The portrayal of Lady Bracknell is certainly the most striking in The Importance of Being Earnest. She is undoubtedly an unforgettable character. According to most critics, she represents the greatest achievement of Wilde so far as the creation or portrayal of characters is concerned.
At the same time she is a most convincing person even though most of the situations in this play are improbable and the plot is on the whole absurd and incredible. Lady Bracknell dominates the company wherever she is present. We meet her in Acts I and III of the play, and on both occasions she impresses us as a formidable personality. She does not figure in Act II at all, and yet she remains in our thoughts throughout the play. She has strongly been individualized, and is clearly distinguishable from all the other characters in the play. According to one critic, there is no one in the whole of English dramatic literature quite like her. In other words, she is a unique person.
Her Liking For Cucumber Sandwiches
The first thing that we learn about Lady Bracknell is her partiality for cucumber sandwiches. Algernon has especially asked his servant Lane to prepare cucumber sandwiches because Lady Bracknell is coming to tea at his flat. It is another matter that he himself consumes all the cucumber sandwiches before Lady Bracknell arrives, with the result that, when she asks for cucumber sandwiches, Algernon has to make an excuse that cucumbers were not available in the market even for ready cash.
Her Interest in Music and Her Liking For Her Nephew
Another trait of her character is her taste for music, though she does not approve of French songs which seem to her to be improper. However, her interest in music is more to keep up with the fashion than any genuine love of music. In fact, she seeks Algernon’s help in selecting the kind of music that she should provide on the occasion of her last party of the season.
She is quite fond of Algernon, who is her nephew and whose presence at her parties she thinks to be very necessary even though he does not like her much and seeks excuses to keep away from her parties and receptions. She feels quite disappointed when he tells her that he will not be able to attend her last reception of the season as he has to go to meet his ailing friend, Bunbury (who is a fictitious character).
Domineering and Suspicious
Lady Bracknell is a true representative of the upper classes in England of the time when this play was written. She is snobbish and class-conscious, and she is at the same time a person who judges people by the amount of wealth they have. She cross-examines Jack Worthing very closely in order to determine his suitability as her son-in-law. The very manner in which she interrogates Jack shows not only her domineering temperament but also her suspicious nature. Her comments on the replies which Jack gives to her questions are amusing because of their mixture of approval and disapproval. When, for instance, in reply to a question he says that be is twentynine years old, her comment is that it is a very good age to be married at. But when, in reply to another question, he says that he owns a house in the country, she doubtfully asks how many bedrooms that house has adding that this point can be cleared up afterwards. When Jack tells her that his town house is occupied by a tenant by the name of Lady Bloxham, she says that she does not know that lady adding that the fact of Lady Bloxham’s being considerably advanced in years is no guarantee of respectability of character. She feels quite satisfied with most of the particulars that Jack gives to her in answer to her questions, but she feels very disappointed to learn that as an infant he was found in a hand-bag in a railway cloak-room and that his parentage is unknown. She forbids the marriage of her daughter Gwendolen to him for this reason. Jack’s account of the circumstances in which he was found in a hand-bag bewilders Lady Bracknell, as she herself says. According to her, to be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag shows a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life reminding her of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. This is one of her wittiest and most amusing remarks. On account of Jack’s inability to establish his respectability, she rejects him summarily and in a categorical manner as a candidate for the band of her daughter. Her cross-examination of Jack shows her bullying nature. When Jack asks her what he should do under the circumstances, she gives the paradoxical reply that he should acquire some relatives as quickly as possible and should be able to produce at least one parent of either sex before the season is over. Jack is, indeed, right when after the cross-examination, he expresses to Algernon his opinion that Lady Bracknell is a “Gorgon” and a “monster without being a myth”.
Her Mercenary Outlook
Lady Bracknell is acutely class-conscious and advises Algernon never to speak disrespectfully of high society because only those who cannot move in high social circles speak disparagingly of high society. The questions that she asks about Cecily in order to determine Cecily’s suitability as a wife for her nephew Algernon again shows her class-consciousness, and these questions again show her suspicious nature and her desire to get to the bottom of a situation and not to judge by appearances only. When Jack names Cecily’s family solicitors, Lady Bracknell says, in a condescending manner, that one partner in that particular firm of solicitors is occasionally seen at upper-class dinner-parties and that for this reason she feels quite satisfied with this aspect of Cecily’s credentials. She is very particular to know whether Cecily will bring a rich dowry or not ; and, on being informed that Cecily has a large amount of money in her name, Lady Bracknell comes to the conclusion that Cecily is a suitable girl to marry her nephew. In fact, Cecily’s having so much money in her name is in Lady Bracknell’s eyes Cecily’s most important qualification.
Her Patronizing Manner of Speaking to Cecily
The information about Cecily’s having a lot of money in her name makes Lady Bracknell see certain qualities in Cecily which she had not detected in her before. But even then she speaks to Cecily in a patronizing tone, adopting a superior attitude towards her. She points out that Cecily’s dress is “sadly simple” and that her hair seems almost as Nature had left it. She then wants to see:
Cecily’s profile and, after looking at it closely, remarks, again in a patronizing tone, that there are distinct social possibilities in her profile. Although she approves of Cecily as a wife for Algernon chiefly on the basis of Cecily’s wealth, she yet declares that she does not approve of mercenary marriages. Citing her own case, she says that she had no fortune at all when she married Lord Bracknell but that she never allowed her lack of a dowry to stand in the way of her marriage to him. This is, indeed, one of her most amusing remarks, the humour here arising from the twist which she gives to the argument. If she had no fortune of any kind when she married Lord Bracknell, it went to the credit of Lord Bracknell that he married a woman without a dowry. But Lady Bracknell claims thee credit for herself.
Her Authoritarian Attitude Towards Her Daughter
Lady Bracknell is an extremely self-assertive woman who makes her presence felt by everybody. She not only tries to overawe Jack and afterwards Cecily but adopts an authoritative and stern attitude towards her daughter, Gwendolen. When Gwendolen tells her that she has got engaged to Mr. Worthing, Lady Bracknell declares that she is not engaged to any one and that, when she does become engaged, she will be informed of the fact by her mother or by her father in case his health permits him. Afterwards, when Gwendolen again tells her mother that she has get engaged to be married to Mr. Worthing, Lady Bracknell again speaks to her in a tone of authority, declaring that she does not recognize this engagement. Nor do we doubt that Lady Bracknell rules her husband. Whenever she refers to her husband, she does so in the manner of a woman who thinks herself to be the boss in her home. This is clear from her remark that she has never “undeceived” her husband on any question, implying that she never allows her husband to know what is going on in the house.
Lady Bracknell possesses an inexhaustible capacity to make witty remarks and statements. Indeed, her wit adds greatly to her stature as a character in the play. Even without her wit, she would be a person to reckon with. But her ready wit and her capacity for sarcasm make her even more formidable. Almost every remark that she makes is amusing. For instance, she says that it is high time that Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether to live or to die. She considers the modern sympathy with invalids to be undesirable as it shows morbidity in the sympathizer. Afterwards, when she is told that Mr. Bunbury is dead, she makes the comment that Mr. Bunbury showed much sense in deciding to die. When jack, in the course of her interrogation of him, tells her that he had lost both his parents, she makes the comment that his having lost both his parents shows carelessness on his part. Later, when Jack tells her in a tone of irritation that he has in his possession certificates of Cecily’s birth, baptism, whooping cough, registration, vaccination, and the measles, Lady Bracknell remarks that Cecily’s life has been “crowded with incident” and that such a life is somewhat too exciting for a young girl. Lady Bracknell then adds that she herself is not in favour of a girl having premature experiences. When Lady Bracknell sees Jack kneeling before Gwendolen, she pricks the romantic bubble by asking him to rise from his “semi-recumbent, indecorous posture”. Perhaps her most memorable remark is made when she tells Jack that she and her husband would never dream of allowing their only daughter to “marry into a cloak-room and form an alliance with a parcel.”
Her Paradoxical Remarks
Some of Lady Bracknell’s remarks are paradoxical and at the same time witty. When, for instance, she says that a girl having a simple, unspoiled nature like Gwendolen can hardly be expected to reside in the country, she provides an example of a witty paradox because actually a simple and unspoiled girl would prefer to live in the country and because it is only the sophisticated and spoiled girls who have a preference for town life and a distaste for the countryside. Again, Lady Bracknell expresses her opposition to long engagements on the ground that they give the two partners an opportunity of finding out each other’s character before marriage and that this is not at all desirable. This statement too is a paradox because actually it is thought better that a man and a woman should understand each other’s character before marriage. Lady Bracknell expresses her opinion of Algernon in the following paradoxical manner : “He has nothing but he looks everything. What more can one desire ?” Another paradoxical remark that she makes about Algernon is : “He has nothing but his debts to depend on.” She makes a satirical and paradoxical remark about society ladies who do not tell their real age. London society, says Lady Bracknell, is full of women who have remained thirtyfive for years. She cites the case of Lady Dumbleton who has been thirtyfive ever since attaining the age of forty many years ago. Lady Bracknell makes another paradoxical and amusing remark when she says that she does not approve of anything that interferes with natural ignorance. It is lucky, she adds, that in England education produces no effect whatsoever on people. If education were to prove effective, it would be a serious danger to the upper classes and would probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square*.
A Convincing Character
Lady Bracknell is certainly a convincing character. There is nothing fantastic or incredible about her. She has vividly been presented and her portrayal is perfectly realistic. Such women are not common, but such women do exist. After all, a combination of snobbery, class-consciousness, haughtiness, garrulity, love of money and wealth, a tendency to dominate, and a capacity to make satirical and hard-hitting remarks is nothing impossible. If at all “there is any exaggeration in her portrayal, it is in the wit that she displays. Apart from her wit which is certainly unusually fertile, Lady Bracknell is a person in whose existence we can thoroughly believe.