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Essay: Comparing attitudes to women in literature (critical + reflective)

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The title of Oscar Wilde’s play ‘A Woman of No Importance’ is enough to make the modern feminist reader scowl in contempt – all women are important and are equal to every man. But if the modern audience (and audience at the time of production) look past the title, it is clear to see that Wilde is instead satirising the ideologies of women from nineteenth century England through the manifestation of Hester Worsley. Being from America, the young woman has different views compared to those of English women and men and practices her freedom of speech continuously throughout the play – the character is crucial to the development of women’s rights both in literature and in real life as Wilde used her to comment on the ridiculous nature of gender inequality and the double standards that the Victorian society upheld. Whilst Hester is not the only important character in this play, she is incredibly important to both modern and Victorian audiences – a female who was not afraid to abandon the status quo and speak her mind.
Of course, her not being English is incredibly important; she would not uphold the same values as Victorian England was not universal to all countries however she was, nonetheless, incredibly detrimental to women and their movement towards equal rights. Certainly, Wilde himself was a pre-era feminist; he campaigned in The Women’s World for women’s rights to vote and through his works, he preached equal rights to both women and men; a notion that at the time, was heard of but considered taboo. In fact, he became an editor of The Women’s World, changing the title from what used to be The Lady’s World; the latter being what he described as “a very vulgar, trivial and stupid production” . Wilde even went so far as to design the magazine to be “the first social magazine for women.” His incredible fascination for the inequality between genders is what brought forward The Women’s World; a magazine that ventured far from the social vulgarities it had once adopted in turn of focusing on more important issues such as the campaign for rights to vote and so on.

Eleanor Fitzsimons argues that “by condemning the system of “one law for men and another for women”, she [Hester] is echoing former feminist Josephine Butler.” Butler being a social reformer during the Victorian era; one who campaigned for women’s suffrage and for the end of human trafficking amongst other important tribulations. It is easy to see the parallels between one Hester Worsley and Butler; both believed in equality and both wanted to abolish the conduct of the era. Hester especially was against the inequality between men and women when non-marital sex was involved – whilst women were left pregnant and would get the full blame for their indiscretions, men would be let off free with no consequences. Ultimately, she does believe that “they should be punished. . . let them both be branded. . . don’t punish the one and let the other go free.” (A Woman of No Importance, Act II, l. 295-299). A puritanical American, Worsley acquires very different views to that of a British male or female from the nineteenth century – instead of seeing women at the fault of pre-marital problems; the view that women would be shamed if they were pregnant with a man’s baby should they not be wed whilst the man would be unscathed, Hester argues that “till you [England] count what is a shame in a woman to be an infamy in a man, you will always be unjust.” (A Woman of No Importance, Act II, l. 301-302) Essentially throughout the play, Worsley reinforces the view that men are wrongfully welcomed in society no matter what they do; with less ridiculous conduct to follow than women who had dozens to follow on a daily basis. Rightfully so, Wilde echoes his own views on gender inequality through that of Hester who strives to make the British characters see just how unequal men and women were; a strict rule of morals applied to women was not applied to men, and Wilde opposed these views – mirroring this in Hester. It is clear to see some of Josephine Butler through his characterisation especially as the social reformer once said that men were “received in society and entrusted with moral and social responsibilities, while the lapse of a woman. . .is made the portal for her of a life of misery and shame” , a belief that Hester reinforces throughout – as mentioned previously, she was well aware of the differences in rules for men and women but wanted to see them abolished, closing the gap between the two genders. Hester Worsley is certainly used in A Woman of No Importance to emphasise the idea of these social changes through her ‘foreign’ viewpoints that differ from the typical Victorian individual.


  • Böker, Uwe, Richard Corballis and Julie Hibbard, The Importance of Reinventing Oscar: Versions of Wilde During the Last 100 Years (Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi B.V., 2002)
  • Bristow, Joseph, Wilde Writings: Contextual Conditions (Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2003)
  • Fitzsimons, Eleanor, ‘Was Oscar Wilde a Feminist?”, Beside Every Man, 2016 (https://eafitzsimons.wordpress.com/tag/hester-worsley/) [accessed 13th October 2019]
  • Wilde, Oscar, The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)


The idea that in the earlier eras there was a tendency to see women as trophies or objects of sexual desire is, to me, absurd – living in the twenty first century means that women are not widely treated in such a way anymore, although unfortunately there is still some gender inequality. It has therefore always been interesting to me to compare the ideologies of the time in which the literary work was written to how a modern reader or audience would view such descriptions.

I wanted to research Victorian etiquette and conduct, specifically for women from that society; this was so I could look into Wilde’s texts in depth and understand why some of his female characters were so withdrawn and why others acted in a way that could have been seen as improper by a Victorian reader or audience. It is incredibly important to me to be able to compare the older conduct to modern conduct and to see how thing have changed as time has moved on.

Despite looking at females in texts, I decided against focusing on a female writer. This was because I wanted to look into how men wrote women in the earlier centuries; how they saw them, how they treated them and, most importantly, how they included them in the progression of the story. Whilst choosing a female writer would have also been worthwhile, the majority of those that I have read either write strong female characters (Brontë sisters and Jane Austen) or discarded women in a satirical way to comment on how male writers would have written them. This is why this dissertation topic is so important to me; I want to look through a male lens and explore how women were seen in the nineteenth century whilst also comparing such a lens with a modern critics views to explore the satirical constructions of women in Wilde’s works.

Being a Reading resident meant that Oscar Wilde has always been a crucial part of my literary experience; I have read most of his works and loved every single one. When the prison in which he was situated in between 1895 and 1897 opened for touring, I was there to visit it – and seeing the derelict and despair that he must have faced made me gain even more interest in the meaning behind his words. Thus, it didn’t take long for me to turn to him as part of my dissertation. I chose The Importance of Being Earnest for its inclusion of Lady Bracknell; the strongest woman in all of his works alongside The Picture of Dorian Gray which featured weaker female presence in the form of Sibyl Vane. I wanted a third party that would also look into the ideals of woman in the Victorian era, and thus the third work I chose was A Woman of No Importance. These three texts stood out to me most and produced the most content for a dissertation that would include a strong debate – the ideas and ideologies of women in Oscar Wilde’s works.


  • Wilde, Oscar, Picture of Dorian Gray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)
  • Wilde, Oscar, The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)


  • Alexander, Rajani, “Oscar Wilde: A Sense of History”, International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 1 (1984) pp. 75-80
  • Bristow, Joseph, Oscar Wilde and Modern Culture: The Making of a Legend (Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2009)
  • Bristow, Joseph, Sexuality (The New Critical Idiom) (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011)
  • Chrisman, Sarah A., True Ladies and Proper Gentlemen: Victorian Etiquette for Modern Day Mothers and Fathers, Husbands and Wives, Boys and Girls, Teachers and Students and More (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2015)
  • Ellman, Richard, Oscar Wilde (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2013)
  • Frankel, Nicholas Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2017)
  • James, Mallory Elegant Etiquette in the Nineteenth Century (Barnsley: Pen & Sword History, 2017)
  • Langland, Elizabeth, Nobody’s Angels: Middle Class Women and Domestic Ideology in Victorian Culture (New York: Cornell University Press, 1995)
  • Ross, Irwin, “Victorian Era Etiquette and Manners: Old-Fashioned Rules for Good Behaviour”, The Old Farmer’s Almanac, September 2017 (https://www.almanac.com/content/victorian-era-etiquette-and-manners) [accessed 13th July 2019]
  • Sturgis, Matthew, Oscar Wilde: A Life (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2018)


  • Basham, Diana, The Trial of Women: Feminism and the Occult Sciences in Victorian Literature and Society (Hong Kong: Macmillan, 1992)
  • Davidoff, Leonore, “Class and Gender in Victorian England: The Diaries of Arthur J. Munby and Hannah Cullwick”, Feminist Studies Vol. 5, No. 1 (1979) pp. 86-141
  • Eltis, Sos, Revising Wilde: Society and Subversion in the Plays of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996)
  • Gagnier, Regenia, Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and The Victorian Public (Atlanta: Scholar Press, 1987)
  • Green, Stephanie “Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Woman’s World’”, Victorian Periodicals Review Vol. 30, No. 2, (1997) pp 103-120
  • Hughes, Kathryn “Gender Roles in the 19th Century”, British Library, 15 May 2014 (https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gender-roles-in-the-19th-century) [accessed 3rd September 2019]
  • Joyce, Simon, “Sexual Politics and the Aesthetics of Crime: Oscar Wilde in the Nineties”, ELH, Vol. 69, No. 2 (2002), pp. 501-523
  • Landale, Nancy. S and Avery M. Guest; “Ideology and Sexuality among Victorian Women”; Social Science History Vol. 10 No. 2 (1986) pp. 147-170
  • Marsh, Jan, “Gender Ideology & Separate Spheres in the 19th Century”, Victoria and Albert Museum (http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/g/gender-ideology-and-separate-spheres-19th-century/) [accessed 13th August 2019]
  • Mendelssohn, Michèle, “Notes on Oscar Wilde’s Transatlantic Gender Politics”, American Studies, Vol. 46, No. 1 (February 2012) pp. 155-169
  • Novak, Daniel A., “Performing the ‘Wilde West’: Victorian Afterlives, Sexual Performance, and the American West”, Victorian Studies Vol. 54, No. 3 pp. 451-463
  • Robinson, Kate, “11 Ridiculous Etiquette Rules from Victorian Times”, Town & Country, May 2017 (https://www.townandcountrymag.com/leisure/arts-and-culture/a9202100/victorian-etiquette-rules/) [accessed 20th July 2019]
  • Stetz, Margaret Diane, “The Bi-Social Oscar Wilde and ‘Modern’ Women”, Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 55, No. 4 (2001) pp. 515-537
  • White, Victoria “Women of No Importance: Misogyny in the Work of Oscar Wilde”, in Wilde: The Irishman ed. Jerusha McCormack (London: Yale University Press, 1998)

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