead of him. But he is not only very successful in his professional career, he is also the ideal husband for his adoring wife Lady Chiltern. She is the perfect puritan woman of Victorian society, with very high moral standards, with which she also measures her idolized husband. But his career and his marriage is put at risk, when Mrs Cheveley, a woman with a past and the femme fatale of the play, enters the scene, London´s high society at the end of the 19th century. She knows about the crime with which Sir Robert Chiltern started his perfect career: At age 22, he sold political information about the Suez Canal Project to Baron Arnheim, a businessman. Mrs Cheveley, a very successful and conceited businesswoman herself, was Arnheim`s "last romance" before he died, and now she possesses the letter in which Chiltern made the deal with the Baron. She blackmails the ideal husband and asks him to hold a speech in Parliament, in which he shall support a canal project in Argentina, of which is already clear that it will become a disaster. Mrs Cheveley has invested a lot of money in this project, and if Sir Robert does not support the project, she will make his youthful misdeed public and destroy his life. At first he agrees to the deal. Sir Robert is shattered and asks his best friend, Lord Arthur Goring, for help. Lord Goring is actually the main character of the play, which proves that in comedies of manners the plot is subordinate to the play´s atmosphere and its witty dialogues. Goring is the dandy of the play, "the first well-dressed philosopher in the history of thought", and he is like a living Oscar Wilde quote-book, full of aphorisms, paradox and witty remarks. A man who doesn´t need to have a job and who lives only for pleasure. He tries everything to rescue the marriage and the career of his best friend. When Lady Chiltern warns her husband about the scandalous Mrs Cheveley, Sir Robert fears to loose his status as the ideal husband, so he decides not to make the deal with her. Aware of the fact that it will ruin him, he speaks out in Parliament against the Canal Project. But by then things have changed, since Lord Goring finds a diamond brooch, which was once stolen from him and now belongs to Mrs Cheveley. So now he blackmails the thief, Mrs Cheveley, asking her to exchange the brooch against the mentioned letter. Then the play takes many dramatic turns and a number of misunderstandings and jealousies between the characters happen, but in the end Mrs Cheveley doesn´t get what she wants, justice prevails. When Lady Chiltern finds out about the one sin of her husband, she forgives him, since she realizes that it is wrong to put anyone on a pedestal. So Sir Robert looses neither his wife nor his career, and he even gets a seat in the Cabinet. The sentimental happy end is completed with the marriage of the convinced bachelor Lord Goring with Sir Robert`s sister, Mabel Chiltern.
The play is quite sentimental and serious for Wilde. More important than the plot is the very well observed portrayal Wilde draws of Victorian society at the end of the 19th century. He captures the coldness of the characters and exposes their hypocrisies, which enabled them to lead a double life. You can really feel the atmosphere of that time and understand how life was like in Victorianism. The characters live in a world of their own, without any material needs and more interested in matters of style and fashion. The brilliant dialogues show that conversation back then was mainly about nothing and never emotional or too personal. Because of their coldness, there is no real connection or any real sympathy between the reader or the audience and the characters, but always a certain distance, as it was also very typical for that time, where the people tried, and were expected, to suppress their feelings, since they were regarded as something dirty. The most colourful and impressive character is definitely Lord Arthur Goring, a narcissistic layabout. He is, as all dandies, an outsider to the world:
Thirty-four, but always says he is younger. A well-bred, expressionless face. He is clever, but would not like to be thought so. A flawless dandy, he would be annoyed if he were considered romantic. He plays with life, and is on perfectly good terms with the world. He is fond of being misunderstood. It gives him a post of vantage.
The dandy is the most important figure in Wilde´s comedies of manners, as well as in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. In real life he also set himself in scene as a dandy and tried to play this role throughout his life. But there are other recurring characters in his plays and novels. Lady Chiltern is the perfect Puritan woman without any faults and with very high moral standards. Her counterpart is Mrs Cheveley, a woman with a past, who sets herself apart from the other women in the play. She is quite emotional and very adventurous:
Lord Goring: `Oh, I should fancy Mrs Cheveley is one of those very modern women of our time who find a new scandal as becoming as a new bonnet, and air them both in the Park every afternoon at five-thirty. I am sure she adores scandals, and that the sorrow of her life at present is that she can´t manage to have enough of them.`
Oscar Wilde definitely has a lot of sympathies for that character, even though she plays the evil part in this play, she is allowed to say quite wise and witty things, so Wilde guides the sympathies of the audience sometimes more towards Mrs Cheveley than towards Lady Chiltern. The most important message of this play is that it is wrong to put anyone on a pedestal, and that people should also be loved for their weaknesses, a lesson that Lady Chiltern has to learn in the end. Wilde criticises here, as in his other works, Puritanism and the hypocrisy of Victorian society. He himself suffered a lot under Puritanism and was not willing to lead a dishonest life. Especially the suppression of emotions was impossible for him, he wanted to live a life full of and guided by emotions, something totally forbidden in Victorianism with its strict moral values. Wilde accuses Lady Chiltern, and Puritanism in general, of expecting too much from the people. She is shattered because of her own reaction when she finds out about the sin of her husband. She realizes that it is very dangerous to put someone on such a high pedestal and that men, and women as well, will never be perfect, even though Puritanism expects them to be. But still the play does not have a serious, rebellious, political message. When asked by Andre Gidé about his dramatic and exciting, but at the same time quite superficial and low in substance comedies, Oscar Wilde replied: "Ach, wenn Sie wüßten, wie diese Stücke die Leute amüsieren!"
 See also Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature, Incorporated, Publishers, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1995, p.1201 f. on Oscar Wilde.
 Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature, Incorporated, Publishers, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1995, p.261
 Webster’s, p.261
 Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband, p. 522
 On the plot also see Kindlers Literaturlexikon, Kindler Verlag, Zürich, p.2352 f.
 An Ideal Husband, p. 488
 An Ideal Husband, p. 508
 Kindlers, p.2353
- Quote paper
- Martin Lieb (Author), 2001, Lord Arthur Goring - Oscar Wilde's Dandy, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/91578