LADY BRACKNELL. Good afternoon, dear Algernon, I hope you are behaving very well. ALGERNON. I’m feeling very well, Aunt Augusta. LADY BRACKNELL. That’s not quite the same thing. In fact the two things rarely go together. [Sees Jack and bows to him with icy coldness.]
Lady Augusta Bracknell, Algernon’s aunt, represents another rich source of satire: the high-society dowager who often acts as the wealthy relative of the penniless playboy protagonist. Her opening rebuke establishes her long-suffering indulgence of her nephew’s antics and comes equipped with moral rectitude. Her chilly civility to Jack dismisses him. Lady Bracknell serves as the wiser, cooler head, balancing the wacky antics of the other characters.
LADY BRACKNELL. Well, I must say, Algernon, that I think it is high time that Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he was going to live or to die. This shilly-shallying with the question is absurd. Nor do I in any way approve of the modern sympathy with invalids. I consider it morbid. Illness of any kind is hardly a thing to be encouraged in others. Health is the primary duty of life.
Lady Bracknell objects to Algernon’s attentions to his chronically ill friend. Algernon uses Mr. Bunbury, his fictional invalid friend, to weasel out of social commitments, a pattern that she has noted. Her response parodies smug self-centeredness in her disdain for other people’s petty problems. Her simple solution that Mr. Bunbury should choose life or death may also show she feels somewhat skeptical of her nephew’s story.
LADY BRACKNELL. Pardon me, you are not engaged to any one. When you do become engaged to some one, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact. An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be. It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself . . .
Lady Bracknell responds to her daughter Gwendolen’s announcement that she has become engaged to Ernest Worthing. At this point in the plot, the audience sees Gwendolen making a rash decision, as she doesn’t know the real identity of the man she wants to marry. Lady Bracknell acts correctly in raising objections, however tyrannically she expresses herself.
LADY BRACKNELL. To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other’s character before marriage, which I think is never advisable.
Lady Bracknell delivers her opinion on engagements to Gwendolen, Cecily, Algernon, and Jack. She clearly favors the engagement of her indolent, penniless nephew Algernon to Cecily. Lady Bracknell just discovered Cecily stands to inherit considerable wealth, a fact that surely weighs heavily in her approval. Lady Bracknell’s advice to know little about your spouse plays as dramatic irony in the wake of Algernon’s and Jack’s revelations of their identities to their future wives.
LADY BRACKNELL. A few weeks later, through the elaborate investigations of the Metropolitan police, the perambulator was discovered at midnight, standing by itself in a remote corner of Bayswater. It contained the manuscript of a three-volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality. [Miss Prism starts in involuntary indignation.] But the baby was not there! [Every one looks at Miss Prism.] Prism! Where is that baby?
Lady Bracknell demands answers from Miss Prism, moving the plot forward. The image of an empty baby carriage at midnight on a deserted street builds unexpected suspense and poignancy. The audience picks up the clue of the three-volume novel and anticipates a plot twist resolving the mystery of Jack’s parentage.
LADY BRACKNELL. [Meditatively]. I cannot at the present moment recall what the General’s Christian name was. But I have no doubt he had one. He was eccentric, I admit. But only in later years. And that was the result of the Indian climate, and marriage, and indigestion, and other things of that kind.
Lady Bracknell milks her final moments onstage by adding comic suspense around the issue of Jack’s real name. She rambles around in her memories of Jack’s father, recalling some details about him but making obvious she never bothered to learn his name. To call Jack’s father eccentric puts things mildly, since the General seems to have forgotten to tell Algernon about the existence and loss of his older brother.