Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1704
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 is far too good for the likes of his son. Mabel is a foil to Gertrude because she is a young woman who does not expect perfection from any human being. She declares that one of the reasons she likes Lord Goring is because he has faults.
Sir Robert Chiltern
A respected parliamentarian, Robert Chiltern is confronted by his disreputable past, blackmailed, and finally saved from any public scandal. The ugly secret of his past is that his fortune rests on his having sold a state secret. As a young man, he finds out that England intends to support an extensive overseas construction project, which means that anybody who invests in the project before the announcement is made public will become rich. In other words, whoever buys stock in the companies concerned before the prices of the stocks go up, on the strength of England’s interest and support of the project, will reap a fortune.
Chiltern writes a letter to alert an acquaintance who buys a great deal of stock and pays Chiltern handsomely from the vast profits. Yet, what was required of the young Chiltern and all those in the know, as he knew very well, was strict secrecy and the ethical understanding that any ‘‘insider’’ stock purchases were criminal actions punishable by prison time.
Chiltern is horrified to learn that Mrs. Cheveley has the letter he wrote so long ago and plans to publish it unless he concedes to her demands. Ironically, what Mrs. Cheveley wants him to do is back an overseas construction project, so that, like Chiltern before her, she and her friends can make a financial killing on the strength of their early investments. The crucial difference, however, is that the scheme in which Mrs. Cheveley has invested is a scam, but Lord Chiltern’s project was not.
Despite having planned to condemn the canal scheme because he knows that it is a scam, Chiltern capitulates to Mrs. Cheveley’s demands. He cannot face scandal and ruin.
Chiltern changes his mind about his speech when his wife intervenes. Lady Chiltern knows the details of her husband’s political activities and convinces him to deliver the speech he knows that he should. So, he writes a letter to Cheveley communicating his change of heart.
For a time, Chiltern is able to prevent his wife from finding out why Mrs. Cheveley has so much power over him, but eventually she discovers the truth. When she does, she declares that their love is dead. Chiltern is devastated, seeing his career and entire life crumbling around him. But, luckily for Chiltern, Lord Goring, his faithful friend, is able to foil Mrs. Cheveley’s plans and convinces Lady Chiltern that her husband still deserves her love.
Earl of Caversham
The Earl of Caversham (Lord Caversham) is Lord Goring’s father, a stock characterization of a father who is perplexed by the vagaries of a son he simply cannot understand. He spends his time chastising his son and lecturing him about what he should do with his time. Short of doing something worthwhile with his life, Lord Caversham advises Lord Goring to marry at the very least. Clearly, despite his exasperation, Lord Caversham is fond of his lazy son.
Viscount Lord Arthur Goring
Lord Goring, a close friend of Sir Robert Chiltern, saves the day for his friend by foiling Mrs. Cheveley’s blackmail attempt. He is able to prevent her from carrying out her threat because he acquires proof that she is a thief and tells her he will inform the police unless she drops her plan, which she does. Yet, Goring’s involvement in the serious plot line of this play is far less entertaining than his involvement in the comedic goings-on of An Ideal Husband.
Lord Goring speaks the play’s funniest lines, many of which are still quoted today. For example, he informs his butler Phipps that, ‘‘To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance, Phipps.’’ He also has a funny rejoinder for his father when Caversham says he cannot fathom how Goring can stand London society. According to Goring’s father, London society has devolved into a ‘‘lot of damned nobodies talking about nothing.’’ Goring replies: ‘‘I love talking about nothing, father. It is the only thing I know anything about.’’
Lord Goring is a dandy: he is not simply in fashion but trendsetting in dress; he pretends not to take anything seriously; he values witty repartee and excels at it.
If it were not for his father urging him to realize that it is time for him to marry, Lord Goring would undoubtedly continue in his life of perfect leisure and self-absorption. However, alerted to his duty to produce heirs, Goring opens his eyes and sees that the best companion for him as wife is close at hand in the person of Mabel Chiltern.
Mrs. Margaret Marchmont
Mrs. Marchmont is the friend of Lady Basildon. The two women are very close to each other and much the same in character.
Lady Markby is Mrs. Cheveley’s immediate connection to London society, as Mrs. Cheveley is younger and has traveled to London from Vienna alone. Lady Markby introduces Mrs. Cheveley to persons whom she does not yet know and chaperones the younger woman around town. She is an established, well-liked, older member of the moneyed, aristocratic society depicted in Wilde’s play.
Phipps is Lord Goring’s ‘‘ideal’’ butler. Phipps is self-effacing and discreet. His job is not to assert himself or his own personality in any way. Yet, in conversation with Lord Goring, he is not above subtle humor—delivered quite impassively, however.
Vicomte de Nanjac
The vicomte is a French attaché who adores all things English and at whom Lord Goring pokes fun. His purpose in the play appears to be to have given the English audiences of the time something French to snicker at. This is a very popular gesture on Wilde’s part, since the French and the English were involved in bitter political and cultural rivalries for a long time.
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