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About the Author
Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin in 1856. In the years following his graduation from Oxford in 1878 he published poems and stories which included The Picture of Dorian Gray. Lady Windermere's Fan was produced in 1892, A Woman of No Importance in 1893 and An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895. Later work included De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol. He died in 1900.
Charles Osborne has an MA in German and has lectured at colleges in Athens and Prague. For many years he has translated for film and television companies in Germany and Austria.
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The Importance of Being Earnest
A Trivial Novel for Serious People
By Charles Osborne
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Charles Osborne
All rights reserved.
SUMMER came early to London in 1894. It was only the beginning of June, but already the mid-afternoon sunshine brought real warmth to the scores of stylishly dressed people strolling in Green Park. Making his way somewhat indolently through them was a young man in his mid-twenties, who paused every few yards to breathe deeply and contentedly. He seemed at peace with the world, his brown eyes surveying the passing scene calmly as he crossed the park in the direction of Piccadilly. He was a little above average height, his figure slim and shapely, his clothes well cut, and his dark brown, slightly wavy hair worn perhaps a little longer than might have been considered fashionable. His amiably handsome face wore the beginnings of a smile as he emerged from the park and crossed to the north side of Piccadilly.
His name was Algernon Moncrieff, and he was in an especially good humour on this particular morning, having just returned from a piano lesson at his music teacher's studio near Buckingham Palace on the south side of the park, a lesson at the end of which, he recalled a trifle smugly, his teacher had told him that his technique was improving in leaps and bounds. In fact, what his teacher, an elderly Viennese lady, had said to him was, 'Your technique must improve. At present you are leaping and bounding all over the place.' But then, Algernon had a tendency to hear unfavourable comments as compliments. It was his way of dealing with the world.
He crossed Piccadilly, raising his hat to the young driver of a hansom cab as he nimbly skipped in front of it, and stopping to buy a green carnation from the flower-seller on the corner of Piccadilly and White Horse Street. A little further on, he turned into Half Moon Street towards his house, which was on the left-hand side at the end of the street. He rang the bell, which was immediately answered by Lane, his butler, a middle-aged man of imperturbable manner. 'Lady Bracknell and Miss Fairfax will be here shortly, Lane,' Algernon informed him. 'Would you kindly arrange afternoon tea in the morning-room, if that is not too odd a suggestion?'
'Certainly, sir,' the butler murmured as he went off towards the kitchen at the back of the house. Algernon entered the drawing-room on the right of the hallway. Seating himself at his Bösendorfer grand piano, he began to play a Chopin scherzo with great vehemence. He was still doing violence to Chopin when Lane returned from the kitchen and entered the morning-room on the other side of the hall, carrying a tray on which were cups and saucers, and a plate of neatly cut sandwiches.
When he had come to the end of his scherzo, Algernon rose from the piano, left the room, and crossed the hall to the morning-room where Lane was setting plates out on a table.
'Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?' Algernon asked.
The butler paused, tray in hand. 'I did not think it polite to listen, sir,' he answered, his face an inscrutable mask.
Algernon smiled graciously. 'I'm sorry to hear that, for your sake,' he said. 'I don't play accurately — anyone can play accurately — but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for life.' The word 'life' emerged from his lips as with a capital L.
'Yes, sir' was Lane's only reply, as he busied himself transferring sandwiches from a plate to an elegant silver salver.
'And,' Algernon continued, 'speaking of the science of life, have you got the cucumber sandwiches cut for Lady Bracknell?'
'Yes, sir,' the butler said, holding the salver out to Algernon as he spoke.
His employer inspected the sandwiches, took two of them, and sat down on a comfortably upholstered sofa. 'Oh, by the way, Lane,' he remarked between mouthfuls of sandwich, 'I see from your household book that on Thursday evening, when Lord Shoreman and Mr. Worthing were dining with me, eight bottles of champagne are entered as having been consumed.'
'Yes, sir,' Lane replied imperturbably. 'Eight bottles and a pint.'
'Why is it,' Algernon continued, after popping another sandwich into his mouth and munching on it greedily, 'that at a bachelor's establishment the servants invariably drink the champagne?' He licked his fingers and added hastily, 'I ask merely for information, of course.'
'I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir,' Lane responded. 'I have often observed that, in married households, the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand.'
Algernon looked startled. 'Good heavens!' he ejaculated, as he reached for another sandwich. 'Is marriage so demoralizing as that?'
The butler considered for a moment. Then he replied, 'I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir. I have had little experience of it myself up to the present. I have only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.'
Algernon's attention appeared to have strayed during this speech. 'I don't know that I am much interested in your family life, Lane,' he murmured languidly.
'No, sir,' Lane agreed. 'It is not a very interesting subject. I never think of it myself.'
'Very natural, I am sure,' Algernon retorted. 'That will do, Lane, thank you.'
'Thank you, sir,' the butler responded with a bow and, putting the salver on the table, he left the room.
Algernon shook his head wonderingly, at the same time reaching over to the table to take the salver in one hand and, with the other, harvest some more sandwiches. 'Lane's views on marriage,' he thought, 'seem somewhat lax.' He frowned. 'Really, if the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.' He was still shaking his head and absent-mindedly putting another cucumber sandwich into his mouth when Lane re-entered the room, announcing, 'Mr. Ernest Worthing, sir.'
The butler was followed by a man in his late twenties who was as fair as Algernon was dark, quite as good-looking, and with the added advantage of being perhaps an inch or two taller.
Algernon greeted him warmly. 'How are you, my dear Ernest?' he cried. 'What brings you up to town?'
'Oh, pleasure, pleasure,' Ernest Worthing replied, handing his hat and cane to the butler, who took them and once more departed. 'What else should bring one anywhere?' Noticing his friend stuffing a sandwich into his mouth, he murmured, 'Eating as usual, I see, Algy.'
Algernon swallowed quickly, and replied rather stiffly, 'I believe it is customary in good society to take some slight refreshment at five o'clock.' Putting the salver back down, he asked, 'Where, my dear Ernest, have you been since last Thursday?'
'In the country,' Ernest replied off-handedly, smiling at his friend.
'What on earth do you do in the country?' Algernon took the liberty of wondering aloud.
Ernest shrugged his shoulders, and then began to pull his gloves off very carefully. 'When one is in town,' he replied, 'one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people. It is excessively boring.'
'And who are the people you amuse?' Algernon asked.
'Oh, neighbours, neighbours,' his friend replied airily.
Algernon continued to probe. 'Got nice neighbours in your part of Shropshire?'
'Perfectly horrid!' said Ernest. 'Never speak to any of them.'
Algernon went to the table and took yet another sandwich. 'How immensely you must amuse them,' he commented. 'By the way,' he added, the sandwich halfway to his mouth, 'Shropshire is your county, is it not?'
'Eh? Shropshire? Yes, of course,' Ernest said. With a glance at the tea-table and its trappings, he added, 'Hallo! Why all these cups? Why cucumber sandwiches? Why such reckless extravagance in one so young? Who is coming to tea?'
'Oh, merely Aunt Augusta and Gwendolen,' Algernon blithely replied.
'How perfectly delighful,' Ernest exclaimed.
'Yes, that is all very well,' his friend observed, 'but I am afraid Aunt Augusta won't quite approve of your being here.'
'May I ask why?' The question seemed to have a somewhat over-innocent air to it.
'My dear fellow,' Algernon replied, attempting to introduce a stern note into his voice, 'the way you flirt with Gwendolen is perfectly disgraceful. It is almost as bad as the way Gwendolen flirts with you.'
Ernest looked aggrieved. 'I am in love with Gwendolen. I have come up to town expressly to propose to her.'
'I thought you said you had come up for pleasure,' Algernon sighed, before adding, 'I call that business.'
'How utterly unromantic you are,' Ernest admonished him.
'I really don't see anything romantic about proposing,' Algernon said. 'It is very romantic to be in love, but there is nothing romantic about a firm proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I'll certainly try to forget the fact.'
His friend smiled acidly. 'I have no doubt about that, dear Algy,' he remarked. 'The Divorce Court was specially invented for people whose memories are so curiously constituted.'
'Oh, there is no use speculating on that subject,' said Algernon. 'Divorces are made in Heaven and —' He noticed Ernest stretching out a hand to take a sandwich, and at once moved to stop him. 'Please don't touch the cucumber sandwiches. They are ordered specially for Aunt Augusta.' He took one himself, and quickly put it into his mouth.
'Well, you have been eating them all the time,' Ernest complained.
'That is quite a different matter,' Algernon assured him. 'She is my aunt.' Taking a plate from the table, he held it out to Ernest. 'Have some bread and butter,' he offered. 'The bread and butter is for Gwendolen. Gwendolen is devoted to bread and butter.'
Ernest helped himself. 'And very good bread and butter it is, too,' he said a moment later, his mouth full.
'Well, my dear fellow,' Algernon remarked, 'you need not eat as if you were going to consume it all. You behave as if you were married to her already. You are not married to her already, and I don't think you ever will be.'
Ernest paused with a piece of bread and butter partway to his mouth. 'Why on earth do you say that?'
His friend assumed a smug expression. 'Well, in the first place,' he observed, 'girls never marry the men they flirt with. They don't think it right.'
'Oh, that is nonsense,' Ernest retorted, waving his piece of bread in the air.
'It isn't,' Algernon assured him solemnly. 'It is a great truth. It accounts for the extraordinary number of bachelors that one sees all over the place.' He took another cucumber sandwich and continued, with a smirk of self-satisfaction, 'In the second place, I don't give my consent.'
'Your consent?' Ernest spluttered, attempting simultaneously to swallow another piece of bread and butter. 'Your consent?'
Algernon smiled primly. 'My dear fellow, Gwendolen is my first cousin. And before I allow you to marry her, you will have to clear up the whole question of Cecily.'
And with that he rang the bell to summon Lane.CHAPTER 2
WHILE he waited for the butler to appear, Algernon smiled enigmatically at Ernest. 'The whole question of Cecily,' he repeated.
'Cecily?' exclaimed Ernest, looking distinctly uncomfortable. 'Algy, what on earth do you mean by Cecily? I don't know anyone of the name of Cecily.'
Lane entered. He gave his employer a questioning look, who replied to it with a peremptory, 'Bring me that cigarette case, Lane. The one Mr. Worthing left in the smoking-room the last time he dined here.'
'Yes, sir,' Lane replied. He bowed and left the room.
'Do you mean to say,' Ernest asked his friend, 'that you have had my cigarette case all this time? I wish to goodness you had let me know. I have been writing frantic letters to Scotland Yard about it. I was very near to offering a large reward.'
'Well, I wish you would offer one,' Algernon answered. 'I happen to be more than usually hard up at the moment.'
Ernest regarded him pityingly. 'There is no point in offering a large reward now that the thing is found,' he declared.
Lane re-entered the room, holding another salver on which lay the cigarette case. Algernon took it at once, before Ernest could do so, while the butler silently retired.
'I must say, I think that is rather mean of you, Ernest,' Algernon reprimanded his friend, 'not to offer a large reward.' Opening the case, he examined it. 'However,' he continued, 'it makes no matter, for, now that I look at the inscription inside, I find that the thing isn't yours after all.'
'Of course it's mine,' Ernest insisted, coming closer to him. 'You have seen me with it a hundred times, and you have no right whatsoever to read what is written inside. It is a very ungentlemanly thing to read a private cigarette case.'
Algernon waved an arm with elegant languor. 'Oh,' he exclaimed, 'it is absurd to have a hard-and-fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn't. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read.'
'I am quite aware of the fact,' Ernest replied disdainfully, 'and I don't propose to discuss modern culture. It isn't the sort of thing one should talk of in private. I simply want my cigarette case back.'
'Yes, but this isn't your cigarette case,' Algernon insisted. 'This cigarette case is a present from someone of the name of Cecily, and you said you didn't know anyone of that name.'
By now Ernest was considerably exasperated. He held his hands out in front of him as though tightening them around an invisible neck, but then pulled himself together and, affecting an air of nonchalance, remarked, 'Well, if you want to know, Cecily happens to be my aunt.'
Algernon gave a snort of laughter. 'Your aunt ...' he repeated, sounding more than a trifle sceptical.
'Yes,' replied Ernest. 'Charming old lady she is, too. Lives at Tunbridge Wells. Just give it back to me, Algy.'
Retreating behind the sofa with the cigarette case, Algernon enquired with an air of puzzlement, 'But why does she call herself "little Cecily" if she is your aunt and lives at Tunbridge Wells?' He peered closely at the inscription, and read aloud, '"From little Cecily, with her fondest love".'
Ernest came over to the sofa. Kneeling on it in front of Algernon, he exclaimed, 'My dear fellow, what on earth is there in that? Some aunts are tall, some aunts are not tall. That is a matter that surely an aunt may be allowed to decide for herself. You seem to think that every aunt should be exactly like your aunt! That is absurd. For Heaven's sake, give me back my cigarette case.'
Algernon moved away, still holding the case, and Ernest trailed after him as he stalked round the room. 'Yes,' Algernon murmured judiciously. He paused, as though wondering whether to hand over the cigarette case, but then continued, 'But why does your aunt call you her uncle? "From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack." There is no objection, I admit, to an aunt being a small aunt, but why an aunt, no matter what her size may be, should call her own nephew her uncle, I can't quite make out. Besides, your name is not Jack at all. It is Ernest.'
'It isn't Ernest,' his friend replied quickly. 'It's Jack.'
Algernon stared at him in astonishment. 'You have always told me it was Ernest,' he exclaimed. 'I have introduced you to everyone as Ernest. You answer to the name of Ernest. You look as if your name was Ernest. In fact, you are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life. It is perfectly absurd, your saying that your name isn't Ernest. It's on your cards.' He took a card from the case. 'Here is one of them. "Mr. Ernest Worthing, B.4, The Albany, London W.".' Putting the card in his pocket, he continued, 'I'll keep this as a proof that your name is Ernest if ever you attempt to deny it to me, or to Gwendolen, or to anyone else.'
Ernest had the grace to look embarrassed. Then, recovering, he said cheerfully, 'Well, my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country, and the cigarette case was given to me in the country.'
Excerpted from The Importance of Being Earnest by Charles Osborne. Copyright © 1999 Charles Osborne. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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