Lady Olivia Basildon
Lady Basildon and her close friend Mrs. Marchmont are the first speakers in Wilde’s play, setting the tone with their witty banter. ‘‘They are types,’’ Wilde’s stage notes say, ‘‘of exquisite fragility,’’ and they are female dandies. Lady Basildon and her friend affect a world-weary attitude, pretending to find the fashionable London parties they go to terribly boring. As Lady Basildon says of a different party the two are planning to attend: ‘‘Horribly tedious! Never know why I go. Never know why I go anywhere.’’ The duo’s worldly sophistication and wit undoubtedly flattered a portion of his audience whom Wilde hoped would enjoy his play, namely fashionable society women.
See Earl of Caversham
Mrs. Cheveley, the villain of Wilde’s play, enters the society of the Chilterns and Lord Goring determined either to get her own way or to destroy those who will not help her achieve her ends. She comes to London from Vienna, where she has been living for some time, to blackmail Sir Robert Chiltern. She knows Chiltern’s terrible, scandalous secret and has concrete evidence of his transgression (a letter he wrote). She informs Chiltern that she will expose his sinful past unless he praises a South American canal scheme instead of condemning it for the stock market swindle it is as he plans to do in a parliamentary speech. Mrs. Cheveley and her friends have invested heavily in the scheme, and if the respected Chiltern were to advise his government to support it, Mrs. Cheveley and her friends would become much richer than they already are.
Since one of Wilde’s points in the play is that large fortunes often have their roots in immorality, he needed to make Mrs. Cheveley’s actions thoroughly unsympathetic to draw a convincing villain. The stock market manipulation had to be something that would not only increase her wealth but also eventually entail the impoverishment of others. Further, she is a blackmailer and habitual thief and liar. Still, this said, Mrs. Cheveley delivers some of the play’s choicest witticisms.
Lady Gertrude Chiltern
Gertrude Chiltern is a sheltered, good woman who worships perfect goodness most especially in the form of her ‘‘ideal husband.’’ The problem with her worship of perfection and of her husband is that her husband is not in fact perfect; indeed, he has an extremely disreputable secret in his past—a secret that could ruin his career.
Described as being possessed of ‘‘a grave Greek beauty,’’ Lady Chiltern is appropriately noble in character. She is involved in all sorts of good works. For example, she is a feminist campaigning for the right of girls and women to have a higher education. She is, in short, a moneyed woman with principles: she believes that she must give something back to society by supporting charities, foundations, and other causes.
Lady Chiltern also believes that when women love men they worship them; by doing so, such women require that their men conform to their ideals of what is great. And until Lady Chiltern learns the truth about her husband’s past, she is certain that he is indeed her ideal. She believes that he is a thoroughly good man committed to doing only good in the world.
Lady Chiltern must learn a stern lesson in the play: that nobody is perfect and that to wish this is naive and dangerous. Lady Chiltern, then, is not really perfectly good until she accepts the fact of, and is willing to forgive, imperfection.
Miss Mabel Chiltern
Mabel Chiltern has her eye on Lord Goring as a husband, and the two become engaged in the play’s last act. She is the sister of Robert Chiltern. She is pretty, intelligent, and pert, and she is as witty as Lady Basildon and Mrs. Marchmont are. Knowing that Lord Goring is the man for her, Mabel Chiltern is waiting gracefully and humorously, albeit somewhat impatiently, for him to realize that she is the perfect woman for him.
From Lord Goring’s father’s point of view, she is a clever and pleasing young woman who...
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