Lady Bracknell's handbag
Some trivial observations for serious people
Lady Bracknell's handbag: some trivial observations for serious people
Whenever one sees the line in print one hears Dame Edith Evans at full-throttle, wobbling her way indignantly to a scandalised high-rising terminal:
Lady Bracknell: (closes eyes briefly) A hand-bag?
John Worthing: Yes, Lady Bracknell. I was in a hand-bag—a somewhat large, black leather hand-bag, with
handles to it—an ordinary hand-bag in fact.
Clearly not 'an ordinary hand-bag', then, but an altogether more manly reticule - a Gladstone bag. One cannot picture even a very small child cosseted in a hand-bag - something more capacious is required, and 'a somewhat large, black leather bag with handles to it' will do nicely. But the handbag itself is only part of a more suggestive mystery at the heart of Wilde's comedy, as we shall see. Jack goes on to explain the circumstances of his adoption: 'The late Mr. Thomas Cardew, an old gentleman of a very charitable and kindly disposition, found me, and gave me the name of Worthing, because he happened to have a first-class ticket for Worthing.'
This begs not a few questions. starting with Mr Thomas Cardew. Why doesn't the kindly bachelor (we infer his status as no spouse is mentioned) simply hand the baby in to the authorities? He clearly has a whimsical and spontaneous nature - naming the foundling after the destination on his ticket suggests an antic disposition - but he is also clearly quite imperturbable, taking the loss of his own luggage and the sudden appearance of an unexpected heir in his stride. Are we to assume that Mr. Cardew is a Londoner on his way to the seaside, or to visit relations? Or is he a Worthing resident spending time in the capital? This issue is only partially clarified at the end of the play, as we shall see. Did Thomas Cardew continue his journey later that day with the four-month old infant, still in the bag, or return to his residence to arrange a wet nurse and perhaps to collect and pack another case for the Worthing trip, if there was a Worthing trip to be undertaken? Come to that, was the Worthing ticket valid for travel on that day, or on some later date, or had it already been used on some earlier excursion while remaining, for whatever reason, in his possession? Possibly as a bookmark? What was the nature of the trip, whether past or future? Was Cardew himself a prototype Bunburyist, alternating roles in the capital and the provinces? In a play that turns around matters of identity and the perilous thrills of dissembling one's nature, these are all reasonable questions.
His identity is fleshed out slightly in the final act as 'Mr. Thomas Cardew of 149 Belgrave Square, S.W.; Gervase Park, Dorking, Surrey; and the Sporran, Fifeshire, N.B.' The three addresses range from (in the first case) the geographically verifiable - there is a Belgrave Square in a fashionable part of south west London - to 'The Sporran', an unlikely if suggestive name for a Scottish estate in what was then known as North Britain. Between the two comes Gervase Park, Dorking, Surrey. There is no such place, although it's a plausible-sounding address as a country retreat for weekends. There's no mention at all, however, of Worthing, which appears as a resort to have fulfilled its purpose, at least in Wilde's play.
What, incidentally, of Algernon Moncrieff? His identity seems relatively stable, but once it is established that he is Jack's brother, and that their father died when Algy was a year old, there is a rush to find printed evidence of his identity:
Jack: His name would appear in the Army Lists of the period, I suppose, Aunt Augusta?
Lady Bracknell: The General was essentially a man of peace, except in his domestic life. But I have no
doubt his name would appear in any military directory.
Jack: The Army Lists of the last forty years are here. These delightful records should have been my
constant study. [Rushes to bookcase and tears the books out.] M. Generals . . . Mallam, Maxbohm,
Magley, what ghastly names they have -- Markby, Migsby, Mobbs, Moncrieff! Lieutenant 1840, Captain,
Lieutenant-Colonel, Colonel, General 1869, Christian names, Ernest John. [Puts book very quietly down
and speaks quite calmly.] I always told you, Gwendolen, my name was Ernest, didn't I? Well, it is Ernest
after all. I mean it naturally is Ernest.
That 'Ernest' was a Victorian slang term for homosexual has become an established truth through repetition, although it's difficult to pin down the source of such a claim, or the related assertion that 'Cecily' was a contemporary euphemism for a rent boy. Is it fanciful to infer some euphemistic meaning to Malham, Maxbohm (surely a nod to Max Beerbohm, who had first met Wilde in 1888) Magley, Markby, Migsby and Mobbs? Although they appear in the Army Lists and are therefore all commissioned officers, they seem to be rather ignoble names. Did they hold a particular significance for audiences, or at least for Wilde himself?
Algernon's living quarters are suggestive - a 'set' of rooms in Albany, an 18th century 'bachelor apartment' complex in Picccadilly, was handy for the 'meat racks' where male prostitutes foregathered, and the rather louche establishment was run at the time by a very tolerant and discrete management. (I was delighted to discover that Dame Edith Evans herself was among the cohort of illustrious residents, ranging from Lord Byron to Edward Heath) Many commentators have written about the transgressive undercurrent of Wilde's play but there are other, unexplored meanings in the 'ordinary handbag' and its loss and recovery around which so much of the plot revolves.
Eventually restored to its original owner, the bag is provided with a comically forensic history by Miss Prism, rich in cultural and psychological implications. She points out 'the injury it received through the upsetting of a Gower Street omnibus in younger and happier days. Here is the stain on the lining caused by the explosion of a temperance beverage, an incident that occurred at Leamington. And here, on the lock, are my initials. I had forgotten that in an extravagant mood I had had them placed there. The bag is undoubtedly mine. I am delighted to have it so unexpectedly restored to me. It has been a great inconvenience being without it all these years.'
Injury, stains and the reticular equivalent of a tattoo. This bag has, unlike its unworldly owner, been around the block; the explosion of a temperance beverage in Leamington is a world in itself. That the initials 'L. P.' were never the basis for an early attribution of ownership is strikingly odd - surely Thomas Cardew would have considered placing an advertisement in the leading newspapers? Sherlock Holmes would certainly have done so that very evening:
Found in the cloakroom at Victoria Station (Brighton Line), a Gladstone bag bearing initials L. P.. The
owner can have same by applying at 6:30 this evening at 221, Baker-street.
The fact that Miss Prism had the foresight to initialise her bag but was too distracted even to consider replacing it once it was lost serves to confirm her dotty priorities, but of greater interest - to me, at any rate - is what Thomas Cardew was getting up to in the cloakroom at Victoria Station.
Lady Bracknell shrewdly anticipates our prurient speculations when she says: 'A cloak-room at a railway station might serve to conceal a social indiscretion--has probably, indeed, been used for that purpose before now - but it could hardly be regarded as an assured basis for a recognised position in good society.' Quite. Why did Cardew deposit his own bag (which must have been of a size that could easily be mistaken for a Gladstone when it came to the point of reclamation) in the cloakroom in the first place? Was he planning to engage in a 'social indiscretion' that could only be hampered by baggage?
Faced with Lady Bracknell's cross-examination Jack's flailing reference to the cloak-room on 'The Brighton Line' is a desperate lunge at respectability and a reference - contemporary and mildly snobbish - that is entirely lost on modern audiences.
Victoria station in the 1890s consisted of two adjacent termini hosting two independent railway companies - the rather dingy London Chatham & Dover, which ran to the naval ports of north Kent and the more stylish London Brighton and South Coast, serving the well-heeled towns of Sussex and the seaside resort of Worthing. A modern equivalent would be contrasting the relative social status of supermarkets, and one thinks of Alan Bennett's observation: 'When you're in Tesco and the check-out girl has a love bite on her neck, you don't really think anything of it; but when you see the same thing in Sainsbury's, you're somehow slightly shocked.'
Such finely-calibrated class distinctions are central to an understanding of Wilde's comedy and have been the mainstay of comic writing ever since. John Worthing and the ruthless social climber Lady Bracknell are neither of them from the top drawer and have learned to play their roles in a world where the slightest social nuance carries weight, where any purchase on respectability is hard-won and the territory fiercely contested. Lady Bracknell does not herself possess a handbag, but the stage directions tell us that she produces a note book and pencil from her pocket before interrogating Jack. In this she was a woman of her time - born, let's say, around 1830 and coming of age in the 1850s, she was of a generation that did not favour portable reticules. Today's equivalent to a pocket-book might be a tablet or i-Pad.
At the end of Act III the confusions are resolved and order (or at least clarity) restored as Miss Prism recalls the fateful day some quarter of a century earlier:
On the morning of the day you mention, a day that is for ever branded on my memory, I prepared as usual
to take the baby out in its perambulator. I had also with me a somewhat old, but capacious hand-bag in
which I had intended to place the manuscript of a work of fiction that I had written during my few
unoccupied hours. In a moment of mental abstraction, for which I never can forgive myself, I deposited the
manuscript in the basinette, and placed the baby in the hand-bag.
That Laetitia Prism's 'capacious hand-bag' was employed to carry a work of romantic fiction is drolly appropriate. The 'basinette' (not really a perambulator - more like a swaddling cradle for babies from birth to about four months, and small enough to provide a comforting 'cocoon') is a useful metaphor. The implied incubation of a romantic novel (however inept and lurid) parallels the faux parturition of the Gladstone bag bearing the infant Jack, and retrospectively initiates the theme of dissembling, of 'Bunburyism' that drives the plot throughout. We are presented with a succession or errors, replacements and substitutions, the manuscript/John and the Gladstone bag/Cardew reticule. At the play's climax Jack (or John) produces the handbag, conclusive proof that he is the elder son of Lady Bracknell’s late sister, and therefore Algernon’s elder brother - the elision between the book and the baby is finally made manifest. Cardew's Gladstone bag immediately becomes surplus to requirements and is free to appear in supporting roles elsewhere in literature: adorned with school stickers by Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, or containing Pnin's 'relatively new black suit' in the eponymous Nabokov novel.
But to return to Miss Prism. How did her stained, injured and impulsively embossed Gladstone bag containing the infant Jack come to be in the Brighton Line cloak-room at Victoria station in the first place? Could it be that she and Thomas Cardew were both at the same time involved, together or separately, in some act of social indiscretion, some erotic brief encounter, either with one another, or with obliging strangers? Perhaps with naval ratings from the Medway ports served by trains arriving at the adjacent, socially inferior, terminus? As Gwendolen says, 'that is clearly a metaphysical speculation, and like most metaphysical speculations has very little reference at all to the actual facts of real life, as we know them.'