An Ideal Husband
by Oscar Wilde
Lady Gertrude Chiltern
The Victorian New Woman
Maybe Lady Chiltern makes your eyes roll. She comes across as being a little stuck-up and pushy, it's true. But she has lots of strong points, too. As the play's model of the Victorian New Woman, educated and engaged in social issues, Lady Chiltern is dedicated to the movement that gained women the right to vote. The Women's Liberal Association was a real organization dedicated to a number of causes – one of them being women's Suffrage (the equal right to vote), which English women only got in full in 1928.
Lady Chiltern's progressive viewpoint is regularly pitted against that of Mrs. Markby, a traditional woman "a little too old…to trouble about setting a good example" (1.290). While Lady Chiltern informs and involves herself actively in political issues – so much so that she has a very strong opinion on this Argentine Canal business – Mrs. Markby disapproves of such engagement. She calls it "that terrible thing called the Higher Education of Women" (2.237). Lady Chiltern couldn't agree less: she supports women's rights and believes that women should be treated equally. Sir Robert also supports the education of women.
If Lord Goring is the modern man, Lady Chiltern is the modern woman. It makes sense, then, that the major philosophical battles take place between these two characters.
People don't change. Or do they?
Lady Chiltern believes that people don't change. Mrs. Cheveley was a lying thief as a young girl; she must be one now. When Lady Chiltern discovers that Sir Robert was unethical in the past, she determines that he must still be today.
The interesting thing about this perspective is that, of all the characters in the play, Lady Chiltern changes the most. With the guidance of Lord Goring, she abandons her black and white understanding of the world for a softer, grayer one. She loosens her ideals and loves her husband as he is, moral warts and all.
Lady Chiltern's Final Speech
In expressing her unconditional support for Sir Robert, Lady Chiltern parrots Lord Goring's pep talk almost word for word. Here are the nuts and bolts of the speech: a man's life is more important than a woman's; men are intellect, women are emotion. "As a woman, I can help the world by forgiving." How do we make sense of this stuff, coming from the intelligent and rational Lady Chiltern we've come to know and respect?
Is her mimicry supposed to be funny, as some critics have suggested? In this interpretation, Lady Chiltern keeps it light, teasing Lord Goring even as she reconciles with Sir Robert. If you believe that she is poking fun at Lord Goring's perspective then we don't need to take what she says all that seriously. But she does sounds sincere in this scene, to our ears anyway. Is it that she hasn't quite absorbed the information, but is willing to extend it to her husband as an extreme apology? We don't know.
Does it seem contradictory to hold the position that women deserve the same treatment as men under the law, while also believing that women need to support everything their man does? How should Lady Chiltern's final speech be interpreted? How should it be reconciled with other positions she holds in An Ideal Husband? This is probably one of the first questions a director of this play would need to ask herself.