Historical Context in The Importance of Being Earnest
The Importance of Being Earnest humorously confronts the shallowness and hypocrisy of Victorian society. Lady Bracknell’s rejection of Jack as a suitable match for Gwendolyn reflects the aristocracy’s emphasis on family prestige; Jack is unworthy because he was adopted and no one knows whether or not his biological relatives are respectable. Until the 18th and 19th centuries, one’s family name carried more weight than wealth. With the advent of the free market, however, formerly unimportant families began acquiring wealth surpassing that of noble families. Wilde suggests that society’s preoccupation with wealth and family line distracts from more important qualities, such as character.
Historical Context Examples in The Importance of Being Earnest:
Act I 9
"the worst excesses of the French Revolution..." See in text (Act I)
The French Revolution was at heart an attempt to reform the country after years of feudalism and aristocratic rule. The peasants stopped working for the land owners, crops failed, and the middle class were no longer excluded from political power. As a member of the English aristocracy, Lady Bracknell of course doesn't want this to happen and thinks of Jack's past as a sign that society has begun to degenerate.
"they count as Tories..." See in text (Act I)
The term "Tory" can be applied to anyone who supported the British Conservative party during the 18th and 19th Centuries. These Tories were opposed to parliamentary reform, were staunch supporters of colonialism and the Crown, and were typically members of the upper or middle class. Lady Bracknell equates Jack with Tories to suggest that his political leanings are perfectly acceptable, if not exactly preferred.
"Liberal Unionist..." See in text (Act I)
A British political party that separated itself from the Liberals in 1886 and joined with the Conservatives. Among the Liberal Unionists were many members of the old aristocracy, who aligned themselves with the Conservatives to maintain control over their lands and estates. A Liberal Unionist was not, in general, someone who had no polities, as Jack claims, so this may be a joke that Wilde is making at the party's expense.
"I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact..." See in text (Act I)
In the late 19th Century, when this play was written, many marriages (particularly those between members of the upper classes or landed gentry) were arranged by the parents for the purposes of securing land, wealth, or social status. Marriages were not, as a rule, made for love, though if the couple happened to fall in love that was a happy accident. Here, Lady Bracknell insists on vetting Jack as she would have if she'd chosen him for Gwendolen, in part so that she can tell people it was arranged and not merely a whirlwind romance.
"Only relatives, or creditors, ever ring in that Wagnerian manner..." See in text (Act I)
Wagnerian referring to Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883), a famed German composer well-known for his elaborate, dramatic orchestrations. By comparing the ringing of the bell to Wagner's operas, Wilde suggests that both Algernon's relatives and creditors ring the bell with overly dramatic intensity, which heralds their arrival in the same way that Wagner's leitmotifs (or recurring musical phrases) attach to specific characters and recur periodically throughout his works.
"Bunburyist..." See in text (Act I)
Someone who lies or makes up excuses in order to get out of doing something boring or talking to people that they don't like. This term derives from the surname of the fictional character "Bunbury," whom Algernon invents for this express purpose. Wilde purportedly thought of the term while on the train between Banbury and Sunbury, where he met a boy with whom he later arranged a sexual encounter. This term became shorthand amongst his circle of friends for hiding one's sexual orientation and leading a double life.
"More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read..." See in text (Act I)
In the late 19th Century, when The Importance of Being Earnest was written, homosexuality was illegal in England, as it was in most of the Western world, and Wilde was persecuted for his orientation by both literary critics (who thought his work was lewd and shouldn't be read, as Algernon alludes to here) and by the government, who imprisoned Wilde in 1895, shortly after this play was first produced. In this line, he uses Algernon to defy the status quo and build on the subversive themes of the play.
"Well, in the first place girls never marry the men they flirt with..." See in text (Act I)
This question of what women do and do not think proper in courtship is a central one in the play and will greatly affect the fates of the main characters. Here, Algernon suggests that women ("girls") still in some way adhere to Victorian values, in which marriages were more often made for money than for love. Thus, the men they flirt with are mere diversions and are not considered suitable husband material. Gender and courtship will become major themes in the play.
"what on earth is the use of them..." See in text (Act I)
Algernon thinks that the lower classes should set an example for the upper class by adhering strictly to Victorian ideals of morality, and in particular to the Grundyism that demanded one be conventional and prudish in personal matter. (Mrs. Grundy was a figure of propriety and decency made up to represent the tyranny of Victorian ideals). Wilde uses Algernon to skewer these ideals and say that there's no one in England who really adheres to them.
Act II 4
"agricultural depression..." See in text (Act II)
Yet another allusion to the financial troubles faced by the aristocracy and landed gentry in the 19th Century, when land became, as Lady Bracknell suggested in Act I, a liability to the rich, who continually lost money by maintaining their lavish estates. Cecily alludes to all of this to make fun of Gwendolen, who, in positioning herself as a member of a higher class, has opened herself up to critique on this subject.
"Uncle Jack is sending you to Australia..." See in text (Act II)
Australia was colonized by the British in the 18th Century, after years of European exploration and conflict with aboriginal tribes. Once the continent was colonized, it was used as a kind of prison by the British and was populated by the criminals and political dissidents that the Empire wanted to get rid of without directly having to kill them. Thus, being sent to Australia became synonymous with being shipped off to prison, so naturally Algernon doesn't want to go.
"the Fall of the Rupee you may omit..." See in text (Act II)
The Rupee being the primary currency on the Indian subcontinent. It was first minted in the mid 15th Century, though India had been using coins like it since as early as the 6th Century BCE. Under British rule, the rupee began to depreciate, in large part because it was minted in silver in a world where gold was the standard. Today, the rupee is still in use and is again depreciating, though for different reasons.
"Indeed, he always lays stress on your German when he is leaving for town..." See in text (Act II)
Neither Miss Prism nor Cecily knows the truth about Jack's trips into town, but the audience knows that he's going out for no other reason than to goof off in the city and enjoy himself. This hypocrisy (of telling his ward to be studious and proper while himself galavanting around town) illuminates one of the central tensions in British society of that time: adults demanding a higher sense of morality and propriety from the youth than from themselves.
Act III 2
"a temperance beverage..." See in text (Act III)
The Temperance movement was an attempt on the part of the British government to reduce and eventually eliminate alcohol consumption. As a result, many speakeasies opened that sold bootleg liquors. This "temperance beverage" is a legal substitute drink sold at bars during the temperance period. Some common temperance beverages were cream soda, ginger beer, and sarsaparilla.
"the Anabaptists..." See in text (Act III)
A Protestant sect founded in the 16th century. Anabaptists advocate for baptizing only those adult members of the congregation that are spiritually prepared to proclaim their faith in God. The Chasuble has misinterpreted Jack's statement about the christening being of "no practical use" now as as indication that he was intending to use the christening like an Anabaptist, and that he has since decided not to because he isn't prepared to accept God's love. Of course, this "practical use" is that it will allow them to marry, as the Chasuble will soon learn.