Lady Windermere’s Fan was first performed at St James’s Theatre on 20 February 1892 to rave reviews, and first published a year later in 1893.
Subtitled ‘A Play About a Good Woman’, Oscar Wilde uses the work to critique contemporary Victorian High Society, and the ways a woman must appear ‘good’ in order to maintain her social status.
Lady Windermere suspects her husband is having an affair. Lord Windermere denies this allegation but insists on inviting the woman in question, Mrs Erlynne, to Lady Windermere’s birthday ball.
Mrs Erlynne has been ostracised from ‘London Society’, and has a secret which she is using to blackmail Lord Windermere. He has been giving her money and is helping her regain her place in Society. Lady Windermere is furious and when another man, Lord Darlington, reveals his love for Lady Windermere, she decides to run away with him. On learning this, Mrs Erlynne follows Lady Windermere in an attempt to change her mind, and Mrs Erlynne’s true relationship to the Windermere’s is revealed: she is Lady Windermere’s mother, who herself ran away from her family for another man when Lady Windermere was still a baby. Mrs Erlynne persuades Lady Windermere to remain with her husband, and takes the blame when Lady Windermere’s fan is found in Lord Darlington’s rooms.
At the end of the play Lady Windermere is still able to be seen as a ‘good woman’ and her place in Society remains assured. Rather than continue to blackmail the Windermeres, Mrs Erlynne decides to go overseas to make sure her secret, and her daughter’s reputation, is safe. And while Mrs. Erlynne’s reputation is just as bad as ever, Lady Windermere has come to see that Mrs. Erlynne can also be a ‘good woman’.