Before Wilde’s own scandal erupted, people said that hidden behind the pose of languid aesthete was a shrewd, clever and industrious man, with a keen eye to the main chance. Wilde himself said much the same in his letter to Lord Alfred Douglas from Reading Gaol, especially in reference to his industriousness. A Woman of No Importance had the biggest ever box-office success in 1893. Albeit more serious in tone, An Ideal Husband stood to make a lot of money. Why, then, might this next play have taken almost two years to reach production? Could Queen Victoria have influenced matters? She would only have interfered if she felt the work posed a threat to the Crown.

To date scholars have not identified any reference to specific people or events. There is, however, an important friendship to consider. In Oxford in 1876, Wilde was introduced to Lord Ronald Gower, who was to become the model for Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). Through Gower, who was the youngest brother of the 3rd Duke of Sutherland, Wilde had entrée into the upper echelons of London society.

The Sutherlands were very close to the Queen; their London home, Stafford House, was adjacent to Buckingham Palace. Three of Lord Gower’s immediate relatives had been Queen Victoria’s intimates; his mother, sister, and sister-in-law–the 3rd Duke’s of Sutherland’s wife–spent seasons as her Mistress of the Robes. Queen Victoria fought against her advisors to have Princess Louise marry the Marquis of Lorne, his cousin. They had resisted because he was only a future duke, not a prince.

More important still is the fact that the Queen’s bête noir came to be Lord Gower’s brother, the 3rd Duke himself. In her view, he had an improper influence over the Prince of Wales and did not behave as a Duke ought. As early as 1859, on the Queen’s behalf, the diplomat Lord Dufferin had curtailed his first known long-standing love affair (Gailey, 314, 421).

At the time actor/manager John Hare commissioned the play that was to become An Ideal Husband, a real-life drama was playing out in the family. The Duke had become involved in a second lengthy affair during the 1880s, again with a commoner. The famously pious Duchess wished to divorce him, but the Queen would not allow it. Then the Duke precipitately married “the Blair woman” in 1889, just after he was widowed. As a consequence, the Duke was ostracized at Court, Lord Gower refused to be in England when his brother was there, and a battle royal ensued after he died in 1892. The conflict spanned the two years it took for An Ideal Husband to reach the stage.

John Hare’s Commission

John Hare commissioned Wilde to write An Ideal Husband in the spring of 1893. At the time he was starring in a translation of Victorien Sardou’s 1877 play, Dora (Diplomacy) at his Garrick Theatre. Sardou’s plays, like those of other French playwrights of the period, had a neoclassical approach to plots. Most of the action preceded the play itself; a key piece of information was held back (often a letter); minor reversals of fortune created suspense; and the climax was a final reversal of fortune. To these stock plots, Sardou added satire on contemporary characters, situations and manners. In the case of Dora (Diplomacy), he satirized the then French Minister of War’s involvement with a German spy.

Wilde often borrowed from English and French comedies, Sardou included (Eltis, 1996). In An Ideal Husband, the melodrama of intrigue and blackmail revolves around pious Lady Chiltern, who has Sir Robert on a pedestal as her “ideal husband.” Unbeknownst to her, Sir Robert’s seemingly untarnished career originates in selling a cabinet secret about the Suez Canal (i.e., in 1869).

Mrs Cheveley, long ostracized in Britain, is an uninvited guest at one of their dinners. She has arrived from abroad to blackmail Sir Robert. In forcing him to support a fraudulent canal scheme, her bargaining chip is a letter from her mentor from the Suez era, Baron Arnheim. Fear of exposure leads Sir Robert to support the scheme; his wife’s insistence that he maintain the moral high ground forces him to renege and face his downfall.

Lord Goring, who is courting the Chilterns’ daughter, Mabel, was once engaged to Mrs. Cheveley. He tries to persuade Lady Chiltern to be more flexible. His intervention is futile. She is outraged and distressed, so sends Lord Goring a note appealing for help.

The focus shifts to Lord Goring. Mrs. Cheveley offers to exchange her evidence of Sir Robert’s Suez deal for a renewal of vows with Goring. He resists the bribe by locking a stolen brooch onto her wrist. She had mislaid it at the Chilterns’. He refuses to release her unless she gives him the Arnheim evidence.

The letter is burned, but Mrs. Cheveley has stolen Lady Chiltern’s potentially compromising note of appeal. This note does not ruin Lady Chiltern, but renders her aware of her own fallibility and effects her reconciliation with her husband. Frivolous Mabel, unaware of the power struggles amongst the older generation, will leave Lord Goring be who he is, and imagines she will be “real wife” to him.

Dowager Duchess Jailed

Just at the time Hare went to see Wilde with his idea for a play, there was a scandal worthy of Sardou that attracted prominent press coverage, and probably even more gossip. No doubt he thought it could be capitalized upon. Others had made the connection with Wilde’s work. On Saturday April 29, 1893, two pictures were juxtaposed on page 516 of the Illustrated London News. At the bottom of the page was a drawing of a scene from A Woman of No Importance, as part of a review of the play. Above it, in the centre of the page, was a photograph of Mary, Dowager Duchess of Sutherland. Nothing else on the page had anything to do with her.

The Dowager Duchess of Sutherland, once Mrs. Blair, had entered Holloway Jail eight days previously for a six-week sentence for contempt of court. In the early stages of a battle over her late husband’s will, she threw a mystery document that came under a court order into the fire. She said the Duke had asked her to do this. Within days various columnists were ridiculing her distress, and Liberal MPs were questioning the luxury of her prison life.

Even more enticing from a dramatic point of view were the rumours that the late 3rd Duke of Sutherland was implicated in Mr. Blair’s death in a “shooting accident” back in 1883. The double standard meant that the burned note, which might concern the affair, potentially incriminated her as an “unfaithful wife,” not the Duke as an “unfaithful husband.”

Queen Victoria, and the rest of society, was also aware of how her friend Duchess Anne had reacted when, in 1887, the 3rd Duke was thought to be dying. The Duke insisted that Mrs. Blair, who was staying with him, remain at his side. When the Duchess and her children finally gave in to the doctors’ appeals that they visit, he had already turned the corner. Gossipmongers said a screaming match resulted. Mrs. Blair’s society fate was sealed. As Wilde had Gerald say in A Woman of No Importance: “After all, would a really nice girl, a girl with any nice feelings at all, go away from her home with a man to whom she was not married, and live with him as his wife? No nice girl would” (Maine, 454).

Duchess Anne died the following year, and the Duke and Mrs. Blair announced their engagement almost immediately. The Queen told the Duke to wait, but he would not. The Duke was anxious to afford Mrs. Blair the respect and status he thought was her due:

[Events have] occurred that made the Duke decide beyond all further doubt that it was best for our marriage to take place over here [Florida]. His judgment is so good that of course I consented, though it is a disappointment to me not to have my own people with me as I should have in England.

Misrepresentations will I suppose follow this step, as it has followed all ours for four years, but our real friends–including yourself–will know that the reasons were all-sufficient. [May Blair to John Bigelow, March 1, 1889]

Mrs. Blair was right, misrepresentations followed. When they returned to England, their public humiliations were numerous, and they extended to her teenage daughter, Irene. The incidents were reported in the press.

When the Duke died in 1892, the Dowager Duchess was locked out of the Sutherland homes. Her family could not believe that the Queen’s influence lay behind her troubles. As her brother put it, “It is true that no word of sympathy from Your Majesty has reached the widow of the late Duke, but I for one will not believe that the savage persecution begun by his son and successors has his Sovereign’s approval” [Arthur Tompson Michell, October 3, 1892]

Legal proceedings against her began immediately. The widely held assumption was that she had capitalized on the Duke’s weakness and exerted undue influence over his will. Irene’s noble suitor ceased his attentions. Her Majesty offered Lord Dufferin, as a co-executor, some pecuniary encouragement to act against the 3rd Duke’s wishes in the probate court.

Wilde’s Slow Progress

When Wilde accepted Hare’s commission, he would have known the about the scandal. He may even have known Mrs. Blair’s family in Oxford (her father was Principal of Magdalen Hall, later Hertford College), as the Michells were friends of the Symonds’s. They had other acquaintances in common: aristocrats, actors, socialites, barristers and journalists.

Progress on the play, like the challenge to probate, was very slow. As late as October 1893, Wilde had only written the first act, too caught up with his demanding and volatile lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, to concentrate on the work. Normally, rehearsals for a January production would start in December. Instead, this was when, having put Lord Alfred out of the way, Wilde set to work in earnest. By mid-January, he had reached Act IV. He managed to complete An Ideal Husband, and more, by February 19, 1894 (Holland, 40).

Salvaging his situation, John Hare opened the season with An Old Jew, by Sydney Grundy. It was reviewed as rather Ibsenite but suffered from including an improbable Bohemian club of improbable men, the Moonlighters — a reference to a satirical scene in which the young hero denounced the Moonlighters’ “system of mutual self-adulation and organized abuse of those who stand outside the limits of their dishonest coterie”. The club was not that improbable, as Hare himself well knew, being a member of the Savage Club, as were Beerbohm Tree, William Howard Russell, and the Prince of Wales. An Old Jew closed the following month, and was replaced by Caste.

Curiously, given these lesser productions, rather than accept Wilde’s completed play for the following season, Hare turned it down, stating that he did not like the fourth Act. Were there other reasons for his decision?

Intervening Events in Hare’s Life

The first intervening event, of no apparent significance in terms of its timing if one is unaware of the Sutherland scandal or the planned comedy, was that John Hare went to Homburg in August. This was one of the Prince of Wales’s haunts, like Paris, where he could escape the constraints of palace life and indulge freely in (in)discreet liaisons. In 1893, as in other years, many hangers-on also holidayed there. The Hare villa was filled with the “smart English contingent.”

There was gossip that Wilde was writing a play based on Sheridan: or The Maid of Bath (1771), which was, like Sardou’s Dora, based on a scandal. Hare denied that Wilde’s play was on this or any similar subject. The rumour must have been widespread enough for the Prince and Hare to talk about it. Hare claimed Wilde’s play was, like Diplomacy, an adaptation of Dora.

The best way to reassure the Queen and contain John Hare was to afford him the honour of staging Diplomacy in her Royal presence, and of being presented. Whilst Wilde was occupied with Lord Alfred, on October 26, 1893, John Hare was at Balmoral with his theatre company, performing. When presented to Her Majesty, he received her portrait, an honour indeed at the time. The purpose of this rare apersonal audience might have been to convince Hare to refuse Wilde’s play.

Frank Harris’s Contribution

It seems Frank Harris suggested a way of addressing the second impasse. In the case of the Sutherlands, the sinful action of the 3rd Duke was his presumed involvement in the death of a first husband. What if Wilde used insider trading?

During the summer of 1894 [sic] he wrote the “Ideal Husband”, which was the outcome of a story I had told him. I had heard it from an American I had met in Cairo, a Mr. Cope Whitehouse. He told me that Disraeli had made money by entrusting the Rothschilds with the purchase of the Suez Canal shares. It seemed to me strange that this statement, if true, had never been set forth authoritatively; but the story was peculiarly modern, and had possibilities in it. Oscar admitted afterwards that he had taken the idea and used it in “An Ideal Husband. [Harris, 182]

This scenario must have been attractive. In terms of art imitating life, the allusion to the 3rd Duke still held, but one step removed. Frederick Cope Whitehouse, an Egyptologist, had promoted his Libyan irrigation scheme with the Duke of Sutherland and the then Mrs. Blair in 1887 (Caddy, 345-46). Moreover, the Duke had connections with Disraeli and the purchase of the Suez Canal.

The Duke and the Prince of Wales were in Egypt together at the end of 1875, at the beginning of the Prince’s tour of India, just before Disraeli negotiated the purchase of the Canal. The Duke had pressing matters that sent him back from India to Egypt early, his arrival coinciding with the moment that Sir Stephen Cave, the British Paymaster General under Disraeli, left the country. The Duke had investments in Egypt, including shares in the Alexandria Water Supply. Quite when he bought the latter is unknown, but Mrs. Caddy mentions the party spending a considerable amount of time in 1888 examining the pump works for the Mahmoudieh Canal (350-52).

It is possible some contemporaries knew that the Dowager Duchess also had political and Egyptian contacts, but unlikely they knew of their familial origins. Her personal connection with Disraeli stemmed not just from her father’s leadership of Conservatives in Oxford but also from the fact that her mother’s cousin, Isabella Cave, had married Disraeli’s brother James. Sir Stephen Cave, sent by Disraeli to clinch the Suez Canal purchase, was one of Isabella’s second cousins. In addition, the Dowager Duchess’s brother, Rowland, tutored one of Khedive Ismail’s sons in Egypt (1870-77), and the friendship between the two families was ongoing.

Cope Whitehouse’s reservoir scheme was raised in Parliament in June 1893. He suggested that the Khedive had pledged, not sold, his shares in the Suez Canal, and that they belonged to the people of Egypt who built the Canal. Whether or not people agreed with Cope Whitehead’s assertions, widespread knowledge of his scheme and its context, rejected in March 1894, is in evidence.

The Illustrated London News played with the connected rumours in its coverage of the Royal Academy Exhibition in May 1894. The placement of the portrait of John Hare (by Sir John Everett Millais) above the painting of ‘The Waters of the Nile’ (by Frederick Goodall, R. A.) looks to be an editorial joke similar to that about the Dowager Duchess and A Woman of No Importance. This dig is particularly likely given that another picture by Goodall, on the next page, of Rachel and her Flock would have fitted just as well. Another page had Cynthia, regent of the night, above a scholar whose work led to weariness of the flesh.

An Ideal Husband was sent to the typists on 19 February 1894 (Lich, 46). Wilde offered it to Beerbohm Tree, who had started on a tour of the provinces that same month of A Woman of No Importance. He turned it down. After the summer recess, Tree placed Sydney Grundy’s A Bunch of Violets on the bill. Rumours that Lewis Waller would produce the play at the Haymarket that winter reached the press as early as May 1894.

It could be that, like Hare, Beerbohm Tree assessed the risk of Royal displeasure as too great. In September 1894, he played two of his famous roles for the Queen at Balmoral (neither of them from A Woman of No Importance). Moreover, he was sufficiently in the Queen’s favour to receive an inquiry after his wife’s health later that year.

The Sutherland Will Case

At the end of 1893, the battle over the will remained unresolved, though skirmishes had resulted in victories for the 4th Duke. What is odd was that, late in the year, there were reports of the Dowager Duchess and her “numerous friends” being “very sanguine” about the forthcoming cause célèbre. Their remarkable mood connects the probate dispute with Act IV of An Ideal Husband, which John Hare and the Queen did not like.

The Prince of Wales was to be called as a witness. People gossiped about the Dowager Duchess bringing the late Duchess Anne into the case (Paget, 86). The two matters were related. Duchess Anne, who used to neglect all other guests when the Prince was around, may well have turned to him for help in the last years of her failed marriage. As to there being any notes to support such a counterclaim, Mrs. Blair could well have found something usable either in her correspondence with the Duke or in a desk during her years as Duchess. However, this development meant that there was every reason for Queen and Prince to see the case to a speedy conclusion. As Wilde had Mrs. Cheveley say to Sir Robert, “You have a splendid position, but it is your splendid position that makes you so vulnerable” (481).

On June 6 1894, the attempt to establish that the Dowager Duchess had unduly influenced the Duke to serve her own financial interests failed within an hour. All the evidence pointed to her subjugation and the combative relationship between father and son. The warring parties compromised, with the Dowager Duchess establishing the legitimacy of the Duke’s will. She relinquished two thirds of the bequest, but came away with £500,000, a life annuity of £5,000 a year, and £50,000 for her dower house. In terms of the historic standard of living, today this would be about £52 million. People in Victoria’s circle acknowledged the strength of the Dowager Duchess’s evidence, even if their attitude to her remained unchanged: “The evidence on both sides was something so terrible that it is perhaps a fortunate thing [the case was compromised], though one cannot help wishing that the horrible Blair Duchess should have been shown up” (Paget, 67-68). The public was disappointed, and the furor fizzled out.

The Premiere of An Ideal Husband

The date for the premiere of An Ideal Husband was announced a fortnight after probate was resolved. To beat the competition, John Hare scheduled the first performance of Sydney Grundy’s new play, Slaves of the Ring. When it opened, reviewers called it lugubrious with spikes of comedy, and, by February, it was replaced by an earlier success, A Pair of Spectacles.

In contrast, on 3 January 1894, An Ideal Husband opened to a brilliant house, with most of the known first-nighters present. Its “frank insincerity” was appreciated. The Prince of Wales, who was in the audience, he approved of all four acts (Lich, 46). Crowded houses were the rule, afternoon and evening. Only a month later, on 14 February 1895, The Importance of Being Earnest premiered at St. James’s Theatre. John Hare and Beerbohm Tree may have briefly regretted the sacrifice they had had to make to protect their futures.

Reviewing the Evidence

In An Ideal Husband, Wilde provided audiences with a reassuring melodrama of intrigue and blackmail. At the same time, he satirized nineteenth century political life, the way in which private and public morality inter-related and the emerging phenomenon of the New Woman (Eltis, 1996). Both the Dowager Duchess’s court case and the delay in production of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband spanned just less than two years. They largely progressed in tandem, and seem to reflect Wilde’s intimate knowledge of the Sutherland family

The commonalities between events and themes in the Sutherland family and An Ideal Husband are striking. However, the comparison only goes so far, since both the character of the two outsiders and outcomes differ. Mrs. Cheveley is revealed as a manipulative thief; her declarations of love to Lord Goring are a sham. Her last exit, presumably for the continent, is one of “evil triumph.” She does not even appear in Act IV, in which the Chilterns are reconciled. In contrast, the Dowager Duchess hoped that, in time, she would be justified, “even before the world” (“The Dowager Duchess of Sutherland, ” 516). She imagined that truth would win the day, but appearances mattered as much as Wilde believed they did. Queen Victoria’s cronies desired that “the horrible Blair Duchess” would get her come-uppance, and Lady Paget revealed the outcome when the case was settled: “Of course nobody speaks to her” (Paget, 94).

This throwaway line about the Dowager Duchess’s outsider status is a sad counterpoint to Mrs. Chiltern’s self-realization. Society learnt nothing from the scandal and the Dowager Duchess’s besmirched reputation remained. She may as well have been a Mrs. Cheveley. At the time, the pejorative view of her was often conveyed to the public by the subtlest of means by and to those who knew how to code and decode the information. The scandal, which needs defining as per Wilde (“gossip made tedious by morality”), sealed the Dowager Duchess’s fate and that of her daughter. In fact, she never recovered her reputation, and, although she is buried beside the Duke, her name is not inscribed on the headstone. More than a century later, she still carries the tag of “Duchess Blair,” the adventuress who was involved in the suspicious death of her husband, engineered the collapse of a marriage and deliberately impoverished her stepson (Masters, 285-86). As to her daughter, Irene, she was never recognized as the Lady she had become through her mother’s marriage. Any hope of being a “real wife” to an English Lord, however old he was and however dubious his past, was gone. She later had her mother ask Irving to help her begin a career on the stage.

As to Wilde, the Prince of Wales may have laughed at the satire in An Ideal Husband and appreciated the worthy smoke screen of Act IV, but it was certainly not a play to take to Windsor or Balmoral. Max Beerbohm criticized the work as having a theme and plot that were disconnected. An Ideal Husband was the very reverse; theme and plot were so intertwined that they were the source of the delay in production. The real-life drama was more tragedy than trivia, and there was a puppeteer behind the scenes pulling the strings: Queen Victoria.

Related Material


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Last modified 30 April 2019