In ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, Lady Bracknell’s offstage marriage is one of the play’s running gags, and Lord Bracknell is an instrument for Oscar Wilde to joke about marriage and the roles of the sexes. In the following essay, we shall examine Lord Bracknell’s personal life and marriage based on what we learn from his wife’s and daughter’s vague, off-hand references to his social life.
Lord Bracknell seems to be the victim of a kind of abstract domestic abuse — ignored, unconsidered, hidden away, and relegated to the status of an invalid child. When Lady Bracknell tells Algernon that his absence from the dinner party will require her husband to ‘dine upstairs’ and ‘he is accustomed to that’, the audience learns that Lord Bracknell seems to lead the life of a recluse and to have taken refuge from his domineering wife and daughter in a chronic invalidism.
When Gwendolen and Cecily first meet in Act 2, Gwendolen introduces herself to Cecily, but Gwendolen does not actually tell Cecily about her own identity but instead her father’s, saying ‘this might be a favorable opportunity for my mentioning who I am. My father is Lord Bracknell’. This tells the audience that family connections asserts one’s rank and though Lord Bracknell never seems to be present at social functions, the audience learns that men do matter when it comes to social standing and respectability, and can be extended to the marriageability of their daughters as well.
Gwendolen tells Cecily that ‘outside the family circle’ he is ‘entirely unknown’ and thinks ‘that is quite as it should be’. The image of the offstage Lord Bracknell, faint though it is, seems in keeping with the play’s depiction of gender roles, which posit a reversal of the Victorian expectations of the two sexes:...