LADY BRACKNELL. That is satisfactory. What between the duties expected of one during one’s lifetime, and the duties exacted from one after one’s death, land has ceased to be either a profit or a pleasure. It gives one position, and prevents one from keeping it up. That’s all that can be said about land. JACK. I have a country house with some land, of course, attached to it, about fifteen hundred acres, I believe; but I don’t depend on that for my real income.
Lady Bracknell, Algernon Moncrieff’s formidably aristocratic aunt, interrogates Jack about his finances after Jack has declared his intention of marrying her daughter Gwendolen. At this point, Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen know Jack as Ernest Worthing. Lady Bracknell pretends her land feels like a burden but expresses the aristocratic rule that land confers position. Jack calls her bluff by explaining he owns land as well and pretending to be equally casual about it.
LADY BRACKNELL. You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter—a girl brought up with the utmost care—to marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel.
Lady Bracknell responds in outrage to Jack’s admission that he has no idea who his parents were, having been left in a hand-bag in the cloak-room of a train station before being adopted by a rich old man. She previously seemed to approve of Jack’s wealth, but his lack of family connections exists as an insurmountable class barrier. Lady Bracknell ironically does not yet know that Ernest Worthing is Jack’s invention. Her violent objection to Ernest Worthing’s class foreshadows the revelation of Jack’s true family that will come late in the play.
LADY BRACKNELL sitting down again. A moment, Mr. Worthing. A hundred and thirty thousand pounds! And in the Funds! Miss Cardew seems to me a most attractive young lady, now that I look at her. Few girls of the present day have any really solid qualities, any of the qualities that last, and improve with time.
Lady Augusta Bracknell objects to Jack Worthing as a suitor for her daughter Gwendolen. But Lady Bracknell has a much more positive response about the engagement of her nephew Algernon to Cecily, Worthing’s ward, after learning the amount of Cecily’s fortune. Money, a tangible quality that improves with time, overcomes Lady Bracknell’s class prejudices and reveals them as hypocritical. Lady Bracknell’s change of heart comes late in the play, by which time she remains the only character who does not know that Jack’s name is not really Ernest or that Algernon has pretended to be Ernest as well.
LADY BRACKNELL. Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that. [To Cecily.] Dear child, of course you know that Algernon has nothing but his debts to depend upon. But I do not approve of mercenary marriages. When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind. But I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way. Well, I suppose I must give my consent.
Lady Bracknell graciously allows Cecily to marry her nephew, reminding the audience that Algernon lives as an idle aristocrat who marries for money. She approves of her nephew’s marriage in a manner that denies his mercenary motives and betrays her own. Early in the play Algernon declared marriage to be a matter of business. Lady Bracknell’s appraisal of Cecily reveals where Algernon acquired this arrogant aristocratic attitude. Both Lady Bracknell and Algernon feel so assured of their place in society that they imagine themselves to be conferring favor on Cecily by allowing her to bring money into their family.