In honour of the 120th anniversary of The Importance of Being Earnest‘s first performance, here is an essay I wrote a year or so ago about class antagonism in that brilliant Oscar Wilde play and Jane Austen’s masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that English students must at some point study Pride and Prejudice. In this essay I will attempt to address the prevalent theme of social class in both the 1813 novel by Jane Austen and the 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde).
There are many issues that can become conflated with class antagonism in these texts. The representation of love and its effect on class is particularly interesting. Austen’s interpretation of the class system’s effects on the romantic lives of her characters seems to say that it only has as much effect as you let it. Darcy begins to see Lizzie as more than just someone of low(er) birth quite early on in the novel. When she treks through fields to attend to her ill sister at the Bingley’s, he admires ‘the brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion’ (Austen, 2007, p30). Of course, the stoic Mr Darcy says nothing, and Lizzie continues to believe he holds her in contempt.
Darcy’s proposal to Lizzie in free indirect speech, shows that while admires her, he never forgets ‘his sense of her inferiority’ (Austen, 2007, p163). This is exemplary of his main flaw: his pride completely negates, at least for Lizzie, his other, more attractive features. Darcy is so consumed by class boundaries that he struggles to ever look past them, and as such keeps the ‘obstacle’ in mind at all times. This is why, when Lizzie attempts to explain why she has refused his proposal, we see such a disparity in their comments to one another. She looks past his social class, and instead sees his behaviour – he is annoyed by his speech on her social inferiority, but that was not why she rejected him. Instead, she relays the issues of his ‘arrogance, [his] conceit, and [his] selfish disdain of the feelings of others’ (Austen, 2007, p166).
Darcy finally realises, aged ‘eight and twenty’, that who you are is more important than your social standing, and how much class had previously clouded his judgement (Austen, 2007, p308). Elizabeth has ‘showed [him] how insufficient were all [his] pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased’ – she is so much more important to him than class could ever be. That’s why Mr. Darcy is such an iconic romantic figure.
Charlotte Lucas is far more pragmatic about marriage than her temperamental friend; she believes women have to show disproportionate affection to, thereby manipulate, men of good standing. She says ‘in nine cases out of ten, a woman had better show more affection than she feels’ (Austen, 2007, p20) – she must seem to love a man, more than she really does, in order to convince him to marry her. This is because she believes that women need a husband in order to secure a good place in society. This is a very logical view for the time, as while single men could get by as bachelors, single women would fast become spinsters. With this text, Austen appears to be saying that it would be nice to marry for love, but after all, ‘happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance’ (Austen, 2007, p21).
The romantic relationships portrayed in Wilde’s work are rather more absurd than in Austen’s. Cecily and Gwendolen are both so fickle that they both decide they must ‘love someone of the name of Ernest’ (Wilde, 2008, Act 1). But of course, Algernon could only ever marry someone fickle: after all, he says ‘the very essence of romance is uncertainty’ (Wilde, 2008, Act 1). He and Cecily are perfectly suited – or at least, they are as soon as he is re-christened as Ernest. Lady Bracknell’s hold on her daughter makes Jack do just about anything; as Cecily’s guardian, he uses her money as a bargaining chip to try and convince Lady Bracknell to let him marry Gwendolen, leaving ‘the matter entirely in [her] own hands’ (Wilde, 2008, Act 3).
The character of Lady Bracknell is upper class and proud of it; as such, she represents the patriarchal society which causes much of the problems within the play. That makes it rather on-the-nose when she says to ‘never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that.’ (Wilde, 2008, Act 3). Marxian theory depicts capitalist society as being made up of only two classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat (upper and working class). Any nineteenth century British person would be able to tell you that there are far more distinctions than that. One of the main issues of The Importance of Being Earnest is that, while Jack is upper class, he doesn’t have any ‘proper’ family – as far as they know. This makes him unacceptable as husband material. It is only when they learn that he is of equal standing that he is deemed suitable for Gwendolen to wed. Similarly, in Pride and Prejudice, the Bingleys are ‘proud and conceited’ (Austen, 2007, p15) wealthy but not vieux riche and therefore rank differently to the less wealthy but landed Bennets. Austen cleverly explains that the way they view themselves as better than the Bennets is far from true – ‘they were of a respectable family…[which was] more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade’(Austen, 2007, p15). This might not seem like a problem today, but they act as though they’re of higher status than being nouveau riche can allow. Both families are different to the higher ranking Mr Darcy – and his and Elizabeth’s difference with regard to the social strata is part of the reason for their conflict. Regency Era Britain was a changing time for class – income became increasingly recognised as a source of status; you no longer had to come from a particular family to be seen as the ‘right kind of people’.
Comedies are about what we know; tragedies are about those with the most to lose. This might seem incongruous now, as Austen and Wilde both seem to be writing their comedy of errors’ about the upper classes, but actually it’s probably closer socially to what would now be ‘middle class’. There is also the fact that the world Austen came from was the ‘gentry’, and that is what would have been relatable to her peers. Wilde, too, was cultured, if more wealthy than she, and as such they would have been writing about a world with which they were intimately familiar. In his poem, Letters to Lord Byron, WH Auden said he was shocked by Austen’s astute observations on what he called ‘the amorous effects of brass.’ (Auden, 1937). One example of Austen’s expert identification of issues in society at the time is in Darcy’s finding no one to talk to in the countryside. The Bennets ‘dine with four and twenty families’ (Austen, 2007, p40) while he talks to none because he is of higher birth than they, and as such their standards for company are lower. An excellent example of the prevalence of the idea of class in this novel (and period) is Mr Collins’ monologue to Lizzie on his own place in society. Collins is determined to get an in with the Lady Catherine, who happens to be Mr Darcy’s aunt. She tries to prevent him from talking to Darcy, as he is of lower social standing than Darcy, and as such it would not be his place to talk to ‘begin the acquaintance’ (Austen, 2007, p85). However, he determinedly goes into a long speech about how ‘the clerical office [is] equal in point of dignity with the highest rank in the kingdom’ (Austen, 2007, p85). He is so determined to climb the social ladder that he blatantly ignores Lizzie’s advice, despite his claiming he has ‘the highest opinion in the world of [her] excellent judgement’ (Austen, 2007, p85). Collins does eventually get a chance to visit Lady Catherine; he tells Lizzie not to worry if she doesn’t look nice enough to visit a woman of such high esteem, as she ‘likes to have the distinction of rank preserved’(Austen, 2007, p137). Of course, how much of this is Collins trying to comfort her, and how much is him showing off that he believes himself to be of a higher standard than Lizzie, is undetermined.
You cannot talk about class in these texts without also talking about gender; the norms of the time are subverted through the strength of the female characters. The women in Wilde’s play: ‘are hard-headed, cold-blooded, efficient, and completely self-possessed’ (Jordan, 28). This seems deeply contradictory to the submissive female we imagine to be typical of the period. The women who control The Importance of Being Earnest are Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen Fairfax, and Cecily Cardew, and each reflects the view of 19th century women. Lady Bracknell is a strong, controlling woman, focused almost entirely on social status; she is almost a parody of the mother-in-law figure. This stereotypical battle-axe is both exactly what you expect and yet a million miles from the meek female Victorian archetype. Cecily Cardew is closer to the weak woman idea: she is 18, and innocent to the ways of the world. However, she contradicts this by openly wanting a ‘wicked man’ (Wilde, 2008, Act2). For all her romanticism and naïveté, she knows what she wants, and she changes her suitor (Algernon) to suit her whims (becoming Ernest). Gwendolen Fairfax had the most potential of all the women. She is submissive to her indomitable mother in public, but rebellious in private. She juggles the absurd and the sophisticated; she revels in her choice of marrying ‘Ernest’ as she believes his name to be a good omen. This is indicative of her holding style as more important than sincerity. Her speech where she declares she could only ever love someone called Ernest seems both logical and, again, the best word is absurd. These three contradictory women reflect (and parody) the expectations of women in Victorian society. This is the way of satire: to hold a mirror up to society and really magnify the inadequacies. Noted 19th century drama critic AB Walkley noticed this in 1895, after viewing the play – he called it ‘something like real life in detail, yet, in sum, absolutely unlike it’.
Of course, where Wilde focuses on individual characters, Austen holds up the mirror to the whole of her society, and invites you to make your own judgements. This is why feminist critics tend to disagree on the topic of Jane Austen. Edna Steeves said ‘marriage is still the one career…Austen [is] not bold…not critical of institutions, nor ever of men in their character as men’ (227). She was of the opinion that Austen saw no issue with the patriarchal society in which she lived; Lloyd Brown did not agree. Instead, he found Austen’s themes ‘comparable with the eighteenth century feminism of Mary Wollstonecraft’ because they question ‘certain masculine assumptions in society’ (324). These articles were both published in 1973, and are exemplary of the individual nature of responding to Austen’s works. The 1970s were an interesting time for feminist literary criticisms. With all the upheavals in the feminist movement, there was a lot of room for dissension on the topic of what constituted a feminist. The character of Elizabeth Bennet didn’t care what people thought of her, if she thought she was doing something important. As Lloyd Brown said, she is ‘Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideal woman’. Nothing is so useful to the understanding of Austen’s views on these gender/socio-politics as the contrast of the opening line of the novel to the rest of the novel. ‘…A single man in possession of good fortune, must be want of a wife.’ The grammatical focus on the ‘single man’ as the subject would seem to indicate the male importance: but the novel itself is focused on female characters within a patriarchal system. Women were reliant on men, it’s true, but that’s not to say men were actually all that important. People at the time were entirely judged on their financial holdings (men) and marital opportunities (women). However, in this text, Austen appears to be saying that while those things matter, love and intelligence are far more important – and you can secure a Mr. Darcy by being attractive, and clever, and witty enough to surpass class antagonism.
The matter of class is inescapable in these texts. It motivates everything the characters do. Lady Bracknell won’t allow her daughter to marry anyone of lower class than they; this complicates everything. And let’s not forget that Algernon and Jack wouldn’t have to ‘Bunbury’ if, as members of the upper class, they didn’t have so much to do to remain respectable members of society. And if Mr Darcy had just been able to put aside his classist snobbery, perhaps he and Elizabeth could have been happily married after his first proposal, and she’d never have believed Wickham. Both authors provide an insightful, in some ways satirical look at the way class affected Victorian society.
Austen, Jane. Pride And Prejudice. 3rd ed. Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2007
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays: Lady Windermere’s Fan; Salome; A Woman of No Importance; An Ideal Husband; The Importance of Being Earnest,edited by Peter Raby. 1st ed. Oxford World’s Classics, 2008
Brown, Julia Prewitt. Jane Austen’s Novels. 1st ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.
Brown, Lloyd W. “Jane Austen And The Feminist Tradition”. Nineteenth-Century Fiction 28.3, 1973 p.321-338.
Jackson, Russel. “The Importance Of Being Earnest”. The Cambridge Companion To Oscar Wilde, edited by Peter Raby.1st ed. Cambridge University Press, 1997. 169.
Newton, Judith Lowder. “”Pride And Prejudice”: Power, Fantasy, And Subversion In Jane Austen“. Feminist Studies 4.1, 1978, p.27
Jordan, Robert J. “Satire and Fantasy in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.” Ariel 1, 3 (July 1970)
Steeves, Edna. “Pre-Feminism In Some Eighteenth-Century Novels”. Feminist Criticism : Essays On Theory, Poetry, And Prose. Cheryl L. Brown and Karen Olson. 1st ed. Scarecrow Press, 2017, p.222-32.
Walkley, Arthur Bingham, Spectator, 23 February 1895