This was a society based on money; utilitarian politics sacrificed the well-being of the poor for the prosperity of their social superiors. Human relationships were determined by rank, status and wealth. It was an age of the introduction of new commodities and of a huge boom in consumerism, from which the poor were totally excluded.
Charities and social enterprises attempted to alleviate suffering through relief agencies for the working poor….
This is such an apt and astute commentary on the state we are in today, George Osborne soon to announce his Budget’s further ideological attack on the poor who allegedly desire and perpetuate their own desperate needs through the aid and succour of the Welfare State, the existence of food banks to help ‘alleviate suffering’ being a social consequence with which he and his government, now empowered by a dubious electoral mandate, can make no intellectual – nor emotional – connection.
If only. The opening quote comes from the concise and excellent introduction in the Oxford Student Texts Oscar Wilde – The Importance of Being Earnest by Jackie Moore. She reminds us how Wilde exposed such social inequities in 19th century England because he had a conscience: intellectual and emotional and artistic.
Moore provides other succinct and apt illumination on Wilde’s life, for example his homosexuality and imprisonment for this, further connecting him in the past to the present where gay marriage is only just becoming ‘acceptable’ in the Western world, though even here the continuing moral criticism is as narrow and nasty as ever. I mention because students today need to understand the relativity of change over time and thus also appreciate the modernity of Wilde’s ideas and literary expression of this, certainly in the context of an ostensibly mannered play like The Importance of Being Earnest where they could easily overlook the revolutionary core of Wilde’s satire.
As someone who isn’t knowledgeable about Wilde in both his life and oeuvre, I found Moore’s introductory insights sharp, revealing and persuasive. A particularly influential chapter is Wilde’s philosophy, especially the focus on his need for aesthetic critical judgement as essential to personal development because this both illuminates an understanding of his art but also reminds us all of such a need, especially at a time where our government controls and restricts its citizens’ engagement with the dynamism of literary ideas, thus limiting our intellectual and cultural appreciation [yes, I am thinking especially of Gove and his insidious attacks on the GCSE English curriculum].
In a quick but convincing tracing – and an outline one hopes would prompt students and teachers to further explore – Moore delineates the philosophical route Wilde took as influence from Ruskin to Arnold to Pater and then Carlyle, accepting, differing with and rejecting in arriving at his own ‘revolutionary’ notion of the artistic purpose. When Moore tells us that Wilde believed that anarchy is essential to individual freedom and how the critic [so, writer] must realise that all things are relative; he must reconstruct the object for himself, in the context of his own age we see Wilde as both revolutionary and modern, a radical thinker prepared to deconstruct convention and expectation to serve his social conscience and the expression of this – and to do so in the Establishment’s arena: the theatre.
So these introductory assertions and frameworks provide significant food for thought. We then have the eating of the actual text, accompanied by detailed textual notes. As a student text, it is therefore brilliantly set up, and we are assisted through our reading with considerable support.
The latter third of the book provides us with an amalgam of Moore’s continuing critical insights and explanations in the section Interpretations where characters, style and structure get further elucidation, with focused discussion points and exploration. Students are rightly challenged by demanding if brisk introductions to deeper thinking in A queer reading of the play and Wilde as a feminist writer: two examples of a closing set of areas of study.
I am embarrassed to say I think I taught this play once – but have completely forgotten when, and to whom! What I do know is that I would have loved to have had this study guide text then [whenever it was – a long time ago, I’m sure] as it would not only have informed my students and me with its knowing – both academic, as it should be, and accessibility – but also provided me with that background detail which convinces me of the play’s abiding relevance, both as a theatrical reality, and of Wilde as writer with thoughts and feelings we should continue to value.