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Lady Chiltern is the play's upright and earnest heroine, embodying the ideal of Victorian new womanhood Wilde elaborated while editor of the Women's World magazine in the late 1880s. This new woman was best represented by an educated wife involved in women's issues and supportive of her husband's political career. Lady Chiltern certainly embodied these characteristics, and unlike Sir Robert, Lady Chiltern is not self-divided, but perfectly virtuous. Though a poised, charming, and dignified society wife, Lady Chiltern is naïve when it comes to the machinations around her. In this sense, she is Mrs. Cheveley's ready victim.
Lady Chiltern undergoes a rather simple development through the course of the play, specifically with respect to the theme of marriage and, more precisely, the question of how women should love. Toward the end of Act I, she melodramatically delivers a speech to Sir Robert that introduces the idea of the "ideal husband" and establishes the nature of her love, a love described from the outset as "feminine." As a woman, Lady Chiltern loves in the worship of an ideal mate, a mate who serves as model for both her and society at large. Thus she rejects Sir Robert upon the revelation of his secret past, unable to brook neither his duplicity nor the justification of his dishonesty as necessary compromise.
Ultimately she will learn from her counselor, Lord Goring, that the loving woman should not so much idealize the lover as forgive him his faults. Goring will also teach her that Sir Robert—as a man—lives by his intellect and requires a successful public life. Thus Lady Chiltern will forgo her rigid morals and allow her husband to continue his career despite its ill-gotten beginnings.
Ace your assignments with our guide to An Ideal Husband!