On Lady Windermere’s birthday, Lord Windermere presents her with the gift of a beautiful, delicately wrought fan with her name, Margaret, engraved on it. She intends to carry the fan at a ball she is giving that evening, a ball to which everyone of importance in London has been invited. That afternoon, the duchess of Berwick calls on Lady Windermere to tell her friend of a rumored affair between Lord Windermere and Mrs. Erlynne, a fascinating but notorious woman not received in the best houses. According to the duchess’s story, Lord Windermere has for some months been supplying Mrs. Erlynne with funds for her support. The old dowager suggests that Lady Windermere take immediate steps to learn the nature of the relationship between the two.
Lady Windermere, upset, is determined to find out if there is any truth to the gossip. She finds a locked bankbook in her husband’s desk, and, ripping it open, discovers evidence of her husband’s duplicity, a record of checks issued to Mrs. Erlynne over a long period of time. Angry and hurt at Lord Windermere’s apparent failure to appreciate love and virtue, she turns on him the moment he appears. His main concern is annoyance that his wife has dared tamper with his property behind his back. He informs her that his relations with Mrs. Erlynne are perfectly honorable, that she is a fine but unfortunate woman who wishes to win the regard of society once more. Moreover, Lord Windermere explicitly orders his wife to send Mrs. Erlynne an invitation to the ball. When Lady Windermere refuses, her husband writes an invitation. Angered at his act, Lady Windermere threatens to strike Mrs. Erlynne with her new fan if she dares cross the threshold of Windermere House.
When Mrs. Erlynne appears at the ball, Lady Windermere loses her resolution and lets the fan drop to the floor. The guests, believing that Mrs. Erlynne has been invited by Lady Windermere herself, accept her. She is lionized by all the men, and the women, curious because of the many stories they have heard, want to see at first hand what she is really like. Among Mrs. Erlynne’s special admirers is Lord Augustus Lorton, the duchess of Berwick’s disreputable brother, to whom she has just become engaged to be married.
Mrs. Erlynne is not the only woman greatly admired that evening. Lord Darlington is persistently attentive to Lady Windermere. Having sharply turned Lord Darlington’s advances down, Lady Windermere becomes despondent when she unexpectedly catches sight of her husband and Mrs. Erlynne in rapt conversation.
Without waiting to see her guests out, Lady Windermere writes a letter informing Lord Windermere that she is leaving his house forever. She gives the letter to a servant to deliver and leaves for Lord Darlington’s apartment.
Mrs. Erlynne, who with Lord Augustus has remained behind to talk with Lord Windermere after the other guests have gone, discovers the letter Lady Windermere has written, and the thought of that lady’s rash act brings back old memories. Twenty years before, Mrs. Erlynne had written a similar letter to her husband and had left him and their child for a lover who later deserted her. Her years of social ostracism have made her a stranger to her own daughter. Perhaps, however, she can keep her daughter from making the same mistake; Lady Windermere should never feel the remorse that her mother, Mrs. Erlynne, has known.
Mrs. Erlynne takes Lady Windermere’s letter before Lord Windermere can see it and hurries to Lord Darlington’s apartment, first persuading Lord Augustus to take Lord Windermere to his club and keep him...
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there for the rest of the night. In Lord Darlington’s rooms, without revealing her identity, Mrs. Erlynne manages to persuade Lady Windermere to think of her child and go back to her husband. Out of the depths of her own bitter experience, Mrs. Erlynne insists that Lady Windermere’s first duty is not to her husband but to her child.
As Lady Windermere is leaving, Lord Darlington returns, accompanied by Lord Windermere, Lord Augustus, and several cohorts. Ready to face the men, Mrs. Erlynne counsels Lady Windermere to slip behind a curtain to await a fortuitous moment for escape. Upon learning of Lord Augustus’s presence, Mrs. Erlynne goes into the next room, hoping to avoid detection. Lord Windermere soon discovers his wife’s fan and faces Lord Darlington with it. Giving Lady Windermere the opportunity to exit, Mrs. Erlynne appears suddenly from the adjoining room with the explanation that she had taken the fan, mistaking it for her own, when she left Windermere House. Her explanation saves Lady Windermere at the cost of her own reputation. Lord Windermere is furious, for he feels that he has in good faith befriended and helped a woman who is beneath contempt, and Lord Augustus turns away.
The next morning, having realized that, by some strange irony, the “bad” woman has accepted public disgrace in order to save the “good” one, Lady Windermere defends Mrs. Erlynne to her husband, who persists in disparaging the adventurer. Frustrated by Lord Windermere’s demand that she not see Mrs. Erlynne again, Lady Windermere poises herself to explain all. Then Mrs. Erlynne arrives to return the fan, but she refuses to reveal herself to her daughter, not wanting to shatter Lady Windermere’s illusions. Taking advantage of the simultaneous arrival of Lord Augustus and her coach, Mrs. Erlynne asks her now-cold suitor to escort her out; he does so and then accepts her explanation that his own interests had taken her to Lord Darlington’s rooms. When he returns to the Windermeres to share his good news, Lord Windermere tells him that he is marrying a very clever woman. Lady Windermere insists that he is marrying a good woman.