Victorian Values as Reflected in the Writings of Oscar Wilde
From today's point of view, the Victorian era seems to have been a paradoxical period in British history. On the one hand it is a time of revolutionary inventions, rapid industrialisation and further expansion of the Empire. On the other hand it is also a time, when a huge number of people lived in poorest conditions and crime and prostitution were daily fare. What is commonly understood by the term 'Victorian values' today – decency, chastity, diligence, godliness –, was not a common place neither in the working class nor in high society. One may say that the strong notion of morality, which was embodied most profoundly by the institution of marriage, was in fact systematically trespassed by all social classes. Hypocrisy was considered to be the worst vice by Victorians and yet it seems to have been prevalent by the end of the 19th century. It is also the late period of the Victorian era that saw comedies mocking the rigid and yet inconsequent morality. Most prominent plays are those by Oscar Wilde, but before we look closer at the way he satirised the Victorian society, it is first helpful to examine some of the characteristics of that society, which play an important role in his works.
The first aspect worth mentioning is the fact that Victorian England was a class society with strictly defined roles of each class. The time is marked not only by the obvious dominance of the aristocracy that became even richer due to industrial development (e.g. coal mines), but also by the formation of a middle-class striving for profit and more power, which eventually led to so-called Reform Act. On the other hand, however, there was a vast majority of poor workers, which caused tremendous social problems and became also an important topic of English literature.
The second aspect of Victorian society that is reflected in the writings of Oscar Wilde is woman's role and the institution of marriage. Mary Wollstonecraft's famous 'Vindication of Rights of Women' written in the 18th century had unfortunately not resulted in any ramifications for the legal status of women. Before the Infants' Custody Act and the crucial Matrimonial Causes Act, women had no rights at all and (as Eric M. Sigsworth in his “In Search of Victorian Values” contends) had no better status than American slaves. Indeed, women could not own any property before 1868, neither inherited nor earned, they had also no right to take care of their children in case the father died. And, of course, they could not demand divorce in any case and had to be completely committed to their husbands. It is astonishing how dominant this discourse was: hundreds and hundreds of books were written on topics like 'happy marriage' and ' the importance of female devotion' at that time. The ideal of a woman taking care of her husband and children is the topic of perhaps the most famous poem on this subject titled “The Angel in the House” by Coventry Patmore, in which the ideal woman appears almost as a secularised version of St. Mary. On the other hand there was a notion of “femme fatal” (for instance in Keat's “La dame sans merci”, where a mysterious woman with 'wild eyes' appears) that was used to show what may happen to women who did not follow the right path of getting married and being faithful to their husbands. There was obviously a double-standard notion of sexuality, for men did as a rule not commit adultery when they went to prostitutes. It is no wonder that the Contagious Diseases Acts were aimed against women only – men were not to blame for their conduct because one assumed that their sexual drive had to be “exercised”. On the other hand female sexuality was conceived to be non-existent and it was certainly courageous of first-wave feminists such as Josephine Butler to talk about it in public.