At first glance, Lady Windermere’s Fan and An Ideal Husband appear rather similar. They are both set in a familiar Wildean milieu, in the Mayfair mansions of brilliant aristocrats who make sparking conversation, summing up existence in an epigram. However, there are important structural and thematic differences between the two plays. One of these which is certainly still relevant today is the treatment of women.
Lady Windermere’s Fan is a conventional Victorian melodrama in which the reputation of a “good” woman is at stake. Lady Windermere is both pure and puritanical: the archetype of conventional virtue. Although Mrs. Erlynne is an apparently wicked woman who turns out to be good, this was already a stock trope of the stage by 1892, as several of the play’s critics, such as Arthur Bingham Walkley, pointed out. This is a world in which men prey on women and the measure of a woman’s virtue is how completely she manages to avoid them.
In An Ideal Husband, however, it is the women who prey on the men. Mrs. Cheveley comes out of the past to pursue both Sir Robert Chiltern and Lord Goring. Lord Goring actually plays the role of the virtuous woman, fending off Mrs. Cheveley’s attentions and remaining faithful to the equally dominant Mabel Chiltern. He ends the play by happily accepting a “purely domestic” role. The traditional positions of melodrama are thus completely reversed, leading some academic critics such as Sos Eltis (Revising Wilde, Oxford University Press, 1996) to regard Wilde as both an anarchist and a feminist.